Fourteen

January 31, 2020 marks the fourteenth birthday of this blog.

Back in those early days, I posted both transit commentary and film reviews, but the latter fell aside as online reviews by everyone crowded the field, and governments got into the bad habit of making major announcements just when I would otherwise have some time free to write about TIFF or HotDocs. It was a dastardly plot!

In the mid 2000s, urban affairs were brewing again, and a new generation of civic activists found their voices. Many of them now have moderately influential positions as writers both online and in print, a much endangered medium.

When I started out, my thoughts were to delve into issues at a level the daily press could not, and to provide a place where people could discuss whatever was going on in the transit world from a more detailed technical level. Little did I expect that this would evolve to the breadth of followers here and on social media, much less that I now have fans!

Two factors in the evolution of this blog have been most rewarding:

First is that new generation of activists fighting for a better city and a better transit system. We are not alone, and there are many thoughtful, well-informed voices in Toronto and the region beyond. If only more of us could be in government, I could be happier, but our time will come.

Second, I have evolved from a professional IT person who attends an inordinate number of cultural events and dabbles in transit issues on the side, to a writer, albeit of technical material, and moderator of a very long-running transit salon. This was never an ambition all those years ago when my transit advocacy began as part of the Streetcars for Toronto Committee.

There are now 2,300 posts on this site, and almost 53,000 published comments from you, dear readers. Well, most of you are dear, and the ones who are not tend to invite a click on “Delete” with accompanying laughter and scorn.

A special thank you to those who “lurk” – you know who you are – and the occasional private thank you lets me know the reach this blog has.

Where is transit going in Toronto?

The near future has the sense of a gloomy night with the first hints of a dawn to come. There is finally a recognition at Toronto Council that transit simply cannot get by on the crumbs that so-called inflationary spending increases produce. There is a huge backlog of spending required that, for many years, the City and TTC kept hidden from view lest the borrowing it would trigger frightened passing financial analysts.

But that is only half of the problem. Surface routes both inside Toronto itself and in the GTHA beyond have long been neglected as a vital part of the transit network. We cannot move everyone everywhere on a handful of commuter rail and subway lines.

The assumption that transit’s main goal is to get people to and from King & Bay has not been valid for decades, but that is where almost all planning and political capital was focused. Even calls for more suburban subways claimed that riders needed to get downtown where the good jobs are, and left those wanting to travel elsewhere to their own devices.

Speaking of capital, a bigger challenge than getting a new rapid transit line, regardless of the technology, is to get money for better service everywhere, not just on whatever new bauble we manage to open once a decade. Nobody holds photo ops and press conferences to announce better service on the Queen car or the Finch bus because the money required to make a real city-wide difference is substantial, and usually comes 100 per cent from local tax dollars.

Changing that outlook and increasing transit’s share of trips beyond the rail rapid transit network will be a hard slog. Travellers will not give up their car-oriented patterns both from convenience and from a long-standing distrust that transit will ever amount to more than an occasional, inconvenient bus intended to move a few seniors to and from the local mall.

Left to their own devices and revenues, local governments are not going to invest in better transit, and the provincial government shows no indication of moving into this arena either.

There is plenty to do. Politicians to elect and others to send to a well-earned and thumping defeat. But there is more than just elections, there is the vital need for new policies that will address a city-region where transit must take a much bigger role. The alternative is traffic strangulation, an environmental nightmare, and economic decline.

Lest this sound a too gloomy end in what should be a festive post, I will leave you with a swan gliding in the summer sun on the Avon in Stratford. For those who still have not figured out where the Twitter handle @swanboatsteve comes from, please read A Bold Initiative for Don Valley Transport.

18 thoughts on “Fourteen

  1. [A special thank you to those who “lurk” – you know who you are – and the occasional private thank you lets me know the reach this blog has.]

    The “thank you” is mutual, Steve.

    I’ve not been commenting lately as medication often negatively affects legibility of what I write, but you’ve posted so much that resonates. Ostensibly I’ll be back in good form soon to participate in this excellent blog.

    Many of us see not a system that is totally hopeless, but one that although bereft of the funding it deserves, one that could still be so much better with the paltry funding it does receive. And no-one details and elucidates that like you do.

    Many thanks, hope to be joining you again soon.

    Steve Saines

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  2. Congratulations on your amazing blog and on your knowledge, patience and good humour! You have educated many of us on ‘things transit’ and greatly improved the level of discussion about transit options in Toronto. Thank you!

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  3. Happy Blogiversary Steve. Your voice and detailed analyses are a huge asset in calling politicians, planners, administrators, etc. to account.

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  4. The people of Toronto should be thanking you. The amount of dedication and energy you’ve put in over the years is astonishing and your contribution to the city, riders and transit enthusiasts is remarkable. Thank you Steve.

    Steve: You are very welcome!

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  5. Congratulations! May you continue to be a voice of sanity and common sense for many more years to come. And also a voice of humour because every city needs swan boats and horse cars. 🙂

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  6. As a long time reader, I would like to extend my many thanks to you Steve. Your insight, analysis, and commentary has always made for excellent reading. I find myself glued to all of the charts and graphs you post here.

    Without your activism in the 1970’s to save our streetcars, I would have grown up only being able to look at pictures of streetcars. Maybe being born next to Roncesvalles carhouse might have also had an effect on me…

    Thanks to you (and many others), many generations will continue to enjoy the thrill of riding on a street railway as had been done for over a century in Toronto.

    Maybe some day we will get a Swanboat line up the Don!

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  7. Steve, is there any possibility you can take a leading role at TTC or Metrolinx? Knock some sense into them from the inside, so to speak.

    Steve: There are two problems here. First, it is not a case of putting one guru in charge and watching the organization magically transform. The entrenched cronies with years of working together and knowing where the bodies are buried cannot simply be brushed aside, much as I can think of a few choice candidates.

    Second, an insider quickly discovers that the straightjacket of the role is a lot more constraining than that of an outsider. A good example is that even if I were running Metrolinx, Doug Ford and the Tories would still call the shots. At the TTC, I would be at the mercy of the Mayor and his budget hawks who really don’t want to spend on transit.

    Advocacy is a role much more easily and productively practiced from the outside with the hope that enough people hear and support the message that the political wheels start to turn.

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  8. Happy birthday to your blog, Steve. I often wonder why with your analysis and insights are not invited to a Q&A session with Metrolinx. I have attended some of the town halls and the level of insight is rather shallow. If you sit down with Mr. Verster on TV for a 90 minutes segment, it will answer a lot more questions than what happens at a town hall.

    Steve: Let’s say that the relationship between me and Phil Verster is a tad frosty because I ask questions he does not want to answer, among other things. We spar, but 90 minutes would consist of him trying to paint me as a well-meaning but misinformed amateur.

    I also think that you are at times a little bit negative. We are entering an era where public transit is starting to grow whether one supports Greta or not. When GO RER and Via HFR are built, public transit will be viable at least in the corridor. Obviously it will not be comparable to a lot of places, but at least it is viable.

    Steve: Being negative, or at least being less than complimentary, comes with the territory of being a commentator, critic and advocate. If the TTC and Metrolinx were better, even if not perfect, I would have a lot less to write about and far fewer readers. The whole point is that riders – existing and would-be – have many valid complaints. This is not just me crying in the wilderness. I am frankly fed up with the idea that we must defer with a slight bow and a “please, M’Lord” tone of voice to the “professionals” who have their own agenda and political masters to serve. They are not always right, and sometimes they are “economical with the truth”. There is an agenda to praise what is already happening, and that works against improvements.

    Even in Japan, all the metros and rail radiate from the center. Many people transfer at stations like Osaka and Tokyo. For a trip from Itami Airport to Kobe, one has to take a circular route via Osaka / Umeda Station. When RER is fast and frequent enough, going from Markham to Aurora via Union will be predictable and viable. Sure the Hwy 407 bus may be faster, but the train will beat it in frequency and punctuality.

    Steve: It is simply not practical for all regional trips in the GTHA to pass through Union Station. There is not the density of rail corridors, nor the level of service to make the kind of travel you describe workable. Also, it would be interesting to know what proportion of travel in the radial cities you describe is already core-oriented as opposed to suburb-to-suburb as here where that proportion is quite high and is poorly served by transit if at all.

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  9. Steve:

    Let’s say that the relationship between me and Phil Verster is a tad frosty because I ask questions he does not want to answer, among other things. We spar, but 90 minutes would consist of him trying to paint me as a well-meaning but misinformed amateur.
    […]
    Being negative, or at least being less than complimentary, comes with the territory of being a commentator, critic and advocate. If the TTC and Metrolinx were better, even if not perfect, I would have a lot less to write about and far fewer readers. The whole point is that riders – existing and would-be – have many valid complaints. This is not just me crying in the wilderness. I am frankly fed up with the idea that we must defer with a slight bow and a “please, M’Lord” tone of voice to the “professionals” who have their own agenda and political masters to serve. They are not always right, and sometimes they are “economical with the truth”. There is an agenda to praise what is already happening, and that works against improvements.

    I lament lacking the acumen to post quote after quote with link and reference for Verster at this time. I have in the past in this string, and to be honest, when Verster first happened on the scene, he was a breath of fresh air, a new hope, and inspiration. Urban Toronto featured two interviews with him (both IIRC) by Jonathan English, and Verster was quoted elsewhere, discussing ‘a new approach’ to platforms at Union, ‘through running’ and signalling and the ‘massive change about to happen with RER’. I invite Steve and others to confirm or deny.

    The tune has changed [with] the last ‘regime’ change. Radically. And the question becomes: “Is the man good for his quoted claims or not”?

    What Steve has stated that I quoted above touches a crucial point: For both Metrolinx and the TTC. It’s not a case of whether one is being ‘too cynical’ or not. It’s one of believing promises stated, and when that can’t be delivered, that the author of those promises has the honour and dignity to admit they’d promised too much, and with the imposed changes, that they will do their level best to ensure that every effort will be made to deliver as much of the promises as possible.

    That’s not what’s happening. Steve is a more diplomatic man than I. We’ve been outright lied to, and then the denials, *even when the promises are quoted are tossed aside without consequence. This has happened time and again with Metrolinx.

    Now here’s where Munro is more than just ‘one of a number of experts’ who can be quoted stating different things to muddy the cause of clarity, especially when it comes to his specialty, the TTC:

    It’s not just that Munro delves into exquisite analysis with full reference and accounting. It’s so thorough much of the time that it’s overwhelming. But that’s exactly the point, even if there’s a hint of suspicion that Steve doesn’t ‘have it quite right’. That doubt is rendered completely moot since *no-one else* comes anywhere close to matching Steve’s obsessive detail.

    The TTC themselves admit to having to use Steve’s charts for reference…*based on their own data*! They don’t or are incapable of analyzing it themselves!

    Metrolinx probably too, but their storage track is routed so far up their own dump alley spur that they can’t lower themselves to admit that.

    And that is where Munro not only excels in this endeavour, he actually shines new pathways to ‘see what’s actually going on’. We can read his conclusions, and know he arrived at them by superior logic and reference.

    Could he be wrong on some aspects? He probably is, but where is anyone else’s analysis to buttress any dissent with his conclusions?

    That must really burn in corporate offices!

    I’m a little organizationally challenged at this point in time, and please pardon any awkwardness in lexicon. That must be forgivable, but if my logic is faulty in whole or part, please challenge me, and I’ll attempt to reference and link answers.

    What I do distinctly remember is Verster’s dismissal of Munro at a Town Hall meeting (Durham?) some months back that tipped any sympathy I had for Verster being ‘held against his will’ by the regime change. He was snide, dismissive and demeaning to Munro. Not the ‘fresh change’ we’d been led to expect on Verster’s arrival on the scene.

    It’s not just Verster the man. It’s the organization and regime that he represents.

    Steve: The session was at the Metrolinx Boardroom at Union Station.

    As for my obsession with detail: I have found that if one makes an argument based on generalities, it is dismissed on the grounds of being too vague. Hitting organizations over the head with detail, especially their own, serves the dual purpose of making my case and establishing that I have invested more than a passing moment in trying to understand and explain an issue.

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  10. Congratulations Steve. Your skills, both in fact-finding and in reasoning, are always superior.

    Steve: Many thanks!

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  11. Steve Munro for transit czar.

    Unfortunately, we’ll probably end up with “Robert Moses”, if the small “c” conservatives do the selection.

    Steve: No you will end up with someone called Ford, not Moses.

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  12. Steve writes: Steve: The session was at the Metrolinx Boardroom at Union Station.

    Thank you! I feel a bit crippled at the moment without my full faculties. ‘Gist’ is a very poor substitute for actual facts, as you fully know.

    I’ll look that up to relive every cringe-worthy moment. Verster may be in an awkward position with the change of regime, but he has no excuse to demean someone equipped with not just the facts, but the minutiae to arrive at them as you do. He should in fact *invite* (as he so haughtily claims) objective queries.

    But that might, of course, prove fatally embarrassing for him.

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  13. I would like to see you advocate more transit for Brampton and Mississauga. Wake up, Toronto is no longer the centre of the universe.

    Steve: I comment on Toronto because that’s the geographical and political background I have a long history with. Others comment on areas outside of the city.

    That said, I have repeatedly called for much better subsidies and service for transit systems outside of Toronto because the whole network is little competition for private cars and does not support many trip patterns in the GTHA.

    Of course, if you were actually paying attention, you would know this already.

    If you want to insult me with that “wake up” comment, go right ahead, but don’t expect me to publish your comments in the future.

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  14. Steve says: “No you will end up with someone called Ford, not Moses.”

    The problem is that, while the latter* was a prophet and bidden by the Lord to act as the Messenger of God to the Israelites during the exodus, the former seems to believe he IS God and that all should do his bidding or face his wrath….

    (*the Biblical Moses, of course, not the New York City (Robert) Moses, who also, funnily enough, considered himself a god when it came to running the show in NYC behind the scenes and jousting with Jane Jacobs)….

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  15. Congratulations, Steve, on 14 years of unparalleled public service in the realms of public transit – and also film reviews!

    Your dedicated research, your extensive knowledge base and your calling-a-spade-a-spade attitude towards your readers, politicians of all stripes and at all levels, and the powers-that-be at the TTC have done so much to further the discussion of transit issues in this city and beyond its borders. And that discussion has resulted in changes and action too.

    You have had the temerity to bring to light the shortcomings that plague the various transit systems across the GTA and call out the public office holders who have done more to slow down and even stop ongoing positive, public-centred progress on the transit front because of “politics.”

    Keep up the good fight! And keep keeping everyone honest (even us, your readers)!

    To 14 more years – at least! And to Swan Boats on the Don!

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