Eight Years On

Today, January 31, 2014, this blog is eight years old.  Many thanks to you, the readers, for making it what it is – a forum for discussion about and advocacy of public transit and how it can improve our city.

As a way of looking back to the early days and as a commentary on the successes and failures we have faced, I chose to republish my Jane Jacobs Prize acceptance speech from April 2005.  Jane was still alive for that ceremony, and I remember her delicious skewering of then Mayor Miller for the shortcomings of his Planning Department whose world view owed more to a suburban than a “downtown”, neighbourhood-oriented outlook.

A possible bid for a World’s Fair was in the air complete with all the talk of the wonders of new investment it would bring to Toronto.  Sound familiar?

April 5, 2005

Thanks to Mayor Miller, John Sewell, Ideas That Matter and especially to Jane Jacobs.

Jane and I lunched near the Park Plaza Hotel in 1973 when she was fresh from the Stop Spadina campaign.  Her long battles in New York City with Robert Moses and his expressway plans appear in Ken Burns’ documentary New York.  Seeing that reminded me of what a lifetime of activism really means.  My 33 years since Streetcars for Toronto saved our streetcars are small change beside Jane’s work, and I am honoured to receive a prize in her name.

John Sewell has told you how I came to be here, of the successes and failures in transit activism over those decades.  Now I’ll say a few words about the role of Toronto’s activists in 2005 and beyond.  Should we cozy up to “the establishment” which is now in friendlier hands?  Is transit planning finally headed in the right direction?  Are we on the verge of a transit nirvana?  Answer:  No – maybe – not a chance.

The details are a bit longer.

Activists always have an uneasy time with politicians and professional staff – there’s the lure of being “on the inside” and feeling that you’re really getting something done.  But it’s an illusion, and you can lose valuable time and influence by becoming too much a part of the process you hope to change.  Activists need to hold politicians’ feet to the fire, to always ask for more than we can get, and to never, ever be satisfied.

Our job is to get issues discussed, to present views and options that would not otherwise be heard, to inform the community, the media and the politicians, to show that “business as usual” is not the only solution to our city’s problems.  To do this, we need independence from official channels where compromise takes precedence over excellence, where confidential access to the inner circle muzzles open debate.  We must not be afraid of being unpopular – opposing a bad proposal does not mean we are against transit.

In a few years, I will retire from the Toronto District School Board, but I will not retire from transit activism.  Mayor Miller will see a lot more of me around City Hall.  After all, friendly faces can change, and we could find ourselves with Tories everywhere in another Dark Age.  We must do what we can, while we can.

Where is transit planning going?

We have a Ridership Growth Strategy that aims to build service and lure riders back to the TTC surface routes.  Those routes are the backbone of the system, but they were cut back by 25 to 40 percent during the 1990s.  We’re going to rebuild!  We are getting new buses!  Alas, at the current rate, we will make it back to that 1990 level of service well into in Mayor Miller’s third term of office.  That is no commitment to transit.

We have an Official Plan that recognizes our need to intensify population along streets to provide a vibrant “city” lifestyle and a transit demand that will support fast, frequent service.  The OP has no subway lines in it.  Bravo!  About time!  Alas, it has no transit lines in it at all, and only hints at what could be done with LRT (modern streetcar lines) on the major routes.

Originally, the RGS had no subway lines in it either – any system expansion was way down the priority list long after service improvements and changes to the fare structure.  Alas, the subway fraternity prevailed, and two lines with price tags of about $1.5-billion each crept into the TTC plans.

Subways are dangerous things.  Their cost makes debates on where to build the next one almost endless, and they crowd out much cheaper schemes that would improve the system as a whole.  They make “the ask” from City politicians to senior governments enormous, and those governments do their duty to transit with one big cheque.  You want more for buses, for better service?  Get lost, kid, we already paid for your subway.  That’s exactly what Ontario has said to Toronto for the past decade.  We may open a subway to York University or to Scarborough Town Centre, but your local bus and streetcar routes will be just as unreliable as they are today.

Now we have Building a Transit City.  There’s some hope here.  It’s the missing chapter from the OP and later this year we may see a proposal for a low-cost network of busways and LRT lines.  This is great stuff, but it needs lots of money in a very short time, a decade at most, if we are going to seriously address the deficit in transit service throughout Toronto.

I have not even mentioned those lands beyond the edge of the map, where dragons lie, and yet they are vital to any discussion of Toronto’s future.  Long, long overdue improvements to GO Transit’s rail network are underway, and we are beginning to see schemes for improved bus services in the 905.  Sadly, York Region’s VIVA system is spending far more on marketing, relative to the TTC’s size, than Toronto will spend on “Ridership Growth”.  Don’t tell people how wonderful the service is, just get out there and run it!  Ads are cheap.  Performance is not.

What would a transit nirvana look like?

Toronto would have frequent, uncrowded service on all routes at least 18 hours a day.

If the subway is the backbone, then a network of LRT lines, some on rights-of-way, but most in the middle of streets, would form the skeleton of our system.  They would bring faster service without the cost of subways throughout the city.

GO Transit rail services would be substantially improved with all-day service on all corridors.

Regional travel fares would be integrated with the TTC so that riders see one network, no matter how many operational agencies provide the service.

We would stop proposing road-building projects that are disguised as transit improvements.

This brings me back to Jane Jacobs.  The Spadina Expressway was a highway sanitized by a subway line.  We need to be wary of such proposals.  People do not live on expressways, and commercial spaces nearby are surrounded by parking lots, not by pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.

We need to tell the road engineers “No!” when they slip intersection widenings into LRT proposals.

We need to build our new neighbourhoods with good transit service from day one, not as an afterthought once we discover that a suburban, car-oriented development has taken over our waterfront.

Building a Transit City takes more than vague and inadequate funding announcements.  We do not need a World’s Fair to justify transit improvements.  We need a Council that will advocate for better transit, for a better city, and if this means tax increases, so be it.

There is a lot of work for transit activists in the years ahead, and I for one hope to earn the Jane Jacobs prize by continuing to fight for what Toronto needs – an excellent transit system.

Thank you.