Politics Should Be Removed from Transit Planning
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Politics Should Be Removed from Transit Planning

The governance of public transit in Toronto is a bit of a shambles.

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Photo by tapesonthefloor via Torontoist Flickr Pool.

We need a new institutional vision for mobility in Toronto.

Everyone wants a city that works well. Everyone wants to move through the city as easily as possible. We have different opinions on what that means, but one thing that is clear, we need better mobility infrastructure.

When we want to build something in Toronto, we start from scratch every time. Candidates take pens to napkins. The politicians have to get other politicians and other levels of government onside. Lobbying, negotiating, arguing over how to find the money. And there’s never enough. 

We don’t have a clear answer to many questions: who should be responsible for public transit? Who should decide what we build? Who should pay for it? We answer those questions anew each time.

The biggest problem with our thinking is that it’s always too small.

Yes, the governance of public transit in Toronto is a bit of a shambles. But it’s only one part of a larger problem with all modes of mobility. Toronto needs to come to terms with this.

Instead of coordination, we have competition. “War on the car.” “Subways versus LRT.” “Bikes versus cars.” Something versus something else. Always “versus.”

Frequently, we get decisions based on power struggles and parochial politics, rather than good information and sound network planning. Or we just get paralysis: inaction, as we change our minds and change our minds again.

It is true that we need to stop making bad and unnecessarily expensive decisions about roads and transit. But the problem runs deeper still.

Can you imagine building a house, with framers, electricians, plumbers all making their own decisions, consulting with others when they felt like it? If they felt like it. And taking no responsibility for costs. A mess, right?

We need a better structure for the funding and decision-making of public transit. And to do that well, we should incorporate the funding and decision-making regarding all forms of mobility into our governance structure.

We should have two primary goals here:

  1. support the mobility necessary for the city’s well-being and a strong, sustainable economy
  2. move assertively towards less carbon-dependent transportation systems

We need systems of decision-making and financing that support these goals. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, political institutions are often too conservative because they lack political will or get entangled in their own power struggles.

But we can’t afford such inaction. Maintaining the transportation status quo is not enough. We must have systems that enable us to change and improve, build and rebuild, as a matter of routine.

The City Planning division knows that all forms of mobility have to work together. Those planners also know that it’s a complicated business and that experts should weigh in on what building a city for a healthier and safer present and future should look like.

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Photo by scarboroughcruiser via Torontoist’s Flickr Pool.

Our system doesn’t give them and other experts enough of a voice. Plus, funding is so insecure year to year, even for operating costs, that the context for planning is precarious and politicized. Long-term planning is almost impossible.

We need a new structure for all of this, one that enables better operating and planning in a more secure funding environment. One that coordinates Toronto’s networks with those of its neighbours. One that includes accountability to democratically elected bodies but minimizes direct political interference.

Regional transportation governance is not easy because it does not map neatly onto existing political institutions; it is divided by responsibilities and jurisdictions. It needs structures that are grounded in the places they develop, and yet transcend them too.

Regional strategies are important, but they must always be balanced with local strategies and political institutions. Regional transit perspectives focus on moving across and through places. But these places are where people reside and live their daily lives. The integrity of places needs to be respected so that they are not reduced to their spot on a network.

London and Vancouver are a couple of examples of regional transportation authorities from which we could take inspiration. We don’t have to copy them, but there is a lot to learn.

Transport for London was established in 1999 to give the mayor of London oversight of all transportation within and to/from London. TfL doesn’t just oversee public transit (the “Tube,” buses, and river transit); it regulates the roads, licenses taxis, develops cycling infrastructure, and ensures pedestrian accessibility. One of the chief officers of TfL is a walking and cycling commissioner! All operators, public and private, fall under their purview. There are sub-regional panels with borough representatives that TfL consults with regularly.

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The London Tube. Photo by Axel Rouvin via Flickr Creative Commons.

The mayor is chair of TfL’s board. Only 40 per cent of TfL income comes from fares. The congestion charge is TfL revenue, so it funds nothing else. Twenty-five per cent of TfL income comes from various levels of government, mostly the central government—they have multi-year agreements for capital and operating funds.

To put it very simply, professionals are responsible for the operation of all mobility infrastructure, in coordination with each other, and all of this is accountable to a board and the City. The funding from the state reflects its responsibility to invest in public infrastructure, but it doesn’t turn that into interference on the specifics of projects. Because it can’t.

How one mode of mobility has an impact on another is a shared concern. It isn’t about one mode fighting another; it’s about coordination and using city space as efficiently as possible to keep everyone moving.

TransLink is the transportation authority for Vancouver’s metropolitan region. Like TfL, it oversees multiple forms of transportation: public transit, roads, and cycling. The mayor is a member of the board of directors, and he chairs TransLink’s Mayor’s Council which has representatives from each municipality in the region. The Mayor’s Council has a role in the appointment of the board’s membership and approves TransLink’s transportation plans.

I think there is much to admire and emulate in London and Vancouver’s institutions (and many others). We mustn’t get obsessed with finding the “perfect” institutional structure because there’s no such thing. The point is we can certainly improve on what we have now.

What we have now (within Toronto city boundaries) is the TTC, the City Planning division, the city’s Transportation Services division, GO Transit, York Region’s VIVA, Mississauga Transit, Municipal Licensing and Standards, the Ministry of Transportation, and Metrolinx.

Metrolinx was established in 2006 by the province (originally as “the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority”) to “improve the coordination and integration of all modes of transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.”

Unlike the authorities in either London or Vancouver, Metrolinx does not belong to the City but remains a provincial government agency. Affected municipalities have limited participation in its decisions, and it is not accountable to Toronto City Council. If anything, sometimes it feels like the other way round.

One of Metrolinx’s stated goals is fare integration between GO Transit and the TTC. If you ask five people whose decision it is to make these fare decisions, you’ll get five different answers.

Metrolinx now has GO Transit and the UP Express (and Presto!) as operating divisions of the agency. That doesn’t even come close to covering the majority of Toronto’s public transit users. The TTC must be at the heart of any Toronto transit authority.

The City needs a separate transportation authority to manage the coordination, operation, and planning of all forms of mobility. That means including rails, roads, cycling lanes, and pedestrian thoroughfares. Our strategies should be the work of experts. These are not things to be dreamed up on a napkin in a City Council meeting.

It isn’t just that City Council should not be debating where the next rail line should go; they shouldn’t be debating bike lanes or sidewalks either. That’s for transportation engineers and planners who are looking at the long-term health of the whole network.

Toronto needs stable, multi-year funding from the province and ideally the federal government for both operations and capital costs. This support for the city would be a direct investment in the national and provincial economies and in the reduction of emissions from transportation, which is a federal goal and responsibility.

But beyond that, it’s hands off. Transportation planning shouldn’t look like private health insurance where the funders second-guess the expert service providers.

We have some institutions to work with but they need major renovation. Metrolinx needs to devolve to the City in some way and become an agency that oversees all modes of mobility, working with city planners to coordinate with and support other development.

It would be a big and difficult change. But until we move in that direction, you can expect more congestion, more boondoggles, more divisive politics, and more Toronto mayors complaining about feeling like they’re wearing short pants.