2013 Villain: Transit Trolls
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2013 Villain: Transit Trolls

Nominated for: letting pandering trump policy.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 2 p.m. on January 1. At 4 p.m. we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

2013 villains trolls

If there is one article of conventional wisdom that unites Torontonians of all political stripes, it is this: the most urgent challenge we face as a city is the state of our transportation. Our roads are clogged; our buses and streetcars and subways are clogged; as cyclists, we don’t have enough room to manoeuvre; and as pedestrians, we just want someone to please pretty please shovel the sidewalks properly. The diagnoses differ wildly, as do the proposed remedies, but at least we have reached consensus on what problem we should be addressing. And this isn’t just a top-down initiative: it’s residents who are pushing their leaders to take this issue on. Torontonians are ready—eager, desperate even—to have everyone buckle down and agree on some real, substantial transit goals.

And that’s what made it all the more dispiriting that in 2013, politicians with the requisite sense and spine were not readily available.

Having decided that it was going to reinstate plans for a funded, researched, and designed network of light rail lines during contentious council battles in 2012, council reversed course again a few months later and reopened the whole debate for the sake of supposedly forsaken Scarborough residents. The cheerleading from councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) and TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) was both wild and wildly cynical. In defiance of just about every expert who has studied the issue and every report that has analyzed the alternatives, they proclaimed that Scarborough was being left out, left behind—some sort of orphan stepchild stuck with second-class light rail while downtowners rode their extra-cushy new subways into the shiny future. The arguments were couched in precisely those terms: they didn’t consider what would be an efficient use of money, or which neighbourhoods the various transit options might reach, or how many people might ride in each case, but instead relied on this visceral appeal to martyrdom and pity. A whole city and billions of dollars were thus held hostage by the asserted disenfranchisement of one region. (This, too: the argument relied on a sense that Scarborough is Scarborough, right? No matter if only small portions of it are served by a subway—”Scarborough” will finally have gotten its fair share.)

Soon after, we were in the throes of a provincial by-election in Scarborough, and candidates tripped over themselves in their haste to declare themselves devotees of the new subway gospel—including those who had previously championed LRT. And let us also recall the astonishing contortions of one Glen Murray, Ontario’s minister of transportation, who met council’s subway vote with an “Oh yeah? Well I have a different subway, so there!”

What none of them, somehow, seems to have noticed is that nobody had actually asked Scarborough residents what they wanted, and on the rare occasions when someone did ask, those residents’ answers were ignored. In the few polls conducted specifically on the subway vs. LRT question, Scarborough residents did not choose a subway with wild enthusiasm, and they did not reject LRT as some sort of insult. They acted entirely sensibly, weighing the costs and relative length of the routes, and they were divided: about a third wanted LRT, a third wanted a subway, and a third wasn’t sure and wanted to learn more.

Rob Ford, in some obvious sense, provided a lot of the pro-subway momentum: it was his mantra for years. But councillors have rejected Rob Ford’s mantras more than they’ve accepted them, and found the experience liberating. They have remade his policies, revised his priorities, and rejected his assumptions. Politicians across the spectrum failed, spectacularly, to do so in this case. Ford instilled in them some sort of atavistic fear of LRT, on the basis of nothing more than stridently repeating things at an ever-increasing decibel level. That is what Ford tries to do. But why on earth did anyone let him succeed? Neither policy nor political strategy required it.

Torontonians were ready for a real debate on transit, and in that they showed far greater leadership than the elected officials who purportedly represent them.