The Economist Really Doesn't Understand Toronto Transit
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The Economist Really Doesn’t Understand Toronto Transit

The venerable publication gets its facts wrong, and makes for a dangerous drinking game.

Consider the following possible exam question: you and your classmates are each provided with a copy of an article published last week by the internationally respected news magazine the Economist. The subject concerns the city of Toronto and its challenges in the area of transit policy. Take into account the size and weight of each member of the class. Assuming each class member puts back a standard shot of whiskey each time he or she comes across a total whopper set out in the article as informed comment:

  1. Which one of you would be the first to fall off your chair and start rolling around on the floor totally drunk?
  2. Would any one of you still be able to sit upright by the time you got to the end of the nine short paragraphs in the article?

Let’s start with the bits that the January 12 article probably got right: Toronto has fallen behind on the transit development file, and visible progress has been modest since the Bloor line opened in 1966; Toronto traffic is a mess; and Kathleen Wynne faces a tough re-election fight next year (as if that last observation contributes in any serious way to an understanding of the state of transit in Toronto).

As for the rest of the article, the challenge for the reader is to figure out how much that it gets so woefully wrong is a result of trying to squeeze a series of historical arcs covering decades of complex decisions and events into one sentence each, how much is the result of bad research, and how much might be the result of someone’s partisan agenda masquerading as journalism.

To take the Economist’s word for it, the earliest piece of evidence that Toronto was in for trouble was when the Spadina Expressway project was halted in 1971. “The result is more traffic jams,” says the esteemed magazine in the face of about 50 years of international experience telling us that highways leading into downtown areas do more to create traffic than to reduce it.

But even before it touches on that helpful perspective, the article suggests that one of Toronto’s problems is that its residents are bailing out. It reports that, according to our mayor, Toronto residents who leave the city give “two main reasons” for not returning: “The first is that the jobs are better in places like London and Hong Kong.”

I am not making this up.

“The second is that Toronto’s public transportation is much worse.”

The article notes that the mayor who so clearly has his finger on the pulse of the average Toronto resident also has the solution to Toronto’s transit challenges: “His plan, dubbed SmartTrack, calls for building a new light-rail line…and adding six stations to existing commuter rail lines.”

No, it doesn’t.

Well, maybe SmartTrack 3.0 answered vaguely to that description, before the proposed western spur on the non-existent right of way disappeared from the proposal circulated during the 2014 municipal election the same way politburo members routinely vanished from old Soviet May Day photos, and if we take the proposed Metrolinx RER as an “existing” commuter rail line.

Then again, an analysis of the same subject by a journal of less celebrated international renown might have observed that “SmartTrack” can more accurately be described as a malleable concept that is applied to just about any proposal that includes a stop within the city’s boundaries on a commuter line that the provincial government will probably get around to implementing but hasn’t yet.

But seriously. After a promising period of development in the 50s and 60s, why has transit development in Toronto lagged? The Economist tells us why. Problems of governance that “plague” Toronto’s transport infrastructure are the reason.

There are three of them:

“The first is that the municipality of Toronto does not have a party system,” according to the Economist. Thus “the mayor is merely first among equals” and “must muster a majority from his council colleagues” in order to get things done. This, according to the rigorous analysis provided by the Economist, is the reason why each new municipal election brings with it a whole new transit agenda. Even though pretty much the only new member of Council is the mayor. Not to mention that Toronto’s municipal politics didn’t have a party system when things got done in the 50s and 60s.

Toronto transit’s second “governance problem” is that “responsibility for transit is shared among the city, the province, and…Metrolinx.” Totally ignoring the fact that Metrolinx is not so much a third factor as it is simply the province in its working clothes. Also ignoring the fact that the TTC and Metrolinx, for the most part, provide services that complement one another. Also giving short shrift to the constructive working relationship that exists between the two organizations as they go about doing that.

But you would never guess what the third problem is: the federal government.

Okay, some might have guessed that the federal government would be in for its share of blame in the matter of Toronto’s transit challenges. But you would never have guessed why:

“Finally,” the readers of the Economist are told, “there is the role of the federal government,”…wait for it…“whose offers of money tempt cities to embark on silly projects.”

Exhibit A in the silly project list that the Economist blames on the federal government is “a proposed 6km subway extension that will cost $3.2bn and have just one station.”

Alright, yes, it’s a silly project. And yes, the federal government should be ashamed of its role as enabler. But really? How is this a “governance” problem? And how does a virtually no-strings-attached offer of federal transit infrastructure money find itself on a list of three “governance” problems that includes the claim that the lack of a party system at City Hall prevents the mayor from getting his way when the one-stop Scarborough subway extension that the federal government will help finance is one of the mayor’s most aggressively pursued signature projects?

Is it the Economist’s implied point that Toronto’s City Hall should not be trusted with that kind of money without adult supervision?

One might well ask.

But, worry not. The Economist assures its readers that our mayor is a realistic mayor and that he has things well in hand. It concludes—and, pinky swear, I am still not making this up:

“Mr Tory cannot solve these problems himself. His ambition is more modest: a second term as mayor starting next year that would allow him to see through SmartTrack and his proposed road toll. That will not solve Toronto’s transport problems, but it might persuade ex-Torontonians to give their city a second chance.”

A word of caution to readers of the Economist: don’t drink while reading.

John Parker is a former MPP, city councillor, and TTC commissioner.