On Friday, January 26, the Canadian Urban Institute presented a panel discussion entitled The GTA’s New Transportation Authority: Last Chance to Get It Right? Events like this tend to have a lot of talking heads rambling on to a room full of their professional cohorts, but I attended on the off chance the collection of speakers and the political dynamics would provoke some interest. The session certainly provoked a standing room only crowd, unusual, I heard, for CUI events.
First up was Donna Cansfield, the Minister of Transportation who emphasized that transportation must precede development, and development can only occur where governments choose to provide services. A noble goal indeed, but a century of politicians has come and gone staking out that turf. Developers build where they want to, often with the active support of local councils regardless of Provincial policy.
Developers are also smart enough to play both sides of the political street. If the government of the day opposes what they want, they cry gloom and doom, economic disaster, the flight of jobs and population, and the end of life as we know it. Eventually, a sympathetic government gains control and while they’re in power, developers make sure to push through a decade or more worth of approvals that will tide them over the next dry spell.
All the same, Minister Cansfield appeared to be sincere, and to her credit, she stayed for the entire morning’s discussion rather than fleeing back to her office a block away.
Next up was Rob MacIsaac, the newly minted Chair of the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority. I should be writing “authority” in teensy tiny type, because the GTTA at this point is five people. [MacIsaac joked that one of them is the receptionist, and that tells me how much he values his future staff.] MacIsacc has a nice set of visuals that he’s trotting around the region, and he sounds very sincere about doing something about the transportation mess.
Quite clearly, the “business as usual” approach is not on his agenda, but it’s unclear what the alternative will be. We get the usual bits about co-ordination and farecards, and he’s hoping to conduct a full review with the goal of having something concrete to propose in about a year’s time. That review will be critical. If all the GTTA does is to dust off stacks of reports sitting in offices from Hamilton to Oshawa, it will miss the fundamental issue — the old plans didn’t work because they were too timid, they didn’t really make the shift from a highways plus transit mindset to one that really put transit first.
I’m not saying that transit can do everything, but for decades the money outside of the 416 was spent on roads, while GO limps along unable to make substantial improvements. Moreover, transit doesn’t exist simply to generate billion-dollar subway construction projects, but to move people over a complex web of travel patterns. Huge capital subsidies are meaningless if they are concentrated in a few, politically motivated showcase projects.
MacIsaac displayed maps of subway systems in London, New York, Tokyo and Madrid — lovely spiderwebs of grahic design — then ended with the Toronto map. [No TTC lawyers rose to challenge his use of their precious map.] The implication was clear — Toronto and the GTA could be great like those other cities if only we built more subways. The problem with his comparison was that his reference cities have totally different population densities, histories and travel patterns. You don’t create a London just by building ten subway lines.
MacIsaac wants the GTTA to prioritize infrastructure requirements across the region. Sounds great, very businesslike, very evenhanded to all concerned. The problem is that the requirements vary hugely from one place to another. If by “prioritize” we mean “spend the same per capita” or some such formula, the GTTA will be useless from the outset. The 905’s population is spread over a much larger area, and distance translates to cost when you’re building infrastructure.
The presentation was notable for one other thing: the total absence of LRT from any of the imagery. Lots of busways, highways, commuter rail and subway, but no LRT. I challenged him on this during the Q&A, and he replied that LRT is definitely something he is interested in and it’s on the table. We shall see.
Other interesting questions included one from a Council member whose ward is afflicted with traffic jams to and from the GO station. This brings us to the inevitable problem that GO is very much dependent on cars and parking lots as feeder services rather than on local bus networks.
Someone asked whether the GTTA would go the same forgotten and unlamented way as its predecessor, the Greater Toronto Services Board. MacIsaac hopes not, but my take on this is that any agency must actually accomplish something and develop a strong constituency among voters to survive changes of government. What will the GTTA do for its next trick once we have a regional farecard? Will anyone care?
Richard Soberman, whose history in Toronto’s transportation planning and politics goes back beyond my own, spoke next in his usual acerbic and humourous way about the huge amount that we plan, but never actually build anything. He used the Mississauga busway as an example of a project that’s been on the books for 35 years and is now touted as the great new thing that will transform the GTA. He spoke also of the difficulties of public participation and I had trouble figuring out where he really stands on this.
Soberman’s big concern is that the present mechanism of getting public feedback with meetings and studies and reports leads to highjacking by “special interest groups” who subvert the process. That label is handy — it allows someone to dismiss questions and opposition selectively, but definitions are hard to come by. Save Our St. Clair (SOS) is a special interest group, but York University is a good member of the civic community. Both of them have screwed up transit planning in these parts, but only one is consigned to the outer darkness.
Soberman went on to suggest that new models of participation via the Internet can revive the participation process. Certainly the amount of activity we see today on transit issues and city planning in general show the power of this medium. However, there’s another side that such open debate brings: the proponents of a scheme cannot hide behind process, they cannot duck questions or facilitate their way through public meetings that are all show and no substance. Internet based discussions will generate reams of comments, some valid, some drivel, and a lot of ads for sundry life-enhancing drugs. The debate could escalate out of control in sheer volume and turn off the very audience it’s meant to involve. At the end of the day, will the participants be any more representative of “the community” than those who pack a local church hall?
The fundamental problem with studies and public participation is that people cannot debate what they don’t know about. For decades, all we have heard about in Toronto is subways. LRT proposals appear now and then, but never with the gung-ho comparisons of other major LRT cities and what Toronto could aspire to be. One simple example is the Croydon Tramlink operation in London which carries substantially more people than the Queen car. I’m not holding out this as a necessary model for Toronto, but why do we only hear about London’s subways, and not its plans for an expanding LRT network?
Adam Giambrone, the TTC’s new Chair, brought some much-needed perspective to the meeting. There was an air of “I have a real transit system to run” about his remarks. Responding to earlier comments about the need for balance between roads and transit, his response is that in Toronto we are building transit, period. Giambrone emphasized the need to provide better service where we have riders today and only then to expand into areas of lower demand. The best means of handling all those riders? Buses and streetcars. Somehow, Giambrone said, we need to reconcile the $200-million/km cost of subways with the much lower cost of LRT. If someone would put $10-billion on the table, then the TTC might think in terms of a major subway network, but what’s more likely is that we will see $1-billion, and we have to make very different choices.
The TTC faces the challenge of a 2.5% growth rate in demand. That’s the equivalent of adding one “Mississauga Transit” to the system every two years. That rate, however, isn’t enough to keep up with growth and with the latent demand for better transit service in the region where we are still losing modal split from transit to cars.
Giambrone spoke of crowding problems on the King car, and said that right now, today, the TTC needs 23 more streetcars just to provide adequate service. This is an astounding statement from the head of an organization where the party line has been “don’t worry, there’s really no backlog of demand, and more service would only disappear in traffic congestion”.
Building is not enough, said Giambrone, and we need funding for maintenance and operating costs. Every new rider costs the system money, but failure to provide service is costly too. The GTTA needs to be about expansion of transit spending, not merely reallocating existing resources among the systems.
Mary-Frances Turner, Vice-President of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation (aka VIVA), spoke about linking ridership growth to land use. That’s a topic planners were debating back before my early days in Streetcars for Toronto, when sheep grazed in the fields along Finch Avenue. VIVA has great hopes to evolve from simply a bus company to a network of dedicated bus lanes and eventually LRT. [This presentation was the only one to have an LRT vehicle in a picture, although you had to know what you were looking for.]
Turner spoke about the plans for Markham Centre and the need to stay with a long-range vision for city growth and form. Those are noble sentiments, and if she and her Council bring it off, I will be truly impressed. If the drawings are anything to go by, we will have a suburb up in the 905 unlike anything we’ve seen before, but I can’t help having nagging doubts.
A moderatly dense urban Markham would be nice, but there are miles and miles and miles of boring Highway 7 (and other roads like it) outside of Markham. One town plan does not rejuvenate the entire GTA.
More to the point, the goal that a compact Markham will encourage people to live and work locally thereby supporting transit and reducing the need for road capacity sounds nice, but we have seen in the growing 416 and 905 that people live and work all over the place. Don Mills, the prototypical planned community, is full of people who work everywhere but in Don Mills. Yes, the creation of dense nodes throughout the 905 will make a difference, especially if they are lively communities, not just clusters of offices and condo towers, but they won’t eliminate the need for travel between these nodes and the comparatively empty spaces in between. For that you need a network, and you will probably have to take road space away from cars to make room for some of it.
Finally, we had a long, dull and rather self-serving presentation by David Livingston who is the President and CEO of Infrsatructure Ontario. This entity is dedicated to the idea that we can build public assets better and faster with the help of the private sector. I will spare you my thoughts on PPPs, but the real issue here is that building and operating a transit network is very different from building a hospital or a jail. Indeed, from Livingston’s talk, you would think that’s all his company ever did.
The basic point, as Adam Giambrone stressed during the Q&A, is that one way or another we have to pay for public infrastructure. We can debate all we like about whether it will be better or more cost-effective to do this with private rather than public capital and which model should be used for ownership. At the end of the day, the issue is not to shave pennies off a construction contract, but to spend much, much more on transit if we really believe in this as the future of our transportation system.
After four hours, a few cups of coffee, a croissant and a fruit salad, I made my way back into the real world. My sense of the meeting is that with the exception of Adam Giambrone, and by extension Toronto Council, there is little real sign that a GTTA will rise to the challenges we face. Conveniently, the agency won’t even present a “state of the union” report for a year, well after the fall 2007 Provincial election.
The GTTA by itself cannot make the changes needed to build the long-overdue transit network the Toronto region deserves. It has no power, no money and no political constituency beyond a few block radius of Queen’s Park. We don’t even know whether it will meet in public so that we can assess the outlook of its Board and determine its direction.
Is this our last chance to get it right as the session’s title asks? Is it too late already? The answer really lies at Queen’s Park and its penny-pinching treasury. If there’s money for baubles like the Spadina subway with no discussion of real alternatives, if funding GO Transit depends on local municipalities coughing up millions, if transit improvement consists mainly of an integrated fare card for access to infrequent and overcrowded services, then the GTTA is doomed. Business as usual is not an option, and that should be Rob MacIsaac’s message, loud and clear.