The Spaces In Between

As the Mayoral campaigns of various candidates meander toward October 25, I can’t help noticing a common thread in the transit platforms of the major candidates.  Actually, a missing thread.

Everyone loves to draw a map.  Pull out a magic marker and a map of the city, cross out a few “David Miller” lines to show you’re an independent thinker, draw in a few of your own, and Voila!  You have a transit platform.

Some candidates talk about quality and reliability of transit service without saying exactly what they mean.  One would give seniors a free ride for four hours a day.  One would integrate TTC and GO fare structures and operations.  But the real debates, as I saw just this morning at yet another joust for three would-be Mayors, turn on maps and funding.

Large swaths of Toronto will never see rapid transit, whether we use that name for full-scale subways, or LRT, or BRT, or jet-propelled Swan Boats.  Riders living there will put up with local bus and streetcar services forever.  There may be a new subway or LRT down the street, closer than today, but not in walking distance.

What we don’t hear in the debates is a sense of that much-hated word “vision”.  What role does transit play in the city, not just today but in decades to come?  What does “good service” mean?  How much are we willing to pay for a bus every 10 minutes or better at midnight?  How much of the cost should be paid by governments as an investment in mobility and enabling transit lifestyles, and how much should be paid by riders?

Drawing lines on a map looks good, at least to people who live near the projected routes, but unless there’s a lot of them, and a mechanism to pay for their construction, they’re just doodles to most transit riders.  Doodles, moreover, of lines that may not open until the would-be Mayor has been driven from office by a newer municipal saviour.

My question to those who would be Mayor is simple:  what will you do to improve transit today?

Be honest about fares.  Will you raise them?  Will you charge by distance?   Will you get rid of the TTC’s arcane transfer restrictions?  Will you truly integrate GO and TTC fare schemes in a way that is attractive to riders?  Don’t tell me about Smart Cards, whether it’s Queen’s Park’s Presto or a new Open Payment system.  Tell me what your philosophy of charging for transit really is.  Once we know how you want to price transit, we can work out how to collect the fares.

Be honest about service.  People love subways.  They run until almost 2am with trains every five minutes.  There’s even a big three-way meet of last trains at Bloor-Yonge.  No wonder people want us to build subways — they guarantee the TTC will run vastly more service than, were it a bus or streetcar route, the corridor would see.  If you’re a suburban bus rider, don’t count on frequent service or protected connections.

What is “acceptable” service in frequency, crowding and reliability?  How long should someone wait for a bus to show up?  Should they be guaranteed a seat outside of the peak period?  Should reliable schedules be enforced for infrequent routes, and should frequent services provide a reliable headway between vehicles?

What does “transit priority” mean to you?  Will you take capacity away from other road users to speed transit operations, especially in locations that are already congested and transit service is often delayed?  Are streets more important for parking and deliveries, or for moving vehicles?

What is your attitude to pedestrians?  Transit users make their trips as pedestrians walking to and from stops and transferring between routes.  Should access to transit be easy and comfortable?  Are pedestrian spaces important for you, or do they get the leftovers?

The next time you hold a press conference, go to a corner that doesn’t have a subway or an LRT today, or on any map, not even on yours.  Explain what you will do to make transit better for that community.

In between rants about making City Hall more accountable and tightening our belts, explain just what this will mean to people who don’t live on your rapid transit network, who won’t benefit from all the capital spending you plan to squeeze out of Queen’s Park and maybe, just maybe, Ottawa.

When the new buses start running, when the service improves (even on the Queen car), then we’ll hold a photo op for you.  Think how many neighbourhoods you will visit with your better bus and streetcar service!  And you might even do it before the next election!!