2014 Villain: Campaign-Trail Transit Planning



2014 Villain: Campaign-Trail Transit Planning

Nominated for: being mostly about simple maps, catchy slogans, and inadequate solutions.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—the people, places, things, and ideas that have had the most positive and negative impacts on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 5 p.m. on December 30. At noon on December 31, we’ll reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.


John Tory’s SmartTrack campaign had the virtue of simplicity—one line serving many parts of Toronto. It was easy to sketch on a map, if one ignored areas where no right-of-way actually existed. SmartTrack would solve every problem, and every other transit proposal (but for the untouchable Scarborough subway) could fall off the map. SmartTrack’s real goal was to link potential development sites (some not even in Toronto), but that would come at the expense of neighbourhoods not on the rail corridor forming much of the route.

The campaign claimed the proposal was backed by expert research. But the major benefits touted by that research—ridership and economic development—were predicated on much higher speeds and service levels. Tory proposed much less, but none of that mattered in a campaign dominated by a simple map and a catchy slogan.

The Fords presented an updated version of “subways, subways, subways,” proposing to move already-planned surface LRT routes underground. The real problem with their scheme was in the future: Phase 2 lines that were to fill out the network, but at a substantial cost that might’ve doomed their actual construction.

Both Tory’s and Ford’s plans depended on the revenue future development could bring, even though this approach could mortgage Toronto’s growth to a few projects for decades. Neither addressed the day-to-day funding problems of the existing network, let alone the operating cost of their expansions.

Where was the discussion of long waits and crowded buses? Why was a special tax to build a subway line acceptable, while more buses, garages, and improved service were things Toronto could not afford?

Olivia Chow went to the other extreme with a plan for more bus service, but at a scale that was not a credible improvement stacked up as it was beside multi-billion dollar rapid transit schemes. Her early campaign low-balled the cost, and by the time a detailed budget with more money appeared, nobody was paying attention.

The common thread was “we will keep taxes low and freeze transit fares.” Simplistic, but impractical.

Good planning requires more than a quick sketch, a cursory look at out-of-date Google maps, and a catchy campaign slogan. It must produce more than a line designed for one ward, or a network with so many lines it is unbuildable, or the One Line that will solve every problem. Nothing substitutes for understanding the city “on the ground” and for honest tradeoffs between travel needs, affordability, and political ego.