Rex Murphy Doesn't Understand Transit Planning, or Economics, or Why We All Must Die One Day
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Rex Murphy Doesn’t Understand Transit Planning, or Economics, or Why We All Must Die One Day

Rex Murphy uses lots of multi-syllabic words. But it doesn't mean the arguments make sense.

Image from The Simpsons/20th Century Fox.

Image from The Simpsons/20th Century Fox.

Rex Murphy is one of the modern Great Old Men of Canadian journalism, which is all the evidence one really needs to realize most Canadian journalism is bad. There simply is not a journalism industry worth a damn that would continue to employ Rex Murphy given his rampant shilling for the Canadian oil industry—setting aside the fact that Murphy is not a particularly good or insightful writer. But the great slog of inertia that is Canadian journalism means we are stuck with Rex Murphy and so many other terrible writers and journalists trying to steer our national discourse in the ways they like best, and the ways they like best are as mediocre and valueless as the people writing them.

Today’s column is prompted by Rex Murphy’s most recent fool’s errand in the National Post. In it, he complains about traffic and municipal transportation planning from the only perspective Rex Murphy can imagine, which is that of a cranky, rich senior citizen living in Toronto who also happens to look like an unhappy owl all the time.

Buses not running on time, snarly drivers, too few stops—raise the fares on those few who still “take the bus.” New streetcars, ordered at a cost of billions, not delivered—hike the rates. Garbage collection inefficient and spotty, reduce the number of pickups, bring in a frightful eco regime of garbage “sorting” and … charge more. There is no service that cannot be made worse, the rules governing it multiplied, and the fines for improper use grotesquely inflated, while simultaneously raising the costs, direct and indirect, of said service to ratepayers. This is the very core concept of modern metropolitan administration. Perform poorly and less: charge more.

Firstly, it’s not a “few” people who still “take the bus”—just under a quarter of all commuters in Toronto use public transit to get to work, per 2016 census information. Second, the failure of Bombardier isn’t the reason fares are increasing: the reason fares are increasing is because City Council refuses to raise the TTC’s subsidy, because the TTC is almost singularly underfunded compared to every other major transit agency in the first world. The transit agency relies on fares for over 75 per cent of its budget (per their 2016 operating budget proposal) when most transit agencies rely on fares for less than half of their operating budget, and often far less than that.

And third, Rex Murphy is seriously taking part of his column to whine about garbage sorting and divided pickup, which has been in place for over a decade. It is precisely this sort of whining that makes Rex Murphy columns so fit to mock. Really, his complaint that municipal services—which mostly perform very effectively on a spending-to-service basis—are charging more for less service is far more predictable and generic, and could be a part of any neoconservative anti-government screed, but only Rex Murphy could grumble that he has to sort his compost and that the trash man only comes every other week nowadays. Presumably next week’s column will be about why societal standards collapsed when the milkman stopped coming door-to-door.

The roads in Toronto do not work, and they are not meant to work: that is the first law of transportation management in Toronto. Should a street with reasonable traffic flow be discovered, municipal leaders race to put out orders for condo construction to begin immediately, and supplement the impediments brought on by construction with the installation of useless bike lanes. Having jammed up a previously open route they can then come down heavily on the poor nit behind the wheel with the no-idling bylaw. It is impossible to commute and not idle in Toronto. Idling is the mode of Toronto commuting. Hence the no-idling regulations. (See above: municipal economics.)

Setting aside the fact that people stuck in traffic are not subject to no-idling regulations (ha ha Rex made a funny), what he is really complaining about here is growth. He’s quite right that roads in Toronto don’t work well, but because he’s permanently stuck in wondering-why-the-good-old-days-ended mode, he doesn’t understand that the reason they don’t work well is because as the population of a city grows, by definition its roads will work less well. More people equals more drivers, and at a certain point you can’t keep building roads because, well, there are people living and working in the places where you would want to put the roads—and more and more, they are living in the condos Murphy complains are being built and using the bike lanes he complains are “useless.”

Again, everything Rex Murphy has ever written makes perfect sense when you remember his only complaint is that things aren’t like when he was young. That he started this sort of complaining when he was in his mid-40s might seem notable, but you have to remember that Rex Murphy, deep inside, has always been in his late-60s, and his body is only catching up now.

So naturally, now that it is understood that both these roadways are a perfect misery to those that use them, the first law of municipal economics is called into play. It is the decision of Toronto City Council that they will be subject to a toll. It is not enough that these wretched causeways have been paid for a thousand times over by the raft of taxes and fees collected over the years; insurance, sales tax, emission tests, gasoline taxes, and of course now world-saving carbon fees. It is not enough that they no longer provide the service for which they were designed — basic motion at a reasonable pace. Now motorists are to pay every day for the privilege of mass frustration and anxiety inextricably associated with their use. This is called city planning.

Actually, it’s called “pricing to correct an unpriced externality,” which is both good planning and economics.

The logic is simple: if too many people are driving and therefore making the roads unusable, the theory of the free market determines that the price of driving is too low. Murphy complains both that there are too many fees associated with driving and that it should be so easy to use that there should be no constraint on it and it should always be a perfect experience, because he is an entitled driver who does not understand basic laws of economics (much less any more complex economic theory). He complains that he pays money for driver’s insurance (which has nothing to do with the cost of road upkeep), sales tax (which is hardly dedicated to road upkeep, considering that it isn’t collected by the City anyway), and emissions tests (nothing to do with road upkeep), and why are there so many people on the road now?

Again, this column is drivel. But wait, it’s going to get a little bit worse, because we have yet to get to the part of any Rex Murphy column that is always the worst part—namely, the bit where he thinks he’s being witty:

I have an alternate proposal. For every 10 kph below the posted limit on any highway that drivers are forced to proceed, they should receive a rebate from city authorities. For being forced to process 30 kph below a posted limit, every driver should receive free downtown parking for a month. When the average speed drops to 50 kph below the posted limit, say on the Don Valley or the Gardiner, drivers should receive a written apology from City Council and a free full body/engine car wash at some high-end car cleaners. When roads are blocked by marathons sponsored by the big banks, said banks should offer “no fees” on cash machines for a month. If any repair to a trolley line enters a third year all councillors should be fired and put on pneumatic drill duty till such repairs are finished. And made to Ride the Rocket they so dubiously tout, for life.

Tolls, however, can be charged if the traffic moves as it should move, if and only if, a fortiori, and only then.

I know that this proposal is a miracle of logic and sense and therefore has absolutely no chance of being adopted anywhere in Canada.

Now, we know that were anybody ever to call Rex Murphy on this, he would of course say he’s being sarcastic. But he isn’t, because the real message of this paragraph isn’t a coherent policy proposal. The point of this paragraph is simply for Rex Murphy to express his grievance that he doesn’t get to drive his car like he used to, and why did he have to pay more for seat belts and airbags when he’s never gotten in a car crash anyway, and why is everything changing so fast? Why aren’t things like when Rex Murphy was young? Why will Rex Murphy only live a limited number of further years, and why must they be so fraught with suffering? Why can nobody explain to Rex Murphy why we all must come to our inevitable end? Why?

Rex Murphy shouts into the void, and there is no answer, and so he complains to us about traffic.