Eleven

On January 31, 2017, this blog celebrates its eleventh birthday. Collectively, we are up to 1,965 posts and 47,462 comments. Two big landmarks are coming up!

This is a very difficult time politically on many fronts for transit and for informed political dialogue in general with two critical problems running through all debates:

  • Nobody wants to pay for anything, even if it might benefit them, but instead there is an endless search for “efficiency” that will deliver more for less.
  • “Facts” are whatever someone claims they are, and those who dispute an opinion are at best simple-minded fools, and at worst enemies of the public good.

Regular readers have probably noticed that some of my writing, both here and on social media, has become less tolerant, less willing to accept the premise that the politicians who serve us are simply misguided and open to reasonable argument. That’s total bullshit, and the pols are as self-serving as ever, facts be damned. “Playing nice” only invites the assumption that one can be ignored.

The most recent news, that Premier Wynne has decided that investing in transit should not cost people anything, is only the most ridiculous in a long line of crazy plans for municipal transportation and financing. As reported in The Star:

“I know that people are having a hard time keeping up with the rising cost of living. I hear it from people everywhere I go,” Wynne told reporters Friday at a Richmond Hill bus yard.

“We need to make sure that investing in transit isn’t costing you more money,” the premier said, noting gas taxes will not rise as a result of the change.

Provincial transportation policy for the last decade has focused on voters in the 905, some of whom might actually use transit. Long ago, when “The Big Move” master plan was still a new idea, it was clear, and acknowledged by Metrolinx, that this plan would at best keep congestion from getting any worse than today by diverting most growth onto new transit lines. The Big Problem, however, was the plan’s concentration of capacity on trips bound for Toronto’s core while largely ignoring trips between the outer 416 and within the 905 region and beyond.

Local transit was somebody else’s problem, and only recently has Metrolinx acknowledged that their fully built-out network cannot work without a robust set of local services to ferry people to and from the GO stations. And if you don’t live on a rail corridor? So sad. We might run a bus now and then.

Metrolinx itself is a huge problem. It is a secretive organization meeting only occasionally in public, and then with carefully choreographed sessions in which there is far too little critical discussion of policy options. The organization, especially under the current Minister, seems to exist primarily as a provider of photo ops. The operational side, GO Transit, muddles along providing service within a constained budget, while follies such as the Union Pearson Express and Presto burn through millions with little accountability.

A few years ago, Torontonians might have thought “thank goodness, we survived Rob Ford”, but his political strategies and mindset live on. Promise everything, but expect someone else to pay. Concentrate on keeping property taxes low. Set the suburbs against the old city, the rich against the poor. Play on the politics of “we deserve”.

But John Tory came into office and things did not change much beyond leaving the Press Gallery without their favourite source of civic scandal. Tory governs with Ford’s ghost lurking just over his shoulder, and leaves the civic bureaucracy to find creative ways to stretch artificially constrained revenues.

Tory’s big election promise was “SmartTrack”, an ill-considered scheme to replace every transit improvement in the known universe with one line that would, somehow, solve every transit problem. That’s how it was pitched, along with a transparently unworkable financing scheme that would give con artists a bad name. Bit by bit, SmartTrack dwindled to a set of six new GO stations to be funded by Toronto, and there is no guarantee that these will actually be built.

After he took office, Tory discovered that Ford had cut transit service, and set about repairing the damage. However, the funding to sustain this did not all materialize, and at the current rate of budgetary constraint, the TTC will be back to pre-Tory days in short order.

At the TTC, circumstances have improved somewhat under Andy Byford, but there is still a penchant for only telling “good news” stories, a holdover from the Ford-Stintz era. Despite the cleanup of major projects like the Spadina subway extension and the Yonge-University-Spadina resignalling, major issues remain in the customer service area notably the adequacy and reliability of service, the raison d’être of any transit system. Byford wants to run the “best system in North America” by the end of 2017, but how is that even defined, let alone measured? Will he simply declare victory with riders still waiting in the cold for their buses to arrive?

The TTC, unwilling to rock the boat with calls for added funding, finds ways to trim its budget and give the impression that there is always more to save. They are comparatively silent on how the system might be improved. By implication, what we have is good enough, and any strategy to encourage riders is neither affordable nor even required. Recent political focus is on riders who might not be paying enough, not on services that could benefit everyone.

What is needed?

Above all, Toronto has to separate fact from fiction in its plans for transit and other services. What can the city do, what can it not do, and what choices does it simply avoid? Can we even have a debate about priorities when the cupboard is bare, and too many expensive promises have been made? This will require the “Civic Action” version of John Tory (presuming that was ever anything beyond a convenient shell) – the ability to speak honestly, to avoid the us-against-them rhetoric and to put hard choices about the city’s future before the public.

In the short term, the best we can hope for at Queen’s Park is that there will be no further retrenchment in transit commitments. How this will fare, especially if the Liberals are defeated in 2018, is difficult to say. The Tory caucus is not exactly an urban one dedicated to support of municipal services. The NDP talks a good line, but is often captive to its own fascination with “the middle class” and tax relief. Their platform’s importance lies more in what they might demand or support in a minority government, not as policy for a government-in-waiting.

Does Toronto really want a good transit system? Do we even know what a “good system” would look like? With so many other issues swirling around us, including basic questions of democracy and the future of society, transit advocacy can easily be drowned out among many voices.

From time to time, I am asked “why do you do this”, and my response, especially lately, is prefaced with a sigh and much rolling of the eyes. But a good city is worth fighting for, worth calling for better services from which all citizens will benefit, and worth calling out the charlatans who thwart that goal for their own political benefit. The debates, both here and in other venues, can be bracing, but the result is that everyone gets to hear a variety of opinions even if we don’t all agree.

Thank you all for reading and writing, even those of you who lurk out of sight, and may 2017 see more progress than posturing.

Ten

Dear Readers:

It’s been a long time you and I have been chatting with each other, ten years today, January 31. This blog started out with an archive of Film Festival reviews and a certain now-legendary piece about Swan Boats.

As I write this, there are 1,812 live posts (this will make 1,813), and 43,881 comments some of which are substantial epistles in their own right. Many ideas, many vibrant discussions even if we don’t always agree.

Ten years is a lot of transit and personal history.

Back in 2006, David Miller was Mayor of Toronto, and Transit City was just beginning to creep from the back of napkins to a real plan, although it wouldn’t surface until March 2007. There was a brief chance that we might have seen suburban expansion in more than one corridor at a time, but that met its fate with the financial crash of 2008, cold feet at Queen’s Park and the dark years of Rob Ford, about whom the less said the better. John Tory appeared as the Ford-slayer, but with his own transit plan warped by consultants who were keen to promote a scheme without understanding exactly how it would work. Getting Tory elected was the important part, and only now, over a year later is there some hope of sanity returning to transit planning in Toronto’s mayoral offices.

Toronto has seen many false starts on transit projects. There was always an economic crisis, or a change in government, or a simple lack of will to sabotage just about any transit plan that came along. The city planned only one line (at best) at a time because councillors must first settle on which of their wards is most deserving of political “relief”, and funding can turn into an exercise of begging for pennies on Queen Street. Metrolinx has a “Big Move”, but actual progress depends on political fortunes day-to-day, election-to-election. Transit is very expensive, and the political will is usually to lowball costs in the early years with the inevitable effect that costs “run over” and the planning map becomes more and more tattered.

Even worse, from the 1990s onward, in part thanks to the combined effect of that decade’s recession and the Harris Tories at Queen’s Park, a new motto seeped into politics at all levels in Canada: “no new taxes”. When times were good, we would hear bold announcements of new “investments”, but somehow the money to pay for them would fall short. Operate better service on what we already had? What kind of flaming radical are you? Don’t you know that turning the screws, weeding out inefficiency, counting the paperclips, that is the way forward, and we will cut the service anyhow.

Writing about transit can be frustrating especially over the long haul, but it is also rewarding to hear more and more people talk about transit from an informed point of view (whether it’s my point of view doesn’t matter, although I won’t object). Transit is coming back into vogue as a city building tool, as an environmental benefit, and as a vital way to allow people to travel around town for work, school, shopping, entertainment – many, many reasons beyond the basic 9-to-5 commute to work. Whether we actual build such a network, let alone pay to operate it, remains to be seen, and an upheaval could still push transit improvements back years if not decades. A more optimistic view would see substantial advances to the point that real improvement has momentum and is the last, not the first, item on any chopping block. A truly core service in Toronto, not something we can afford to short-change.

The writing is fun (well, maybe not always when vetting some of the comments) because there is a community of people interested in transit “out there”. You are not just on my site, but many others covering a wide variety of urban issues, not to mention the big social media sites. Following City Hall would be almost impossible without Twitter, and I remember the little cheer that went up when @SwanBoatSteve made his first appearance.

“Chatting” might not be the right word for some of the more vociferous would-be contributors to the comment threads, but the worst of them are banished to the outer darkness of the blog-o-sphere with the delicious thrill of the “Trash” button, or even better, “Spam”. There should really be sound effects and fireworks.

One part of the blogging evolution has been particularly gratifying – the emergence of a respected group of writers who are outside of the traditional press corps, but who have become part of the City Hall family. Some of us have moved up (or maybe “over”) to mainstream media, and that says something about our Internet world as a breeding ground for a new generation of writers and editors.

I may have the luxury of writing long, detailed articles about whatever attracts me, but I tip my hat to the working press. They don’t have the option of just rolling over in bed and writing some other day and then only on their favourite topic. There is a lot of work behind the articles that show up in print and online, and traditional media are under threat with the changing landscape of how people get “news”. Fewer voices, less time for research, more concern for advertising lineage (itself an anachronistic term in the age of clicks and pop-ups) than solid journalism. Not a happy situation, and the blogs cannot possibly make up the slack.

My life isn’t only about this blog, although some may think I have a limited life outside of writing about transit. They would be wrong. Many know me not as a transit geek, but as an avid audience member and supporter of the performing arts. It is amusing when someone who sees me only in one context “discovers” another side they didn’t know about for years (although these days, my transit persona is rather better known than a decade ago, and it’s harder to hide). Music, theatre, dance, design, urban planning, architecture, cities – this is a continuum, not two separate worlds.

In my professional life, I worked first as a software programmer back in the days of punched cards and “mainframes” of 32k. That evolved over time, and I retired as an IT Ops Manager seven years ago. Never looked back. Transit and politics are more fun, and I would rather write than code (or even worse, manage) although I have “kept my hand in” with those detailed analyses of TTC operations.

When this blog started, WordPress was only a few years old, and had just reached version 2.0. Even then, it attracted me as a platform because, for the most part, I didn’t have to wrangle code, but could concentrate on writing. Now this site sits on wordpress.com which hosts an impressive number of blogs, not to mention major commercial sites.

Toronto has a long way to go, a lot of catching up to do in transit and other files if it hopes to regain that mythic “world class” status we once so easily bragged about. This will happen because many people care about the city and collectively hope to see a better Toronto. Some will be bloggers and media, some will be behind the scenes advisors, some will be professionals in many fields, some may even be politicians.

But it is the readers who are most important. Only if the message about how our city can grow, what it can be, finds an audience and through them sustained political support, will all of the advocacy in so many fields bear fruit.

To my fellow writers and advocates: write more.

To my comment contributors: thanks for adding to the discussions. It makes me (and my colleagues elsewhere) think about what we claim as “the best way” ahead.

To my readers: a big thank you even if you only lurk in the Internet’s shadows. You give your time and attention, and that’s the best gift a writer can ask for.

Recent Updates Sidebar

As topics evolve, articles on this site are updated from time to time. Notice of these updates will appear in the sidebar with hotlinks to the articles so that regular readers do not have to go hunting for the changes.

Articles will retain their original URL after the updates so that existing links to them will not break.

40,000 Comments

The approved comment odometer rolled over to 40,000 today with an observation from Robert Wightman.

40000

A big “thank you” to everyone who has been contributing their thoughts to this site over the years. Some of you are more prolific than others, some of you just lurk in the shadows, some I meet when they say hello on the subway, some are mysteriously “out there” in the ether.

A dinner party that never seems to end — even if some guests don’t know when it’s time to leave!

All the best to my readers!

Nine

Nine years ago, on January 31, 2006, “Steve Munro’s Web Site” appeared. It started small, but has grown to hold over 1,600 articles and 37,000 comments. Some of them have nothing to do with subways or LRT in Scarborough!

First off, huge thanks to my readers who have engaged, sometimes with great vigour, in debates on this site. Some of you are more prolific than others, some make occasional appearances, and some just lurk in the background. The comment threads are what make this more than me talking in a vacuum, and give the articles a life they would not have otherwise. They also have the benefit of honing my arguments and occasionally [gasp!] changing my mind.

Second, thanks to my long time, but about to be ex-host for stevemunro.ca, Trevor Jacques. The site has lived on a few machines in a closet for years, but the traffic outstripped its capacity some time ago. Last year, I decided to move the whole thing over to wordpress.com, and that migration is now substantially complete. The last of the content will come over in mid-February, and I will point my domain name at the WordPress hosted site at the beginning of March. Trevor will get far fewer phone calls from me saying “er, you’re down again” for which I’m sure he will be grateful.

For recent arrivals to this site, you may wonder what Swan Boats have to do with public transit. In a flight of fancy, back in April 2005, my dear friend Sarah Hinchcliffe and I came up with Swans On The Don published as one of the first articles on this site in 2006. Few people acknowledge or understand the vital role that Swan Boats could play, but that is only one of the many setbacks Toronto has seen over the years. This is lonely calling.

When I finally set up a Twitter account, @swanboatsteve was my handle, and that’s the name the WordPress version of this site uses. (After the migration is completed, the old and new site names will be interchangeable.)

Thanks for reading!

Welcome to My New Site for 2015

Updated February 28, 2015: The domain stevemunro.ca now points to the site hosted at WordPress and is synonymous with swanboatsteve.wordpress.com.

Updated February 17, 2015: All articles and attachments from the old site have now been migrated here.

Starting on January 1, 2015, all of my new content will appear here.

For a period of time (likely until March 2015) “stevemunro.ca” will take you to my original site where articles are still active with comments. Given the number of hotlinks to recent activity, I am leaving those articles in their original locations.

Access to the new site will use the URL swanboatsteve.wordpress.com until February 28, 2015.

When the migration is completed and activity on the old site dies off, I will switch my domain to point to the new site and it will be accessible either via the WordPress domain name or using stevemunro.ca.

Continue reading

Full Disclosure & An Open Door

For the benefit of readers and those working on various election campaigns:

Since the municipal campaign began earlier this year, I have been approached by a few candidates and/or by their organizations for my thoughts on transit issues.  All of this has been on a pro bono basis.  I am not working for any of the campaigns, nor do I intend to take up that role.  My aim is to improve the quality and “literacy” of discussions about transit issues.  Whether the candidates or their teams agree or incorporate my thoughts is their own matter.

It is far to early in the campaign to even think about endorsements, and if I make any, this will be much closer to voting day when the candidates and their platforms have been tested by several months of campaigns and scrutiny.  The readership here is not huge, and the idea that I could sway a significant voting block is laughable.  My personal voting preferences will be based on more than just the transit file, but this site is not a place for discussion of issues from municipal portfolios beyond transportation.

As transit issues develop in the campaign, I will write about them here, although I do not intend to rehash the entire Scarborough subway/LRT debate beyond clarifications or challenges to misleading information.  Frankly there are more important matters to talk about, and a pro-transit candidate should not make this the sole plank of their platform however they stand on the question.

My door, so to speak, is open to those who want to talk about transit, although I suspect certain candidates won’t be calling.

30,000 Comments

In the midst of a major transit controversy, it is appropriate that this site has reached a new plateau of 30,000 published comments.  That’s thanks to all of you who leave thoughts on a variety of topics (even the many schemes for routing future subway lines).

The ratio of comments to articles is about 20:1, although some threads generate much more activity than others.  As with transit vehicles, articles don’t arrive evenly spaced, and certain topics invite more crowding than others.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing so much.  The discussions are what makes this site work.  Although my voice may be among the loudest (it is my site after all), it is not the only one heard, and the debate hones the issues for all of us.

Seven

Today, January 30, 2013, is the seventh birthday of this site.  As I write this, we are in striking distance of 1,400 published articles and 28,000 comments.  You readers are a prolific lot, and I thank you for helping to keep the many discussions here alive and interesting.

We have been through The Big Move, my own “Grand Plan” (not to mention Swan Boats), Transit City, MoveOntario, and enough announcements and deferrals to eat through a forest of trees just for the press releases.  We have seen Mayors Miller and Ford, the latter still very much on the scene even though his influence may be on the wane.

Thanks to everyone for their kind words over the years.  There are transit fans (and I am proudly one), urban aficionados, politicians, transit professionals and the working press who read and enjoy this site (many as lurkers).  That diversity of audience is quite gratifying.

When I started the blog in 2006, I was still working as a Data Centre Manager and thought of myself as an “IT guy” who did transit on the side.  Now, if someone asks, I’m a transit advocate and a writer, retired from IT and a lot happier.

There is much more in transit’s future which, after many false starts, may finally get underway with proper funding.  We will have a Premier who actually knows the transportation portfolio.  Within a few years we should have a Mayor who can think about policy in more than three repeated words.  I will turn to the issues facing the new government in my next article.

The intricacies of TTC budgeting and operations will continue to be major topics here for the simple reason that Toronto’s is by far the largest transit network in the region, and its funding is so heavily supported by Toronto taxpayers and transit riders.  Toronto deserves better, to paraphrase TTC CEO Andy Byford, to be a city we can be proud of.  We must aim for what we can do with our transit system, what will make it a real gem, even if affording our aims might be difficult.  Great systems, great cities are not built with excuses.

I hope these articles and all of your comments will help make Toronto and its transit network shine!