Who is Steve Munro and why should you read my stuff?
Well, let’s take the second question first. I hope that you’re reading this site because you are interested in transit (or any other topic I happen to take on) and its role in making Toronto a great city. You may not agree with everything I say, and I’m more than happy to listen to alternate opinions. In fact, there are some issues where I really can’t take a hardline position on one side or another. That’s one of the things that make a city work: that people care enough about it to discuss what we do well now, what we screwed up in the past, and where we should go in the future. That discussion, the exchange of ideas is what’s important so that we can build a better city.
Now if we happen to do so with more of my ideas than the contrary ones, I will grin and be happy.
As for me, I was born in Toronto in September 1948. Let’s get that out of the way up front. Yes I am a Virgo, and have borne the slings and arrows that afflict those of my sign for years. But we are loyal and trustworthy and particularly bloody-minded about achieving what we set out to do. I come by whatever traits I have honestly and if my birthdate played a helping hand, so much the better.
I’ve always lived in the City of Toronto [the old City of Toronto] and have no qualms about thinking that a lot of what the Toronto Megacity (and beyond) needs can be found, generally speaking, south of Eglinton Avenue. Neighbourhoods where the streets are designed for walking, where local stores and restaurants still have a place, where parking lots are not the dominant feature of the landscape. A cultural life that supports theatres, galleries, dance, music and values the artists at least as much as the buildings they perform and exhibit in. A city that is worth exploring to see both the newest undiscovered treats and to visit long-established old friends.
A vital part of all of this is the ability to move around large numbers of people without necessarily having a car to do it. That’s where transit comes in, and I will explore what it does and, more importantly, what it should be doing in posts on this site.
Meanwhile a bit about me. My professional life is spent in Information Technology (IT, the computer business) where I started out as a software programmer and technical guru, and then moved up into management. There’s a huge discussion right there about what you lose with that transition. All I will say is that my goal (managers must have goals, don’t ya know) is that people who work with and for me don’t think of Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss. The world has too many of them and I don’t want to add to those numbers.
My first programming experience dates from about 1963, yes, over 40 years ago, thanks to a Saturday morning special class at the Toronto Board of Education. The machine we used had vacuum tubes and used paper tape as its “high speed” input/output device. I also repaired pinball machines as a weekend and summer job, and those were the days when they were run by relays and stepping switches.
Starting when I was quite young, my Dad would take me on rides around the city mainly by streetcar. We lived near Mt. Pleasant and Eglinton where the St. Clair car ended, and would set out from there once a week or so to see some new part of the city. I still remember Dad’s surprise the first time we came to Sunnyside after the Queen line had been moved from the Lake Shore over to The Queensway right-of-way.
These excursions introduced me to much of the city as it then was. Streetcars still ran on Bloor, Harbord, Dovercourt, Davenport, Rogers Road, Oakwood, Parliament, Pape and Coxwell. The annual CNE was packed with visitors and there were so many streetcars on Bathurst Street that there was barely enough power to handle all of the cars leaving after the fireworks at the end of the Grandstand show.
My love for streetcars turned me into a genuine railfan and all this implies. The collections of photographs and transit ephemera, visits to the few other North American cities where streetcars still operated, riding around the city on streetcar excursions some lasting all night.
Then came 1972 and the TTC’s desire to begin phasing out its streetcar system, starting with the St. Clair route. By then I was as much interested in what made a transit system, and particularly a streetcar system, work than I was in just being a fan. Streetcars for Toronto was born and with the help of City Council successfully reversed the TTC’s policy. This should have been the start of a streetcar renaissance in Toronto to match what was happening elsewhere, but it was not to be.
Queen’s Park and its Ontario Transportation Development Corporation (the name was later changed to “Urban …” to make it marketable elsewhere) leapt into the transit business with the intent of finding the “missing link”. The province planned to subsidize transit expansion and they knew that they needed something between buses and subways. Buses didn’t have the capacity and speed, and subways were too expensive to build on a large scale. The answer was GO Urban. I won’t trouble you with a lengthy history of that scheme beyond saying that the technology didn’t work, and it evolved in time into the Scarborough RT — a line that cost more than twice as much to build as the streetcar/LRT line originally planned for that corridor.
A easily available technology, LRT, was spurned in favour of something untried but politically sexy. Toronto and the GTA would be very different today if we had built and expanded that suburban network, but instead we ignored the LRT option and fought over billions to build a few miles of subway lines.
Streetcars for Toronto settled down into a role of transit advocates and critics.
We proposed the conversion of the Bay bus route to trolleybuses and fought, ultimately without success, for the revitalization of the trolleybus network. Our opponents were a dark alliance of the natural gas industry, technology boffins in the Ministry of Transportation, an Ontario bus builder who wanted an untendered foot in the door, and TTC management who needed something environmentally friendlier than diesel buses as a credible alternative to the trolleybuses they hated.
We proposed the use of LRT (streetcars on private rights-of-way) as the way to build a suburban network in Toronto. The TTC itself had made such a proposal in 1966, but it was sidelined by the GO Urban schemes.
At least our proposal for a Harbourfront and Spadina LRT line got built, eventually, even if there was a 24-year wait between the original Spadina proposal and the line’s opening.
One by one, the members of Streetcars for Toronto went on to other pursuits, and I started to simply be Steve Munro, Transit Advocate. If you stay with a portfolio in some aspect of city life long enough, you learn much simply by making connections between events, plans, wild schemes, political intrigues and the occasional expert. You also develop a memory for organizational and city history, what decisions were made, who was pushing for which option, why things happened, or did not, the way that they did. You develop archives both physical and mental.
Probably the most important aspect of my advocacy today is to talk about what we can accomplish rather than bemoaning what we cannot. Organizations like the TTC are very good at telling you what you can’t do. After all, doing nothing takes absolutely no effort or imagination. We have plans like the Ridership Growth Strategy and Building a Transit City because, finally, we got TTC Commissioners (one of whom is now Mayor) who championed this approach. We are losing momentum thanks to the city’s budget woes and Mayor Miller’s pre-occupation with the new City of Toronto Act, but this can be reversed. I certainly won’t stop talking about what we can and should be doing, and this site will be a major platform.
That’s over 30 years compacted into a few paragraphs. Fear not. I am not going to treat you to pages and pages of “… and then I wrote …” chronology. But l don’t want you to think I’m only about transit.
I love the city, and I love having so much, so easily reached. I remember the shock of moving from North Toronto to Broadview and Danforth when I realized that Bloor and Yonge, indeed anyplace downtown, was almost outside my door. That’s not the way someone living in the suburbs sees the city, and often not even their own neighbourhoods. Over the coming decades, I hope to see the redevelopment of older suburbs into neighbourhoods more like the old city. The new Official Plan is a big step toward this, but much work remains especially in the transformation of the transit system.
If you have explored this site, you found the Film Festival reviews going back to 1986. Cinema is not my only artistic passion, but it is the one that has lasting documentation in these reviews. My evenings and weekends are crowded with performances and other cultural activities, and I find this a wonderful antidote to the dry technology of IT and the frustrations of management in a very large organization. (Yes, I am looking forward to retirement in a few years when any frustrations are for battles I choose to fight even if I’m not being paid for doing so.)
In 2005, to my great surprise, I was awarded the Jane Jacobs Prize in recognition of decades of work as a transit advocate. You can read more about this at www.ideasthatmatter.com along with information about other great city-building activities by people who care about urban life. It’s wonderful to be given such a prize even if the effective hourly rate for those years of work turns out to be well below the minimum wage.
People need to care about their city, and some of us may strike others as being just a tad obsessive on the subject. Well, it’s people who care who make the difference. They work for and with community groups, they elect or even become politicians, they may even become civil servants like me. Good stuff deosn’t just happen, and as we learned during the Harris era at Queen’s Park, it’s easy to be set back decades by those who would destroy an urban viewpoint on the world.
Anyhow, that’s quite enough about me and my view of city life. I may add things here from time to time, but the main reason for this site is to talk about transit.