Can Toronto Still Be A Transit City?

As someone whose blog on transit affairs approaches its fifteenth birthday, I am often asked “so what would you do”. Usually the context is limited – how to improve bus service, which technology should be used for what line, and of course the perennial request to “draw a map”.

All of these are valid up to a point, but a common problem I and anyone else attempting to plan for the GTHA run into headlong is the accumulation of fixed plans that cannot be changed. They are like boulders on the landscape left by retreating glaciers, and they are almost immovable. It does not matter that many of them are invisible — they exist only as promises and dreams, not as actual built and operating systems.

With something tangible, we can at least debate how things might be improved, how they might be better used as part of a regional network. With dreams, we are dealing with egos, often large political ones held tightly, like security blankets, to the chests of politicians who would otherwise be intellectually naked.

A recent article by the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro traces the history of the Scarborough LRT and subway projects through many political twists and turns. This is required reading both as a refresher for long-time followers of the debate and as an essential primer for newcomers on how we got to this sorry point. A summary of the article also appears as a Twitter thread with branches off to other work, notably John Lorinc’ series for Spacing Magazine.

In 2006, I wrote about A Grand Plan, my then-answer to what our network should look like, and I revisited that in various articles over the years. Metrolinx did not yet exist, and the context was the pending creation a regional transit plan that would set the stage for transit expansion in coming decades. We are now in the last days of 2020. The co-ordinated, prioritized, considered plans of Metrolinx’ early days have been replaced by the interventions for political, not planning, reasons. The only questions that matter now are “where are the votes” closely, but more surreptitiously by “where do my friends own property”.

A selection of comments from these articles appears at the end of this post. It is disheartening to think how long we have all been debating these issues and how little has been achieved.

Late in 2004, TTC staff prepared a plan to argue what could be done to improve Toronto’s transit. The then head of planning, Mitch Stambler, bounced ideas off me asking what they might call this plan. I wrote:

“Better Late Than Never” would be a good description for some TTC services, not to mention for a plan that we could actually achieve rather than endlessly debating.

As I said when we chatted last week, it is important that we somehow emphasize that this is something we really can do, and can do in a reasonable timeframe at a cost we might be able to afford. Also, we have to tie this in with the idea that Toronto is growing through transit to support the OP [Official Plan].

As a sidebar, somewhere the plan has to acknowledge that the TTC is NOT the only game in town, and that some of the growth will be handled by other systems, notably GO Transit. What is vital is that we do not repeat the errors of “Network 2001” which planned for lots of growth but ignored the potential contribution of commuter rail. That’s where the so-called justifications came from for the Sheppard Subway and for the scheme to massively expand Bloor-Yonge station.

Somewhere, we have to say that we should not try to handle all of the regional demand on the subway, and that this approach will leave resources (and subway capacity) free to handle comparatively-speaking local demand.

The LRT (or whatever) study needs to acknowledge this context — that it is NOT trying to be a mega solution to all transportation problems of the 416 and 905, but that it is trying to address the growth of population on The Avenues, and more generally in a built form that is not suitable for a network of subway lines.

“Toronto, A Transit City” is generic and it shows the focus we want for overall growth using transit (be it on the Avenues or elsewhere). It’s also broad enough to embrace a larger scheme of studies … “Toronto: Building a Transit City” … which would probably come to be shortened in general parlance as the “Transit City” plan or something like that.

Email to Mitch Stambler, December 29, 2004. Note that the Bloor-Yonge scheme mentioned here was much more heroic, complex and probably impossible to build than the recently-approved version that will add a new eastbound platform to Yonge Station.

That was 16 years ago.

The Short Version

I know perfectly well that some readers want a quick hit, a cut to the chase, and their eyes glaze over when they see that a long epistle awaits. Here are the high points:

  • The Scarborough debate has been entirely about new capital projects and spending, but not about state of good repair and service quality which leads directly to operating subsidies. We need not just one pot of gold to address new builds, but two more to keep and improve the existing systems especially where transit is less competitive and many trips are poorly served.
  • We need to decide what we should achieve with transit. Is it a fundamental investment in mobility for everyone and in the region’s economy, or is it a service for “them”, the people who cannot drive?
  • Are transit promises just to buy votes, and are proposed new lines only to serve well-connected landowners, or is their intent to make lasting, valuable changes for the region?
  • How much are we prepared to spend on transit building, operations and maintenance, and how will this fit with competing demands from other sectors such as health care?
  • Transit should not exist as a mechanism to underwrite an industrial strategy or to develop new technologies, beneficial though they might become. Even “green” technology should not be viewed as inherently good without a commitment to carrying more people by transit and diverting trips from autos. We should not let spending on green transit detract from spending for more and better transit.
  • There is much unmet need for transit in the region, and this should not be held hostage to redevelopment schemes as a pre-requisite to improving the network. People need to travel between many locations, and they should not have to wait for every point in between to sprout towers around new transit stations.
  • Transit construction is often touted for job creation, but could all that work could be distributed among more, less expensive projects rather than one or two megaprojects? Just because we spend billions of dollars and create many short-term jobs in the process, we have not necessarily spent well.
  • The 905/416 border is cited as an obstacle to “regional integration” when the problems it brings are largely questions of revenue allocation and jurisdiction for carrying passengers. These are not difficult problems by contrast to the very different service level found on routes in the 416 versus the 905. Much better funding of transit at the local level is needed to overcome this, especially with buses as the likely way that travel between areas outside of Toronto’s core will be handled for the foreseeable future.
  • Getting around the region is an everywhere-to-everywhere problem, but much transit (even within Toronto itself) is focused on the core to the detriment of travel between outer parts of the city and region. If we are serious about transit as a regional entity, then the ability to travel across the region and between its many parts is as vital as expanding the existing core-oriented rapid transit network.
  • Road space is shared to varying degrees between different groups of users – motorists, transit, freight, pedestrians, cyclists. The most difficult areas to change this balance are typically the most congested because space is at a premium. Improved transit priority is not achieved just by drawing lines on a map, but by detailed review of how streets work and how their use can be rebalanced. Access to transit is as important as service – if riders cannot easily access service, transit cannot serve its purpose.
  • “Governance” is touted as a solution to problems, but it is really code for centralization of power and decision-making. The agency that might have at least provided central coordination, Metrolinx, is a direct tool of government policy with little accountability, cherry picking which services it delivers and leaving local transit systems to muddle through.
  • The question must be asked: has the region already passed beyond a point where transit can become the choice of travel for many, if not most, journeys? Have we delayed or compromised transit improvements for so long that transit can never catch up as a competitive service? Stripped of all political posturing, what is really possible in our transit future? Without honest and transparent planning, we cannot answer any of these questions.
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