Today, January 31, 2019, this blog celebrates its thirteenth birthday.
Looking back over the past year is a dispiriting exercise, and I have been rather despondent through much of the fall thanks to political events at Queen’s Park and City Hall.
Transit limps along after years of underspending. Tax fighters cling to the idea that even an increase just to cover inflation is excessive, and constantly seek “efficiencies” rather than looking for improvements our city so badly needs. Marquee projects get the political attention, but they vacuum up available dollars while leaving promised new lines years, if not decades, away. Toronto has been running on hot air, and the deep freeze is more than a passing winter storm.
This will not be easy to fix especially when many politicians more than a few kilometres from Queen and Bay regard spending on Toronto as a provincial or national embarrassment, if not another chance to say “fuck off” to the city. If there is a silver lining to that dark cloud, it is the long-overdue recognition that transit needs far better funding than it receives. The backlog of unmet investment simply to keep the lights on and the wheels turning is much larger than transit officials would acknowledge in the past. The risk is that the hole is so deep, the time needed just to show a credible improvement so long, that as a city and region, we will just give up on transit. That would be a disaster.
In 2006 when I started this blog, the economy was buoyant, David Miller was Mayor, and there was a sense that Toronto might actually build a transit network. Despite its faults, the Transit City plan came out in early 2007, and gave Toronto something to aim at beyond eternal fights over a few kilometres of new subway.
Civic activism, especially among a new generation, was on the upswing, and the blog was born from the repeated question “what would you do”. The comment threads became as important as the articles themselves, and there are times I feel as if my online living room is a long-running salon for a mixture of political activists, professionals, transit geeks and city watchers. Note that these categories are not mutually exclusive and it’s OK to talk about recent sightings of 4523 while pondering the future of the transit universe.
Yes, this is unashamedly a pro-LRT site, and by “LRT” I most emphatically do not mean that piece of technological crap foisted on Scarborough by the Tories so many years ago. Queen’s Park pols of all stripes have a lot to answer for in the perversion of Toronto’s transit growth, and they showed no sign of changing over the decades.
There is a role for both streetcars in the most conventional sense and for LRT (streetcars on a semi-exclusive right-of-way) in Toronto and other cities. While Toronto agonized, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa built their lines. Within the old TTC network, growing population density will feed a revived streetcar network if only we ever get enough cars to serve it properly, and give them the street priority over other traffic the riders deserve. Toronto’s tragedy is in Scarborough where years of political posturing, of selling a subway as the only thing worth building, the line that Scarborough “deserves”, will leave riders waiting for buses for years to come. On Toronto’s waterfront, better transit awaits the will to make a comparatively small investment to support huge population growth and a gaping hole in mobility to what was to be a “transit first” neighbourhood.
For all my love for rail transit, the case for much better bus service cannot be shouted too loudly. Buses carry over half of all transit trips in Toronto, and the subway would starve for riders without them. The TTC’s goals for better service are modest, and that is being kind. Showing a major change requires both a larger fleet and more garage space neither of which we will see in the near future. Only limited increases are planned over the coming decade. The TTC is content to advertise “express” services that, for the most part, already existed and now have only a new route number, not more buses. This is a sham, and both the TTC and Council should be embarrassed by the repeated claims that the express bus network is an “accomplishment”.
Fare policy in Toronto and in the GTHA needs a major revamp, but this should not be left in the hands of Metrolinx planners who see Toronto’s riders and their fares as a handy way to balance the books on cross-border travel costs. Queen’s Park looks to take over Toronto’s subway, although they have yet to commit to funding at the level it really needs. Never far in the background is the Metrolinx scheme to treat the subway as a “premium” service.
What we never discuss as a city is what transit should look like. This does not mean drawing your favourite fantasy map regardless of the modes you prefer, or the colour of lines. How much mobility should be available to everyone? How broadly should this be supported by public funding?
Should transit investment be hostage to whatever “private sector” financing scheme is the flavour of the day, or should transit be provided as a basic service funded from taxes on the economy as a whole? Should Scarborough, just as one example, be told it can’t have a new route or station because no developer is willing to put up the money?
All of this is very dark, gloom-and-doom stuff, and we must not lose sight of the fact we activists are all trying to make things better for transit and many other parts of city life. The swan at the top of my posts, and my Twitter handle @swanboatsteve, come from a sense of humour, even if that whimsy is only a defense against what passes for political leadership these days.
Thanks to all the readers whether you leave comments or not (the lurkers know who they are) because robust discussions about the future of our transit system are important.
The Swan Boat Salon remains open!