Transit: Too Important For The Politicians? (Updated)

In today’s Star, Christopher Hume advances the argument that the only way we are going to get some decent decisions about transit hereabouts is to have a regional board with real teeth — taxing and expropriation powers.  Moreover, this board should not be composed of politicians, but of “experts”, whatever that may mean.

As regular readers here will know, I have my doubts about “experts” for many reasons, but principally because they inevitably serve some political master.  Somehow they get appointed, and that usually results directly from kissing the hand that blessed them for their supposedly apolitical role.

Just because someone is unelected and has a degree in a professional field does not make them ideal to handle the complex job of not only planning and operating a regional transportation system, but of convincing people (and those pesky politicians) that the money raised and spent actually goes for a good cause.

The TTC used to be an un-elected body, then a mix of Councillors and appointees.  That dysfunctional arrangement eventually led to a complete takeover by Council to ensure that the TTC actually operated for the public good.

To date, Metrolinx, an organization largely run by “experts” even though the public face is that of politicians, has done poor job of explaining itself and its proposals even to those, like me, who take the trouble to read all of their material.  Already, we see an immense web of transit lines with no data to justify individual components.  “Test cases” constructed as straw plans to see how they behaved in a traffic model threaten to become unchangeable blueprints for our future transit network without benefit of proper analysis.

I contrast this with the outcry from many “expert” quarters when Transit City was announced that the presumption of LRT foreclosed debate on alternatives.  Some of those same experts would now foist a regional plan on us for unquestioned acceptance.

Politicians will always be in charge of large-scale infrastructure decisions whether they are officially on boards or not.  They control the funding.  There is no way an agency with a published appetite for almost $8-billion a year will be allowed to operate without political oversight.

The challenge is for both the board and staff to have the public’s trust, to bring forward plans and projects that demonstrably improve our transportation network.  Self-perpetuating cliques, be they friends of government of the day or an old boy’s club of experts, are throwbacks to past failures, not models for our future.

Updated July 22

A comment yesterday evening from “POS” triggered a lengthy response from me, and the argument is important enough to move it here into the main part of the post.

“Steve, do I sense a hint of sour grape bitterness in your post? Who would be better suited to plan and operate this complex job?”

My point is that that any organization performing this function needs to be open and accountable, and that inevitably brings us to politicians of some flavour. Many agencies, not just those in the transit business, yearn for the simplicity of just getting a potload of money out of thin air and going forth with their allegedly good works unburdened by public oversight. A benign rule of experts.

There are three big problems. First, there is rarely enough money available for the taking without debate. The right wing spent the better part of three decades convincing everyone they are overtaxed, and the word “toll” is guaranteed to get you tarred and feathered in many quarters.

Second, the experts are not necessarily in sync with the larger public about what should or should not be done. For example, we would have a lovely highway network and no downtown if the “experts” in charge of transportation planning through the 50s and 60s had not run headlong into public opposition and, yes, another set of “experts” whose view of the world consisted of neighbourhoods and urban civility.

Third, some experts have agendas of their own born out of personal prejudice (I may like streetcars, you may like subways) or blatant conflicts of interest (property development, technology vendors).

The idea that the correct set of experts will be in power at any time is no more credible than the concept that any one political party has an ideal program and the divine right to govern without benefit of public review. The premise that we can escape the sins of decades of bad planning simply by handing our cities over to a technocracy is laughable.

“Making the trains run on time” sounds like a laudable goal until you are forced to leave your car at home by an environmental dictatorship, or my house is demolished by a road czar to make room for a wider thoroughfare. Both would protest that they’re just doing their “expert” job, but at what cost?

21 thoughts on “Transit: Too Important For The Politicians? (Updated)

  1. I have a friend who was recently elected to some kind of local council over in Britain. We talked Transit one day and he was very interested in my analysis of transit service on certain routes. I asked why these routes, and he said “because they are in my ward” I then asked “why are you so curious about transit in only your ward” and he answer was not something I expected. He said “I don’t want to look foolish if someone brings it up”

    Here in Canada, and over in Britain too, we elect single-member districts, which then leads to people caring about thier own area. Consider Toronto, where we have 0 elected Conservatives (at least officially, though there are a dozen people sitting on council that might qualify). Now consider the Tories are in government federally and you start to see the problem. If the Tories were also the provincial government you’d expect that transit here would be under-served, perhaps less as a consequence of the “I’m a politico and they did not vote for me so I’m going to screw them over” but more of the “well they might need this but I KNOW my local guys need that”.

    The answer might be to change our electoral system to something based on proportional representation. What kind, I won’t say, as that is an entire discussion onto itself.


  2. My experience with the TTC seems to echo your comments. The “experts” at the upper levels of TTC management have never operated any sort of transit vehicle, have never been face to face with transit riders in a front line position, have never been an on the street supervisor, etc. (the list goes on and on). For the most part they are engineers (which is not bad but they need to have front line experience to be able to see what there theories can and will result in).

    Political appointees and “selected” outside experts are (as you say) beholden to those who made the appointment.

    I have had the opportunity to speak to both Gary Webster and Adam Giambrone on several occassions whilst I have been on duty. Once was actually at Kennedy Station after the subway derailment when I was able to speak to both of them together. Gary and Adam have also made a point of coming out to the various divisions to speak to operators on several occassions. I have also talked with Adam on numerous occassions when he has been out and about meeting/talking with the public in various stations.

    My feeling is that more senior staff should follow this example and get out and actually observe the system at all times of the day and see how things really are. They should be speaking to riders and getting the rider’s feedback. This should actually be a written in component of their actual job description and duties. It would also help to eliminate the isolation between senior management and the front line staff.

    I realize that this may seem to be a soapbox rant, but I think it is in line with what you are saying.


  3. Oversight (governance), leadership and management are different elements of the successful of any entity. In Toronto, oversight (i.e. boards/trustee) seemed to have elbowed out professional management – and as a result, we have a leadership gap.

    You might remember that RC Harris was a professional engineer – and not elected. In today’s world, an RC Harris (or a David Gunn) wouldn’t take a job for the City of Toronto.


  4. I think you have zeroed in on a central issue and opportunity for improvement, which is definitely about power and authority, who has it and how it is used – but also about transparency and openness of the professionals.

    The idea of engaging experts and non-experts into a new conversation about sustainable transportation is at the centre of the Metronauts community framework we are working on with Metrolinx involvement.

    Politicians respond to their electorate, and an aware, informed, engaged and participating electorate can improve the information that politicians use to determine their positions on issues.

    If a community can help staff and experts to improve how they communicate and interact with non-professional citizens who care about our shared future, I am hopeful. If we fail, I’m afraid that past governance problems will continue into the future. We have much work to do together, and I appreciate the role that people like you play in that effort.


  5. @Gord

    I agree that staff should have some on-the-ground experience…and it suprises and puzzles me knowing that they are not. Especially since the ‘top dogs’ are engineers.

    Call me naive, but I always thought that most engineers have gone through ‘the grunt work’ before being allowed to hold higher posts. Indeed, that’s why we have internships and professional experience requirements and so on and so forth.

    Perhaps the reason for this is the cross-disciplinary nature of transit. At the most ‘mobile’ end, you have the operators, then the mechanics. I can imagine that the TTC has plenty of Electrical and Mechanical engineers working closely with those in the field. The big disconnect is that transportation planning, in Toronto, is laregly the discipline of Civil engineers. And, while there are plenty of internship positions at the TTC for their fellows Mechs and Elecs, there really is no easy career path for someone with a Civil background. One would have to start as a route supervisor and go up from there.

    But this is just speculation.


  6. Isolation I think is the key problem in all of this. “Isolation” applies in various contexts:

    Engineers are isolated from the public opinion factor.

    Politicians are isolated from the broader network since they only really care about their ward/riding (in too many cases, but not necessarily all).

    Then there’s urban planners, one of the more “organic” elements, but still isolated from the rest.

    Nobody can be a jack of all trades, but there’s a communication problem somewhere in the current myriad of transit proposals flying around.

    Engineers and urban planners are important (I’m in a related industry myself), but somebody needs to manage the public opinion and public relations angle – and no, our politicians are not fit for that purpose because our electoral mechanics are far too out of date to make them genuinely useful.

    Overhaul the mechanics of our electoral infrastructure, then let’s talk about politicians being involved in our transportation infrastructure. Right now, politics is simply far too disfunctional to make anything happen.

    Nick is absolutely right: we need some form of proportional representation.


  7. “Just because someone is unelected and has a degree in a professional field does not make them ideal to handle the complex job of not only planning and operating a regional transportation system, but of convincing people (and those pesky politicians) that the money raised and spent actually goes for a good cause.”

    Steve, do I sense a hint of sour grape bitterness in your post? Who would be better suited to plan and operate this complex job?

    Steve: My response to this has been moved to the main post.


  8. I know it’s been tabled many times before, but we have to redefine the mandate of the OMB, because they’ve done it for themselves too many times already.

    I say this because the OMB exempts local councillors from actually committing to their constituents. They can get a consensus on what their constituents want and then make public statements on their behalf, but this is where they stop, because they know that they can count on the OMB to make the final decision for them, thereby eliminating our need for local councillors. The system is flawed because it has been usurped, and where we have many representatives, none have any real power over this questionable provincial tribunal that has chosen to take our cities from our elected representatives.


  9. Maybe what we need is a Transit Advisory Board. They could act as a screen for reports coming out of TTC staff and provide another angle for commissioners/councillors who would have the final say, in a similar fashion to how the panel led by Bruce Kuwabara forced TEDCO to improve the pig’s ear they were making of the new Corus building on the waterfront.


  10. To add to my earlier comments (as sparked by your comments on expert VS expert)

    I took a cab home from Yonge and Bloor last night due to a very painful toothache and my medicines being here. All the way up the Allen from Eglinton to Wilson Heights we followed a TTC bus, heading home after a day’s work. Every time I see the Allen at Eglinton I’m reminded of the battle to stop it right there. This is clearly one of the instances of “Expert” VS “Expert”.

    Looking from the perspective of cities and neighbourhoods it makes perfect sence to stop it there – if all you care about is houses, then they should have never built it in the first place. Looking at this from the perspective of a driver, stopping an entire highway at a perpendicular cross street is an utterly ridiculous idea and anyone who’s ever seen the southbound Allen during the AM rush would understand why.

    I wont re-hash the Allen debate (partly because that is also a discussion onto itself, and partly because I’d win far too easily) but I point to it as an example of what you said, Steve, that you will often run into this “expert VS expert” problem. We could find and hire a dozen experts who specalize in transit (all forms, subway, LRT, bus) and they might agree to a ‘perfect’ network, only to have the “expert” on highways and roads say it takes up too many lanes, and the “expert” on houses and buildings say it would cause too much disruption, and my favoruite one of all, rich people say “It doesn’t look nice” (so therefore we can’t build it).

    Frankly, I’m going to disagree with just about everyone here and say that is exactly what we need. When there are dozens and dozens of varied interests, and you try to “Compromise” you end up with something that does not work. It’s as though on an episode of Star Trek they try to ‘compromise’ an atmosphere that humans and aliens can breathe, only to kill them both. We are, quite literally, killing our city with all these “Compromises.” We need to find one thing, pick one direction, and just go there. Plough though the opposition and make it happen and make it happen NOW!

    You’re right though. Transit is too important for the politicians. It needs to be in the hands of people who (excuse my language) have the balls to make a decision.

    Steve: Mike Harris had the “balls” to make decisions and he did a very good job of destroying Toronto in the process. Oddly enough, if we had proportional representation in Ontario, he would never have become Premier.


  11. More often than not it is the politicians having the final say that is the key to the problem – Sorbara Subway being the most recent example (that subway should not go north of York U, unless for the explicit purpose of closing the loop).

    That is also the fundamental problem with Metrolinx: too much politics, and too little financial control.

    How are politicians supposed to be some kind of mediator for the public good when they simply force projects through regardless of public good and sustainability? Sheppard Subway, Subways in Vaughan, the SRT, and everybody’s obliviousness to the need of a DRL (before 2027) strongly suggests that political interests are hurting the system through bad decisions and an inability to prioritize in a manner that is actually for the public good and sustainable.

    Politicians are too focused on re-election to actually take these matters seriously – especially if they aren’t planning to run for re-election, then it is even worse, as that leads to the “it won’t be my problem, let somebody else fix it” mentality.


  12. Does he mean sour grapes because your opinions are mostly ignored by Metrolinx and the TTC? Why do you think that’s so?

    Steve: I assume by “you” you mean “me” in this context.

    Metrolinx and the TTC are two very different animals. At the TTC, there has always been a culture of being the best system on the planet, and that bred a generation or more of management that didn’t think they actually had to look elsewhere for ideas and improvements. There’s also a lot of “we’ve always done things this way” and “if it doesn’t work, it’s not our fault”. This is very hard to change, but change is coming slowly and there are parts of the TTC that do actually work reasonably well for an organization of its size.

    Metrolinx has to deal with an almost unattainable goal — find the solution to gridlock in the GTAH. I hate to prejudge the question, but in the short term there is no solution. We’ve built the GTAH in its present form and it will take decades to shift travel demands around to a point we can deal with all of the congestion. Some things are susceptible to medium term fixes such as providing even more transit capacity into the core of the 416, but the amount and diversity of transit needed in the 905 to make a big dent in the modal split is really staggering.

    Metrolinx is also rather touchy about criticism in the way one expects from staff and politicians who have not worked in an environment where public participation and activism are part of the territory. A real activist like me is distrusted by Metrolinx because I don’t automatically agree with everything they publish even though I support the purpose for which they were formed. It’s a shame they feel that way, but I don’t lose any sleep over it. They could have tried to co-opt me by putting me on their advisory board, but chose not to and I am free to say whatever I feel about the flaws in their mandate and process.

    At the political level, there is a strong suburban focus at Metrolinx. If the “experts” really do their job, they will enlighten people from both the “city” and “suburban” camps about a wide range of options and tradeoffs. They will be advocates for transit improvements that can be achieved and have a significant effect without astronomical cost. However, Metrolinx is trapped by a mandate that is focussed on the 905, and which ignores the role of local transit as an integral part of the whole. In the 905, “local transit” has so small a market share (and hence so few political supporters) that they can get away with this, but not in the 416.

    The third unseen player in all of this is Queen’s Park both in the Premier’s Office and in the Ministries charged with delivering infrastructure and transportation capacity. I would be very surprised if they are taking a “hands off” approach because of the importance of this portfolio and the political capital invested in MoveOntario2020 by Dalton McGuinty. We (the activist community) may have some limited success at the local level and even with Metrolinx only to run headlong into someone at the Provincial level who is (a) unaccountable and (b) openly hostile to local concerns.

    Finally, if my opinions are really being ignored, it’s not without getting some attention as the impact of this blog has proven. People may not like what I write, but they read it, and the odd bits even show up in policy announcements.


  13. Why is everyone surprised to see not enough movement when it comes to critical planning for the city of Toronto or GTA. Look at the political/electoral system in place and the subsequent decision makers.

    We elect representatives, Councilors and MPs, to make ALL the decisions on our behalf. These elected officials need to be reelected thus represent the voice of those who have the power to bring the vote (unions, business associations etc.).

    This is a self perpetuating problem. A handful of people run this country and we have never questioned anything, ever. May be its time to question who makes the decisions and why? A system of voting is always a better option that self appointment through nepotism, which is rampant in the ranks. How about allowing citizens to vote on key issues, like in the US, rather than giving all the power to the politicians, making them omnipotent.

    Steve: This sounds good in theory, but as US experience has also shown, referenda (or initiatives or propositions or whatever you call them) become hostage to major political machines, and we’re right back where we started, possibly worse. People in North Bay might not like spending money on a transit network in Toronto, but should they get to vote on the question? People in York Region might prefer a southerly extension of the Spadina Expressway to a northerly extension of the subway. Does this mean we build it?


  14. We need political oversight to ensure that staff are taking into account public needs and input but we also need to ensure that the political oversight does not end up stripping the plan down to the “essentials” of painting new colours on buses and calling it a day. Striking that balance, along with the balance associated with funding versus spending, is going to be the big challenge for Metrolinx over the next few months.

    Perhaps the proportional representation idea above would work for Metrolinx: directly elect members to the Metrolinx board to represent the entire GTA, coupled with a set of advisory boards to represent local needs. The advisory boards would include current local/regional politicians as well as members of the public. Let the advisory boards play a role in the overall board election campaigns so that we ensure that the big issues get raised.


  15. What we have to be aware of is the “Robert Moses” type of staff, who “know” what is good for the public good and refuse to listen to public input. We had that sort in the 1950’s with the construction of the Gardiner Expressway which destroyed South Parkdale and Sunnyside.

    On the other hand, the NIMBY could nitpick a good project into a monster. One example of that would be what happened with St. Clair West.

    We need to find a middle ground, where neighbour issues can actually be listened to, but not to the point where every little complaint would be accommodated or dragged on and on.


  16. Hi Steve

    There is another way at looking at this issue. If we want good politicians then we, the voters, must also do our homework and investigate the people who want to stand for office. We need to motivate good people to run and support them when the ideas they put forward (on our behalf) are unreasonably challenged.

    Sounds to idealistic? Maybe, but that is how the system should work.


  17. The challenge I see with transportation is that it is a complicated crossover between politics, urban planning, and engineering. The urban planners say that communities run *this* way, and the engineers say that cars and train run *that* way, and the politicians, who are more often than not not educated in either of these disciplines, have their own agendas and constituents. So-called ‘silo-based’ thinking – in which each side knows its own expertise – is killing us slowly. And not just in Canada: I read a report by MRC McLean-Hazel which states that ‘coordination and governance’ is far more important to building an effective transportation system (as opposed to funding). Toronto – and the world – needs to find a political structure which can effectively amalgamate the experitse traditionally stored ‘in silos’ into one body.

    The idea of a regional body which is elected by the general public is a good idea. But it needs to have powers appropriate to executing its objectives. Metrolinx is a good start, despite its forthcoming difficulties and difficult mission. As far as I understand, its major power is that it will control the procurement of transit vehicles. Secondarily, there are privisons within the Act for it to take-over GO transit. My concern is that, while vehicles are an integral part of transportation systems, infrastructure is where we lag behind. If Metrolinx is going to make big, positive steps forward, it needs to be able to have some formal measure of control of transportation infrastrucure.

    Of course, as Stan Lee is wont to say, with great power….etc, etc. So I can understand conerns about an unelected body becoming too powerful. Steve, do you have any comments as to, perhaps, an elected body with some measure of control over transportation infrastructure in the GTHA?


  18. I’m going to wade in on this and just make 2 quick points.

    1. I COMPLETELY agree with “GORD” upper level management NEEDS and SHOULD be REQUIRED to do serious indepth riding and learning about the system espicially speaking and listening to the DRIVERS and OPERATORS, of the system…. Dont just sit there in your plush nice office, GO into the system, go RIDE the STIFELING Streetcars, where the common joke is “Bakeing in the seat” is LITERAL, NOT just a joke… GO RIDE the buses where the A/C is broken and NOT fixed….. and SEE and HEAR the drivers suffering the heat in a bus that is SO reliant on the A/C working as the Orion VII’s do….

    2. ENCOURAGE the TTC commissioners and STAFF to come be on the ACAT committee, WHY is it ONLY wheel-Trans staff that are Represented?? TTC CLAIM to be trying to be MORE accessible, then WHY are they NOT being more involved in the ACAT committee…. it is NOT just meant to be for the wheel-trans users, it is meant to REPRESENT the AVERAGE disabled TTC user!!!!


  19. The sum of knowledge in the population as a whole is greater than in any group of experts — that’s only logical. Experts also make a living by grinding axes and testing their theories against other experts. At any time, consequently, a sizeable percentage of experts is going to be wrong about any issue.

    The role of the expert should be that of consultant. It seems to me that one of the TTC’s serious problems (which is also a problem of Toronto municipal government in general) is a failure to exploit expert opinion. Either it’s ignored or it’s only considered if it’s consistent with management opinion. They need to start asking for literature reviews rather than for grand schemes.

    Speaking of axes to grind, I should mention that I was one of the authors of a major piece of educational research that has been ignored for 30 years because it disproved some cherished beliefs, with the result that the taxpayer has been saddled with additional costs for 30 years. That’s how I see it, anyway.


  20. @ Peter Kucirek

    You are not naive about engineer’s training. I am well aquainted with what the requirements are – I am currently paying the tuition for a Civil Engineering student and fully understand what he has to do to become a PEng. as well as graduate from his program. That said, by the time an engineer would assume an upper management postion at TTC, he would be many years removed from the “grunt work” aspect of his training.

    I think that you have made a valid point about cross-disciplines, however. Transportation Engineering is an extremely small field within civil engineering (according to my son).

    I stand by my statement that the upper levels of TTC mangement are too isolated from the front line employees and more importantly from the fare-paying ridership.


  21. I try to attend at least a portion of each TTC and GO meeting.

    I have been skeptical of the GO board since a whole new raft of appointees were named when the last lot graduated to Metrolinx.

    It is a mixture of municipal politicians and unelected folks with various public and private experience. For many months they seemed to ask few questions of staff, or had perhaps saved their inquiries for the in camera portions of meetings.

    Since the huge petition landed on their collective laps this winter, I see more involvement and a better understanding (this does take time) of the way GO runs. In fact it is often the non-politicians that ask the questions I want to hear answered.

    And it feels as if having those in the NGO and private sector add more perspective to a board, and gives me greater faith that gross inefficiencies or anti-customer service attitudes may be exposed.

    I know there are no guarantees that non-elected appointees won’t bring with them dangerous hidden agendas. No interest in “businessmen” boards.

    And yet the mixed board approach now has more appeal to me, and I don’t understand ruling out this possibility for other transit agencies.

    Steve, if there are nine members on the TTC are you suggesting that every single one be a sitting politician?

    Steve: Metrolinx is a good example of a board that is almost entirely composed of sitting politicians but which is accountable to nobody. The issue is effective public oversight and input into decisions. Local politicians at least have to explain themselves and get elected.

    The problem with citizen members is that they sound nice in theory, but the appointments are not always the most felicitous in terms of skill or hidden agendas. When boards become a parking lot or dumping ground for out of office politicians, you get the worst of both worlds — someone with the veneer thin dedication and understanding of a politician but with the connections needed to preserve their position.


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