Thirteen

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!

23 thoughts on “Thirteen

  1. My customary thanks for your ongoing contributions to transit in this City, and to my better understanding thereof.

    Your efforts, are extraordinary!

    I still think you should come of retirement to be unfettered Ontario transit czar for a year, (while keeping the blog going on the side, LOL)……

    But I digress!

    Cheers on 13 Steve! May there be many more.

    Steve: I would of course have to change the Eagles on the Tsar’s Coat of Arms to Swans!

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  2. I’m evermore grateful, (despite some disagreements eg. Gatineau corridor for some form of new transit for surface relief stretching to the core perhaps through the Don Valley, and the role of bikes and biking conditions in mobilities/transit relief) for your fine works, words, and those different perspectives from all sorts of people and locations that are in the comments. Sincere, deep thanks, and lucky us you keep on sharing.

    And I just heard of someone having a five (5) hour trip was it Tuesday, will check, via transit. Will double-check details.

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  3. Steve writes:

    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?

    To look beyond the despair that is Toronto and GTHA transit, but especially Toronto, the “Private Answer” actually looks more like the ‘default option’ and ‘not so bad’ compared to the endless fantasy espoused from both City Hall and QP.

    I’m a Centrist, in that I see P3 in whatever form as being the only viable option to replace endless fantasy that is an even worse fate: Nothingness.

    Other “world class cities” have done very well with P3 projects, many of them with Cdn fund investment, and compared to the endless partisan bickering, some cold, hard business analysis (with Public participation to make it profitable enough to attract private capital) would be a welcome relief to what we have now.

    It’s time for Toronto to “Think Big” or go home, and since the budget isn’t there to do it, and Torontonians (and Ontarians) aren’t willing to pay for a public system to finance what’s needed, Private Enterprise ostensibly would.

    I’m not necessarily espousing this, just tired of knee-jerk reactionaries on the Right claiming to be “Conservatives:” when they’re anything but when it comes to ‘investing in the future’.

    Populism is its own punishment. Time for a dialogue to find a way forward to “doing something big”…like completely circumventing the subway instead of endlessly patching what’s well beyond ‘sell by date’. And that means something on the scale of Crossrail, the product of as many UK Conservative as it was Labour regimes, both at civic and national level. This is not to replace the subway, but to alleviate it, and get people one seat into the core and out again to beyond the burbs, and alleviate Union at the same time.

    And if we don’t ‘think “Big”…then Big Money won’t think us. And we’re back to fantasy again.

    Steve: The catch is that we pay one way or another. In direct public investment the public sector may or may not reap a return (there is of course the untraceable return in improved mobility for everyone). In private investment, there is the future cost in fares or public subsidies, not to mention the possibility of a bailout, because the option of letting it fail simply isn’t viable. Imagine if a privately owned Yonge Subway closed because Toronto or Ontario would not pay ever increasing bills made possible by a badly negotiated contract. I can hear the weeping and wailing about high fares thanks to a 407-like entity running the transit system.

    There is no free lunch, no matter how much we disguise the cost.

    Without a very significant incentive, a P3 will never ever build most of the fantasy subways in politicians’ plans without big offsets to ensure profitability.

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  4. Thanks, again, for all you do for transit in particular and Toronto in general. I am constantly amazed by your knowledge, your energy, your calm and your ability to cut through the crap and deal with the less well informed or simply wrong and opinionated(!) politely and thoughtfully. Here’s to the next 13!

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  5. Steve,

    Allow me to add my best wishes for your continued success. Your blog is always informative and thought provoking. Your moderation of comments is balanced, fair and informative. You have become the source for an informed, balanced look at transit in the city. Keep up the good work.

    p.s. Still waiting for a chance to buy shares in the RHSB&IPRC. When is the IPO? Ridership to the Brickworks alone could turn a profit!

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  6. Steve:

    We are so lucky to have your expert knowledge expressed through this blog.

    All my life I have loved newspapers. They have died before my very eyes. The current versions of the Star and Globe are pathetic last gasps of a dying institution. The replacements for the vibrant press of the past – such as Blog TO – do no real investigation – they merely repackage the last works of the newspapers.

    Social Media – which I do not embrace – spreads falsehoods, rumours and sadly hate speech. Even CBC radio – my beloved CBC Radio – had to take the heart out of the daily evening reports – The World This Hour – to produce a short meaningless summary for the iPhone and Alexa generation. As the complexity of the world increases, the true knowledge sources decline.

    Returning to my original point. Your blog – prepared unpaid with love – draws upon enormous resources based on a lifetime of study and spreads real information to your readers. The information and opinions are of a higher quality than even newspapers in their heyday. In a world where communication is deteriorating – your blog is a rare highlight.

    Congratulations on thirteen years. I hope you have the remaining enthusiasm for many more.

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  7. Thank you Steve for such an informative blog, the time and effort do it is well worth the read. I hope it keeps going more people like you can bang a few heads together. I can’t say I’m a complete transit buff but I’m an advocate for better use of public transportation. I can easily drive to work but I chose to use the bus to travel to and from work (North York Centre to Signet Dr). I have posted the odd comments and was well pleased when you did a detailed analysis of the 60 route, but at the end of the day I’m just a regular transit user that wants my bus to be regular, clean and not overcrowded, it’s just not what I’m getting for two out of those three.

    That’s what these politicians should be looking at and providing it in the most cost-effective way possible. If that means building LRTs then they should. They should be looking at the most efficient use of the road space available and single occupant cars are the least efficient, what about “The War against Transit” that’s been going on for decades. I really feel for the future of transit, and with so many other things that have been neglected and I’m only ever likely to see cuts in the future and with the planned up-load it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

    A final thought, the politicians should have watched the consumer alert on today’s CTV news, it was not what the story was about but it was why the lady wanted by buy car!!!

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  8. I have been reading for the past 13 years. If you had told me in 2007 that no new transit lines would be built by 2020, I would not have believed you. What a failure.

    Looking back, was the pivotal moment Adam Giambrone’s sex scandal? If he had stayed in the race, the first Ford would have lost, and the second would be selling labels. And maybe transit city would have lived…

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  9. Thank you for these 13 years. You remain a treasure who combines extensive knowledge, profound insights, and a clear writing style. Few people have all three talents.

    The prevailing attitude of the politicians in power to transit makes me long for the 1960s when John Robarts and his Progressive Conservative government gave Toronto an extra several hundred million dollars in order to finish the Bloor-Danforth subway a few years sooner than planned.

    Congratulations! And may you and your blog continue far into the future.

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  10. I would echo the comments above of David Crawford and Michael Greason. Thanks for doing the hard stuff like explaining the budgets, decoding the technical reports and providing you own statistical analysis on service.

    You try to add evidence to a process where the bullies of power Tory & Ford, both four letter words, totally ignore the little people and their needs.

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  11. Thanks for all your efforts to make it to lucky 13!

    I would have suggested that we all go out and have an informal party riding route 13, but alas, there currently is no route 13. It’s been 14 years since the 13 Neville Park ran for two brief months, and it’s been 25 years since the 13 Rouge Hill route ran (it has not run longer than it ran, 20 years from 1974 to 1994!). Prior to that, the number was used from 1957 until 1970 on Berry Road.

    Maybe next year we can have a moving celebration on the 14 Glencairn route! 😉

    Steve: Thanks! I used the history of route number 13 as a transit trivia question for TTC Riders recently.

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  12. My own experience with a few PC types I once semi-respected and who are now embedded in Ford Nation at the Pink Palace has been equally dispiriting.

    There is no transportation policy except getting even with Toronto for all the imaginary or richly-deserved rebuffs suffered by the Ford Brothers through the years. This amounts to centralizing all decision making in the premier’s office, ripping the subway system away from all of us ungrateful currs here in Hogtown and quashing anything that even vaguely looks like LRT in Toronto and elsewhere.

    Meanwhile, the opposition parties snooze or simply resort to motherhood statements about how we need more transit and we should spend more money. Not while the same bureaucrats who helped get us into this mess at places such as Metrolinx and MTO are still yielding power in the service of a government that couldn’t care less about transportation.

    And then there are those members of Ford Nation whose friends and relatives are well-paid lobbyists for various vested interests, such as the highway builders….

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  13. Transport policies, and the lack thereof, are always interesting to see where parties and some politicians fall. They’re often complex, and in North Americar, tend to be carrupt and carist, and almost feel like they’re brought to us by the oil companies. So I’m glad Greg Gormick swipes at all parties/people – except something interesting just now from Metrolinx saying ‘No, don’t make Yonge any longer; do Relief’ (tho it’s far far too slow to help too much with the Eglinton Line being live soon, and where’s the plan to make the Richmond Hill GO line better?). It sure is pretty absurd when there’s such an overload at Bloor and Yonge to have the transit agency responsible also responsible for making it all worse by proposing further extensions to both main spines in east and North, as TTC is also doing/enabling the design work for a Yonge Extension now with PTIP, not just Suspect Subway Extension.

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  14. Steve said: “I would of course have to change the Eagles on the Tsar’s Coat of Arms to Swans!”

    A double-headed swan would indeed be a novel heraldic device!

    (heraldry geek here)

    Whether you become transit tsar or not, you should anyway petition the Canadian Heraldic Authority for a patents of arms based on such a design. The GG gets to decide who “deserves” a coat of arms, and I believe exceptional public service is one of the categories under which you would certainly qualify.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. There is no plan to upgrade the Richmond Hill Line, Hamish. This is yet another indictment of Metrolinx and its misuses of its current assets. Nor is there a plan to do anything for the Milton Line without that overblown and unnecessary freight bypass scheme. No one is talking much about that now, although the newfangled PC government has dragged it out slightly as an excuse for delivering improved Kitchener Line service on the exact same timetable as we kept getting from the Liberals, which was all-day, two-way service in 2024. Even if the province had committed to it, it wouldn’t happen because CN tried to screw CP so blatantly that the latter told them to stick it and walked away from the whole thing.

    The Ford pack really doesn’t care, they have no one with any transportation knowledge within their midst, so they just let all the Liberal-appointed hacks at Metrolinx keep bopping along mismanaging the system and misdirecting the ongoing stream of capital investment. Someone needs to ask them why they keep blowing big bucks on major expansion of stations on the skeletal Richmond Hill and Milton rail services, some of which sit completely unused outside of the peak weekday rush hours.

    On a related note, the machinations of a key member of the Ford brain trust is dealt with in this update on the plan I was hired to produce to revive the ONR’s Toronto-Cochrane service.

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  16. @Greg Gormick What’s the low down on Ford’s support of SmartTrack (ST)? Wynne signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tory to undertake ST. Apparently Ford will not allow the MoU to be made public. The city supposedly hired 20 bureaucrats to work on ST, yet things seem stalled on the Provincial side. The media, newspapers, TV etc have been silenced on this scandal.

    Steve: Also the final approval for Toronto’s contribution to the station construction project has not gone through Council because they don’t have a price yet.

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  17. Happy 13th Steve! You’ve been a huge inspiration to me and so many other in the fight for better transit in this City.

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  18. Mazel tov, Steve, on your signature achievement! This blog is invaluable. No, really.

    Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint…

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  19. Deals are being cooked between Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall to save all of the lame “plans” being put forward by their respective sponsors, namely the mayor’s SmartTrack foolishness, Metrolinx’s desperate attempts to come up with GO quick wins to make Minister of Transportation Jeff Yurek look good and Ford’s unshakeable subway mania.

    I just sit back and smile in an evil sort of way because we all know none of these white elephants can be made to perform. They will all continue to unravel as things grind slowly along. But we sure are going to pay so many prices while these beasts lumber on, especially a worsening of our transportation crisis because nothing meaningful is being undertaken.

    In case those fresh-faced staffers and advisors in all three shops haven’t noticed, none of these projects will deliver demonstrable practical and political benefits they can wave in front of voters in 2021. To their credit, the advisors with the political science degrees and long-time PC membership cards are finally awakening to the fact that Metrolinx is out of control and not to be trusted when they make grand promises.

    Thank heavens for small mercies!

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  20. Congratulations on the 13th anniversary of your blog! It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Time flies, that’s for sure, but it’s disheartening that so little has been accomplished in that 13 years despite all the early promise of Transit City back in the mid 2000s.

    I was thinking about Hydrogen’s comment about the Adam Giambrone sex scandal being the turning point for Transit City. It certainly helped but I think the garbage strike was by far the bigger issue. That kneecapped the most labour friendly friendly mayor in recent memory and David Miller didn’t seek re-election, which cleared the way for Rob Ford to be elected. The first thing he did on his first day as mayor before 9:00 AM, was hold that press conference to announce that Transit City was dead. Before the start of business!

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  21. Belated congratulations, Steve, on your 13th Bloggiversary! Thank you for providing the online space for folks like me to rant and vent frustrations about the never-ending never-endingness of politically motivated inaction and photo-op-seeking that has slowed or stalled real progress and useful growth of the Toronto transit system in recent years. The breaths of fresh air provided by your constant and detailed analysis, commentary and counter-arguments continue to give hope that, if only progressive politicians were to find their way into the TTC overseer positions as well as the city budget committee and Council as a whole, transit “business as usual” would become, unusually, a more progressive business. Thinking beyond 4 years needs to be de rigueur and I am thankful that, with your institutional memory, you can act as a sort of “Transit Elder” to remind us of “better times” and why they were better as well as goad us into awareness and activism against apathy. Here’s to many more posts and much more discussion and debate!

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