How Public Transit Helps Us, and Our City, Flourish
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How Public Transit Helps Us, and Our City, Flourish

Cutting the transit budget is like planning to shrink the economy.

Let’s start with the bad news: public transit does not eliminate congestion.

What it does is move more people. And by “more people,” I don’t just mean a greater number of people.

Public transit moves a greater range of people from a greater range of backgrounds: economic, cultural, physical ability, age, and so on. Research shows that when we improve public transit, we increase economic participation. It benefits those individuals, and it benefits the city and its economy as a whole.

There are people who cannot afford a car. There are people with no space for a car. There are people who cannot drive a car. All of these people still need to get somewhere else in the city in order to have a full life.

That is the nature of the city: we need to move. For the most part, urban residences do not have the capacity to provide employment, or repair cars, or grow food. Our homes are not usually spaces of production. They are the places where we sleep, eat, spend private leisure time, and do the necessary work to maintain them and our daily life, such as cooking, laundry, and minor repairs.

But in a city, all of those are often done somewhere else and by someone else. In a rural area, homes are more self-sufficient. In the city, life is much more interdependent.

In Toronto, in order to meet all of our wants and needs, we must leave our residences. We have to move. If we don’t—or can’t—move around, the economy will stall. To make an urban economy work, we have to think about moving as many people as many places as possible.

If the goal is moving people—and if we want our city’s economy to thrive, that has to be our goal—then our principal means of doing this should not be private automobiles. And yet, it is.

In Toronto, 70 per cent of those commuting to work take private cars, and over 85 per cent of those private cars carry only one person: the driver. This is like trying to empty a swimming pool with a spatula; it’s too much energy to do too little. Cars take up too much space to be our primary mode of transportation.

This is not to say that we should ban automobiles. But if we prioritize cars, we will harm our economy. We are trying to move millions of people every day. We have to try to integrate some of the benefits of car travel (comfort, more direct connections between places, etc.) while using modes of transport that will serve more people.

And, that means thinking about the diversity of people who take transit and the reasons they do. More women take transit than men. They are also more likely to use it for a multiplicity of purposes. Even as they commute to and from a place of work, women are more likely to make extra stops for daycare or household-related errands.

Those figures of how much money is lost from the economy by sitting in traffic are artificial (people late for work usually make up that time—what’s lost is time for personal needs, family, and recreation). What we should be thinking about is the much greater hit to the economy and everyone’s well-being from the loss of people who are not moving:

The disabled person who cannot accept that great job because she cannot get there safely and reliably.

The car-less student who drops her program because she cannot get to the college from her place of employment in time for class.

The single parent who cannot take advantage of a spot at a daycare because the bus that stops nearby is over-capacity, and there is no way of getting on with a stroller.

The worker who cannot go back to school for training. The ill person who finds it too difficult to get to the doctor. The young man who can’t visit his grandmother to help her out. The list goes on.

It’s their loss—and ours.

If we want our city’s economy to grow and thrive, we must get people where they want to go. Given the scale of the city, the best way to do that is public transit. Every investment in public transit is an investment in the city’s economy.

This is not an invitation to spend recklessly. It needs responsible planning. But we do need to invest in new lines and routes, and we need more trains and buses than the ones we have. No one should ever have to wait on a second vehicle in a Toronto winter.

Public transit is not where we should aim to scrimp and save. That is what they call penny-wise and pound-foolish. If we can find efficiencies, the savings should always be re-invested into expanding or improving transit in other areas.

The good news? Investing in transit pays off—even when we spend money on the “trivial” things like comfortable seats, working elevators, and air conditioning—because any improvement in customer experience makes it more likely that people will use transit and become regular riders.

Cutting the public transit budget is like planning to shrink the economy. Why would we ever do that?