Here we are on January 30, 2022, the sixteenth birthday of this blog. We’re getting all grown up and respectable these days, at least in some quarters. I was recently referred to as “an elder” in the best sense of someone whose age and knowledge inform those who come after. This is, I think, a promotion from “guru”, or even worse, an “expert”, a common description/epithet that comes my way.
This site is not just me and my opinions, but the contributions of many to the discussions over the years. As I write this, there are over 2,500 articles and almost 56,000 comments. You have all been busy!
Back in 2005, I received the Jane Jacobs Prize as an “unsung hero” of transit advocacy, and not long afterward this blog, swans and all, was born. Many of you have been with me on that journey, and I have no plans to put down my quill.
These are not easy times. Looking back on last year’s article, I cannot help quoting its optimistic conclusion:
With luck, we will all be back here a year from now still recovering from a wild New Year’s Bacchanal. There will be real optimism, the sense of a better future after a dark past.
Things didn’t quite work out that way, although there is hope that the imminent re-opening in Ontario will not drive us back into another dark age huddled around our electronic hearths.
I must continue that closing message from last year, one that still applies ever so strongly in an age of political opportunists for whom a world-wide disaster is nothing more than a chance to score cheap political points at the cost of thousands of lives.
We will get there through the efforts of many people in the front lines who keep the wheels turning in so many aspects of our city, people we often take for granted. We will get there thanks to a combination of technological near-miracles, belief in facts and science, and the dedication of thousands whose lives we depend on.
I remember when modern genetics began with the discovery of DNA, and later RNA, as well as more recent advances in understanding of the immune system. The thought that many of us remain in good health thanks to technology based on that knowledge is breathtaking. Anyone who downplays or naysays the accomplishment is at best a fool, at worst a menace.
In the political arena, I will be quite blunt. I have reached the point where the so-called conservatives, the neo-Trumpists, the anti-vaxxers are collectively a group for whom I have utter contempt. No quarter should be given, none, to those who in the name of “personal liberty” would imperil their neighbours. Those who yearn for political power by exploiting their support have never represented a majority in Canada and gain office only thanks to a divided opposition.
In Ontario, there is hope that opposition will coalesce to drive the Premier and his band of incompetent fools from office. Whether we will get a new band of fools remains to be seen, but a Toronto, an Ontario in which nobody named “Ford” has any power is long overdue. Simplistic, populist slogans and dogma are no replacement for competent, dare I say, inspiring government.
This year I really do want to look forward, even with some misgivings on the social and political landscape.
At a most basic level of creature comforts, it will be good to return to eating food someone else cooks in restaurants filled with equally happy visitors. Sitting in a theatre with real musicians and actors is a treat we have lost, with only a too brief respite. I long to be part of a live audience laughing, crying, applauding, even cheering (through a mask) for people I have seen only online for far too long.
Delectable though an online recipe might be, you cannot eat a picture of brunch. Like the theatre, take out is not the same, and the experience is shared only briefly with staff, not with fellow diners.
Online performances have been a blessing through these two years. They have been a way to support some of my favourite artists, but there is a siren song calling, a voice from darkened theatres where only the ghost light shines.
Everyone will have their own yearned-for experience, and I wish you all joy in getting back to favoured haunts.
The transit portfolio is only one of many that face a long, hard climb out of the economic and social chasm the pandemic created. To many it is not even a top tier issue because transit is something other people use, that only “city” or “downtown” folk care about. Even without that cultural problem, there are desperate issues in Health and Long Term Care, not to mention Education, that have a society-wide call on resources.
Within the transit realm, there is the short term problem of paying to keep service attractive while ridership recovers. The longer term challenge is to both rebuild that ridership and grow well beyond pre-pandemic demand levels. The typical “solution” involves spending lots of capital on new facilities and vehicles while ignoring the need to actually operate them to provide service.
What happens if the flow of capital dollars is reduced or redirected to other areas? Are we politically capable of talking about transit in terms that do not involve billions in new builds? Will we ever try to make what we have today work better on a large scale, not just a priority signal here and a red lane there?
What is the TTC’s plan for growth? Modest. Small scale. No plan for substantial service improvements beyond just getting back to pre-pandemic levels. This is echoed in the City’s transit budget where the goal of more service in the environmental plan is not reflected in provisions to fund the changes.
I cannot avoid talking about a key part of TTC operations: the quality of service. There have always been excuses for ragged service, and the pandemic has brought its own additions to the TTC’s repertoire including buses that nobody can see or track, and claims of reliability that are completely at odds with actual data.
Of course there are interruptions from traffic accidents, sick passengers and breakdowns, but these do not explain nor excuse rampant problems with uneven service. The TTC has standards that are not achieved, or which give an overly rosy picture at odds with daily rider experiences. Metrics descend from a scheme that basically entrenched “how we’ve always done things”, and even then the TTC does not routinely hit the mark.
We have a transit board that is loathe to meddle in operational matters, and does little to ensure that management is making the best use of system resources to provide reliable service. For that most basic function of a board, budget review and planning, there is no budget committee. The board seems happy to have new budgets drop out of the air with no policy input until the last minute when nothing can be changed until, maybe, “next year”.
This is an abdication of responsibility. If we are to take “ridership recovery” seriously, it will have to start with some real goals, clear policies about budget direction and hands-on measurements that the governance level of the TTC can trust and enforce.
Meanwhile, on the provincial level, we have Metrolinx, an agency whose arrogance has only grown under a government that wants results, now, and without debate. We are building major projects of dubious worth that will pre-empt work and funding on many other deserving undertakings for years to come. The Metrolinx board meets rarely in public, and when it does, the sessions do little more than cheer on the great works of management. Any substantive debate occurs in private.
All of our transit planning will be coloured by the work-from-home shift and the degree to which transit travel changes permanently both in place and in time. I do not subscribe to the idea that “downtown is dead”, and we really have not yet had a chance to see what its work-day population will be once people are no longer afraid to travel and to work together.
There may be a less floor space per worker with a move to hotelling, but if anything that is more of a threat to the demand for net new office space as vacancies beget move-ins. The effect will vary from place to place, but whatever the result, there will still be a demand for transit to get workers to and from jobs.
Less than half of TTC’s pre-pandemic ridership came from work trips with the rest split broadly between education, shopping, entertainment and other personal travel. As each aspect of our community reopens, those trips will re-appear even if the conventional home to King-and-Bay office trips take longer to return. Anyone who rides the TTC today can see the effect of school re-openings. Locations with concentrations of jobs that cannot be worked from home already produce regular reports of overcrowded buses.
The problem is that too much of that travel is not concentrated on a few subway lines, but is hidden away on routes where riders have little choice but to await the next convoy of buses. Politicians and especially management who downplay this problem do not deserve to be in charge of a transit system.
Many people and communities have worked as advocates for better transit among a wide variety of portfolios where the long, hard slog becomes tiring. There are little victories separated by periods of despair that real change will come.
Something critical to citizen participation has been lost over the two pandemic years: in person contact between communities and those who govern them. Tightly managed Zoom calls with pre-scripted presentations and filtered questions are no replacement for in person meetings where there is a communal sense and strength in numbers. It is easy to dismiss critics one at a time, not so easy when they come by the room full.
I end this year’s greetings in a feisty mood. Yes, we should celebrate the return of some vaguely “normal” day-to-day life to the extent it is possible, but the time for muddling through, for making do with half measures is over.
Without advocacy, nothing happens, and the fight must go on.
A happy 2022 to all my readers whether you comment profusely (sometimes at greater length than I will publish) or just lurk in the shadows watching the debate.