On July 23, the Star ran a long article by Paul Bedford, former Chief Planner of the City of Toronto, entitled We Want Change. Bedford poured over hundreds of emails from Star readers and found that the electorate is far ahead of politicians in what they want and will accept to fix the problems of our city, including its transportation system. One vital finding is that people don’t object to paying taxes provided that they actually see some return, some improvement in the services they use and depend on. Politicians with a slavish devotion to lowering taxes, no matter what the cost, should take note.
Among the “first tier priorities” is transit. “People are fed up with declining transit service” Bedford writes and this extends into the 905 where many commuters are forced to drive because there is no alternative. Within the city of Toronto, people want better service, more streetcar lines and subway expansion in major corridors. Why do other cities build miles of new lines while we have none?
The simple answer, of course, is that although Toronto talks a lot about being a “Transit City”, it’s really very car oriented. Even planners charged with doing good things for transit are forced to defer to car priorities in space and in spending. Politicians talk a good line about transit, but what they really want is the chance to have their name associated with a big project like a new subway line. Just providing good service, the TTC’s long-ago slogan of “always a car in sight”, costs money they don’t want to spend.
With great irony, the previous day’s Globe saw Margaret Wente railing against “the war against the car”. Her thesis, grounded in a lot of right-wing think tank anti-transit analysis, misses the point that we are not “at war” with the automobile, but that our economy and municipal infrastructure simply cannot continue to absorb the increasing demands for travel only with highways. There is strong support for better transit if only we would provide it.
Claims that people don’t take transit even when you offer it are based on faulty analyses. If your approach is to spend a billion dollars to run a line that sets new standards for underutilized infrastructure while cutting service and reliability almost everywhere else, it’s no surprise that transit use continues to fall. If you build one line that serves only a fraction of the regional travel demand, most of the trips won’t move to transit. It’s rather like widening Steeles Avenue and wondering why there is still a traffic jam on the QEW.
Wente outdoes both herself and the Globe’s reputation with the following statement:
As for lower-income people — supposedly the main beneficiaries of public transit — they have an alternative too. It’s called used cars.
There is so much wrong with that short statement, it’s hard to decide where to start. First off, the main beneficiaries of public transit are the middle class, the very people the Globe would like to sell more papers to. Just look at any GO Train, or for that matter the Yonge Subway downtown in the rush hour. We pay huge subsidies so that people don’t have to drive in to the city from Burlington, Oshawa or Richmond Hill because the alternative, more road space, simply isn’t physically or financially possible.
Next, many cannot afford even a used car. Just the cost of insurance will cover all of your transit fares with money left over for most people, never mind gas, parking and maintenance. People forced to take transit pay a huge overhead in lengthy trips among infrequent and poorly co-ordinated suburban bus lines.
There is no question that the automobile, probably even the SUV, will always be with us, but that doesn’t mean that its needs should come first or should pre-empt improvements to transit systems. We are far from having truly competitive transit service thanks to years of “it won’t hurt too much” cutbacks, and it will take years and lots of new spending just to get back to where we were in 1990.
Also in the Globe, we had a four-parter in the week of July 31st called The Suburbs. Among other things, it documented the changing travel patterns where suburban communities have become destinations with daytime populations much larger than the residents. Unlike central Toronto, however, all those jobs are smeared out in low-density industrial and office parks, and they are almost impossible to serve well with transit. Vaughan has dreams of a corporate centre at Highway 7 at the terminus of the Spadina Subway extension. Their big problem, however, is that this line goes nowhere near most of the jobs in Vaughan, let alone the origins of many of the workers.
Finally, Royson James in the Star wrote about the need for a “real transit plan” and for transit-oriented development outside of Toronto. So far, so good, but he then falls into a subway sinkhole by embracing a scheme for a cross-town subway from Pickering to Mississauga via the 401, a brainchild of John Stillich of the Sustainable Urban Development Association. (I’m not sure from the look of their rather tenuous website whether this group consists of much more than Mr. Stillich whose schemes for networks of subway lines have been around almost as long as my schemes for LRT.)
The basic problem here is that people don’t naturally want to travel along expressways, but use them because they are there. If the 401 were at Finch Avenue, that’s where the cars would be, and there’s nothing magic about the existing corridor. Far worse is the fact that there are almost no buildings, no demand, sitting on or close to the 401. By “close” in transit terms, I means something you can walk to from a station. Cloverleafs are not the most pedestrian-friendly areas, and the jobs and homes are a long trek away. Bus feeder/distributor systems are a must, and I can only imagine the wet dreams of engineers contemplating the structures needed to integrate a transit station and bus interchange with an existing node on the 401.
Transit needs to go where the people are, not where the cars are. The cars are only on the highway because we built it there, and they have a ready-made distribution system in the local and arterial roads. Transit works the same way except that the sidewalk is the first and last leg of anyone’s journey. The easier we make that part of the trip with good sidewaks, pedestrian-friendly intersections and minimized walks to transit, the more attractive transit will be.
Royson James writes:
Transit has its supporters, but the proposals are short-sighted, sporadic, underfunded and lacking innovation and foresight.
Try reading my Grand Plan, or even the Avenues scheme of the City of Toronto Official Plan. Each has its flaws, and my plan is intended more as an illustration of what could be done rather than a prescription for what should be. It’s easy to dismiss anyone else’s scheme while failing to apply the same yardsticks to your own preferences. Yes, Toronto needs far-sighted, consistent, well-funded, forward-looking transit plans. Just saying “transit plans” will by itself be innovative, let alone any choice of technology.
The TTC’s Building a Transit City has a great title (I gave it to them, gratis, when they couldn’t come up with something on their own). But we need more than titles and vague policies, we need commitment, funding and leadership. None of those is thick on the ground anywhere around the GTA.
I will leave off my review here as coming events include decisions, or at least recommendations, on new subway cars, the future of the Scarborough RT, the small question of service improvements and of course the 2007 budget. Lots to keep us busy through the fall and winter.