Is There Hope For Transit In 2009?

The new year brings a dark economic climate, worries about job losses, falling revenues for all governments and a pervasive sense that we have not yet seen the worst.  Whether this is media disaster-mongering, a realistic view of the future, or something in between remains to be seen.

What is quite clear is that an economic model that underpinned the past decades has run its course.  Can the same level of activity — jobs, travel, government investment — be sustained into 2009 and the next decade?

Transit is only a small part of this, and yet decisions made about transit funding have long-lasting effects.  Through my “career” as a transit activist, I have seen the boom-and-bust cycles of funding and watched as grand schemes for transit investment disintegrate when the economy falters and governments lose interest.  Too often, transit was something everyone wanted to champion, but nobody wanted to pay for.

A major problem throughout the North American transit industry, not just in Toronto, is that transit capital spending is viewed as an economic stimulus, a job creation (or preservation) mechanism, not as an essential part of what makes urban economies work.  The dominance of auto travel (and the lack of transit alternatives) puts transit down many voters’ priority lists.  People are comfortable in their cars which, for all their problems and costs, work.  The same cannot said for transit.  You cannot get to work on a press release.

The long lead times for transit projects bring a typical cycle:

  • Governments with money to spend start to think about investing in transit.
  • Plan, Plan, Plan.  Much work for consultants and facilitators (less so with the new streamlined approval process).
  • Finally a map, and a few lines that get into detailed design.
  • Ooops!  A recession.

We are a bit better at it this time around.  We have many plans in the hopper and we haven’t (yet) stopped everything in its tracks waiting for the next boom.  The root problem is that transit is not something we spend on regularly, but only when we can drum up a few billion for someone’s pet project.

Where does this leave us for 2009? Continue reading