Has Transit Short-Changed Toronto?

Toronto’s election campaign has produced two real stinkers in the Mayoralty race.  Rob Ford wants a few subway extensions, elimination of streetcars and everyone else left to buses.  Rocco Rossi would sell Toronto Hydro, use the supposed proceeds to build subways, and last but not least, extend the Spadina Expressway via a tunnel to downtown.

I will not waste space on critiques of these plans.  The proposition that subways will solve every problem has been discussed at length here and doesn’t need yet another round.  The idea of an expressway tunnel is so outlandish, so contrary to four decades of city planning, so much an attack on the City of Toronto, so unworthy of one who would be Mayor, that it deserves only contempt.

However, these ideas come from somewhere.  “Out there” the pollsters must say there is a gold mine of resentment by those who drive, and by those who would drive given half a chance.  That translates to support for anyone who wants all transit plans to take a back seat to right-thinking, road-oriented policies.  How, in a city that considers itself a progressive, pro-transit 21st century metropolis, is this possible?

The origins lie decades ago, even before the Spadina Expressway was stopped by then Premier Davis.

In 1966, the TTC network was much smaller, the east-west Bloor-Danforth subway had just opened from Keele to Woodbine and extensions to Islington and Warden would follow in 1968.  The TTC contemplated suburban transit and proposed a ring line using streetcars (what we now call LRT) northeast into Scarborough, then across the Finch hydro corridor, and finally south and west to meet the western subway terminal.  The line included a branch to the airport.

Meanwhile, Queen’s Park, enamoured of high-tech transit, fell into an oft-seen trap of Canadian politics — policy exists to serve industrial development, and plans are gerrymandered to serve industrial/manufacturing aims before the actual needs of the province or city.  This always starts out with the best of intentions, but can do great damage when the product falls short if its hype.

Such was the case with the original scheme for magnetic levitation urban transit and a variation on “personal rapid transit”, probably the most expensive taxi system imaginable.

Leaving aside the debates on maglev, GO Urban and what eventually became the RT technology, there was one basic problem.  The momentum to build into the still-empty suburbs was lost, and the perceived cost of new transit skyrocketed.

By 1990, frustration with the inactivity on transit expansion culminated in an announcement by then Premier Peterson of suburban subway extensions plus the Waterfront West LRT.  The Sheppard subway was added to the mix at the last minute to bump the total spending numbers, a vital part of a pre-election campaign.

Peterson lost to Bob Rae, and the NDP government inherited this plan.  Facing a recession in the construction industry, the last thing the NDP wanted was talk of scaling back expensive transit construction or replacing it with a less-costly alternative.  All we actually built was a tiny chunk of tunnel on Eglinton and the beginning of the Sheppard Subway.

The Rae government begat the Harris regime and an almost complete withdrawal of Queen’s Park from transit funding from which Toronto has never recovered.  The TTC slashed service across the board, and particularly hard-hit was the streetcar system. It gained two new lines (Spadina and Harbourfront), but not, on a permanent basis, the extra cars needed to operate them.  For a time, system riding was down, and a smaller fleet was all the TTC needed.  However, this compromised the TTC’s ability to add service in peak periods.  Streetcar lines that once boasted frequent service all day turned into nightmares of overcrowding and unreliability.

The scheduled AM peak service shows a nearly 20% the decline in service on the streetcar route network.  The numbers below are for the routes that existed in 1981 (all current routes except Harbourfront and Spadina).

  • February 1981:  239 standard-sized cars
  • November 1990:  217 cars of which 34 were ALRVs (75-foot cars) for an equivalent capacity of 234 “standard” cars
  • September 2010:  169 cars of which 38 are ALRVs for an equivalent capacity of 188 “standard” cars.  If the 504 were running to Dundas West Station, this number would rise to about 194.

Streetcars became synonymous with bad transit service just as the city began to reverse the trend to suburban living. The many new downtown and near-downtown condos show there’s a market for in-town living, but the new residents must put up with poor transit service, not the greatest advertisement for life without a car.

TTC compounds the problem with poor line management, indifference to service quality and the attitude that “TTC culture” prevents any improvement.

Bus riders in the suburbs encounter similar problems on busy routes, but at least in recent years a fleet refresh plus improved loading standards make some difference although many would argue that the TTC is still only barely keeping up to demand.

Plans and promises for new transit lines are on the back burner in Malvern and Northern Etobicoke, two remote outer parts of the City.

Car drivers see no improvements. Overwhelmingly they drive outside the core, indeed outside the 416. No subway will help them, and transit in the suburbs is a distant second choice.

Even for commuters to downtown, GO has been starved for expansion, and service is very core-oriented.  Bus service in the 905 generally supports peak direction, peak period travel, and the idea of a “transit lifestyle” is unheard of.  The first line proposed for frequent all day GO service is an airport shuttle at a premium fare serving almost none of the potential demand in its corridor.

There are many plans including the most recent consolidation, Metrolinx’ Big Move, but little action.  Planning aims to reduce congestion and pollution, but even the best case only keep pace as population and travel growth outstrip capacity benefits.

Funding stretches out to the dim future, and politicians’ will to engage in debates of tolls or taxes is held hostage by the “no new tax brigade”.  Even business groups like the Board of Trade recognize the need to invest in transit, but this is very slow to appear.  We won’t see major improvements for years.  The glass is more than half empty.  After $50-billion in transit spending, congestion won’t be much better than it is today, although more people will be riding transit.

Can we blame motorists for thinking nobody takes them seriously, that nothing will ever be done? Politicians talk about transit, but until quite recently did little to actually improve it. Half measures are the norm, and real transit improvement throughout the GTA is always something for tomorrow when fiscal and political pressure might relax enough for a tiny bit of new spending and revenue generation.

How can regional governments justify big spending on transit when they see little hope of Provincial support and Metrolinx treats local service as something others will pay for?

Motorists are left steaming in their traffic jams.  We have built a region on car travel, but at a density the road network cannot support.  No subway line will cure problems on the 401.

Our challenge is to build and run enough transit to handle the demands transit can reasonably address. We will never solve all of the road problems>  On some roads, life will become worse for motorists as more and more capacity is devoted to transit, cycling and pedestrians.

Trying to “solve” congestion by turning the clock back 50 years on highway plans, by gutting the surface transit system, will do nothing but make even worse the long-standing need for better transit. A “war on transit” solves nothing.

Every politician, every agency at the city and provincial level needs to speak with one voice on transit improvements. The TTC above all agencies must show how it can run better service to improve the lot of transit users today.  The City and Province must lead on transit planning, construction and service, and engage voters on the issues of new revenues for capital and operating spending.

Politicians with facile “solutions” who appeal to a motorists’ nirvana that cannot be attained, should be dispatched to the electoral dustbins they so richly deserve.

111 thoughts on “Has Transit Short-Changed Toronto?

  1. I agree the differences between Europe and NA reveal many salient points in the transit equation. I love going to Europe and experiencing their denser, more pedestrian-friendly cities. Paris, Stockholm, London — these are iconic cityscapes I have visited. How could anyone not be impressed with the way public transit and cars have been integrated in places like that?

    But as we know, the respective urban histories followed different trajectories. Most major European cities predate the automobile, and indeed most forms of mechanized transportation. As a result, cars were the johnny-come-lately there and had a tougher time competing with well-established built environments and growth patterns. Plus the political and social culture arguably places less of an emphasis on personal freedom. (I agree, Steve, that it is very much a loaded and ideological concept and deserves every scare quote foisted upon it) Theirs is a more communitarian society based on ethnic and usually linguistic homogeneity. It’s easier to sit next to someone on the tram who is part of the national “family”. With the rise of significant levels of immigration in the post war era, some of this communitarian feeling may be eroding. In the future, this may become an obstacle for public projects such as transit. We will have to see.

    In NA, by contrast, history dealt us a very different hand. Once the native people were forced off the land, settlers realized the joys of wide open spaces. Older cities like Boston and New York had densities like Europe and not surprisingly have decent public transit systems. But newer cities like Toronto, the low urban density precludes public transit efficiencies. Culture is also quite different with the “we-ness” being largely absent as NA society is less like a family a more like a small town or something even looser. This is another cultural obstacle to large public project funding.

    Over time, Canada could become more like Europe. Higher urban densities is part of the plan and that’s a good thing. Culturally, I’m less optimistic about the engendering of communal spirit that should underwrite major public works projects. We’re growing less alike and have less and less in common with our neighbours and our fellow citizens. Technology may be accelerating this social differentiation.

    Economically, we may have no choice but to follow a more European model as there are limits to road building to accommodate new cars. So that is another factor that is pushing things towards more public transit investments.

    But public transit needs to be sold to the public. That requires politicians with vision who have the public trust. Miller had this in the beginning but lost it through various missteps. If Smitherman wins, I’m not sure he will have the trust to do something. He’s getting more political traction from promising spending cuts, so that will likely act as a brake on transit spending. And as long as the Toronto and Ontario governments are running big deficits, I’m not optimistic that a compelling case can be made for major transit spending. That’s why it may make sense to encourage new types of transit options, either under the auspices of the TTC or through some private ventures. Government is maxed out right now, and unless and until the economy recovers, big spending is going to be a tough sell.

    Sorry for rambling here.


  2. I don’t really understand the contention that the car is the embodiment of freedom and independence. Cars and driving are costly and heavily regulated, and drivers rely on outside suppliers of fossil fuel and a network of government roads. If I wanted to be fully independent, I’d walk or bike everywhere — otherwise I’m just choosing the form of my dependency.


  3. Still Waiting For The 501 , “I don’t really understand the contention that the car is the embodiment of freedom and independence.”

    Ah, but you are trying to apply pure logic to human nature. The feeling that the car is the embodiment of freedom and independence sits alongside the concept that getting an income tax refund is a good thing. Pure logic says that our personal finances would be better off if we each ended up paying a small amount (under $1000) at tax time instead of getting a refund, but who can find someone that would enthusiastically agree?


  4. Certainly, the automobile is dependent on cheap fuel and subsidized roads. However, the car=freedom equation is based on the travel experience itself.

    In a car, I am free from the sound of other people’s iPods, inane cellphone conversations, smelly food, obnoxious teenagers and all the other joys of communal travel.

    It goes without saying that walking and cycling also partake in these freedoms. That’s one reason I am an avid cyclist.


  5. Fair enough. I think that notion of “freedom” is very much historically determined, though, and is not necessarily what philosophers of centuries past had in mind when they wrote about freedom. Up until very recently, owning a private enclosed vehicle was a privilege reserved for the very rich, and people used to live and work in much closer quarters than they generally do in the contemporary West. The “freedom” not to interact with other people is not synonymous with democratic freedom.


  6. Agreed that freedom is defined by history and culture. And while freedom from other people is not synonymous with democratic freedom, it is something that people have found desirable over the past 100 years. As Sartre said in a somewhat different context, “hell is other people”. People have voted with their feet to leave public transit wherever economically feasible.

    I think transit advocates need to do a better job of acknowledging that the public transit experience is pretty negative. It’s a big reason why more people don’t leave their cars. To get people to make the switch, you can punish the car drivers through taxes, toll, traffic jams, or try to lure them with rewards by making transit more pleasant. Not easy I know, but it’s something to ponder. Even though transit is a fraction of the cost of driving a car, most people still choose to forgo the savings and take the car.

    People will put up with bad experiences on airplanes because there really aren’t many choices when travelling 2000 miles. In a city, people do have travel choices and will avoid the cattle car crush of rush hour whenever possible.


  7. ITA that transit needs to be as pleasant as it possibly can be, and a huge portion of this blog and its comments are on just that subject. In fact I think it’s part of an anti-transit agenda to assume that transit riders should just put up with discomfort and inconvenience.

    But you did say private auto travel is “the embodiment of the values of freedom and independence that is at the core of our liberal democratic political culture”, and this other stuff about convenience and comfort strikes me as moving the goalposts.

    Steve: Although I wan’t the one to make the statement quoted here, what I will say is that “convenience” and “comfort” should be expected to some degree from a transit system. It will never be the same as having your own car — including the cost of buying, insuring, maintaining and operating it, not to mention endless time spent in traffic jams or looking for parking spaces — but this does not excuse any attitude that we “can’t afford” better transit.


  8. “I think transit advocates need to do a better job of acknowledging that the public transit experience is pretty negative. It’s a big reason why more people don’t leave their cars. To get people to make the switch, you can punish the car drivers through taxes, toll, traffic jams, or try to lure them with rewards by making transit more pleasant. Not easy I know, but it’s something to ponder. Even though transit is a fraction of the cost of driving a car, most people still choose to forgo the savings and take the car. ”

    It’s good to know that someone is thinking the exact thing I am. Except for some people I know (including my wife), it actually is cheaper to take the car rather than public transit. Some people do try to take Transit as it is the right thing to do, but we aren’t doing anything to further encourage that behaviour.

    The carrot needs to come before the stick, not the other way around, which is the approach that the TTC has been trying to take as of late.


  9. Stephen Cheung said “The carrot needs to come before the stick, not the other way around, which is the approach that the TTC has been trying to take as of late.”

    Carrot money would be great! Now all we need is carrot money.


  10. Stephen Cheung, are you including insurance and deprecation in that cost analysis? I’m pretty sure you’re not going to spend $18,000 on MetroPasses in your life. Forgetting that insurance agencies give coverage for a fixed number of kilometers for payment rendered, and growth accelerating with distance.

    I have to drive a private vehicle for work purposes as I go outside the 416 and off-times to GO Transit. I would love Metrolinx to take over all the local transit bodies with half funding coming local and from higher government. Metrolinx is already doing the capital planning, integration, and expansion of the GTA, why not do the operational planning, integration, and expansion as well?

    Steve: Actually, I spend over $1k on Metropasses every year at current prices, and over the 30 years the pass has existed have probably spent over $20k on them. Mind you, a car is unlikely to last 30 years, but I don’t have to insure my Metropass.


  11. “The carrot needs to come before the stick, not the other way around, which is the approach that the TTC has been trying to take as of late.”

    Sure, there’s some waste and inefficiency at the TTC, just as there is at every large organization, but is there enough to make radical improvements to service without any more revenue? I just don’t see it. I’m not a fan of TTC management, but I haven’t seen any evidence that they’re misusing funds to that extent.


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