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.

Keeping My Hand Out Of The Cookie Jar

After my appearance on Metro Morning today, an interesting question came up from a caller — am I paid for the work I do by the TTC?

The answer, quite emphatically, is no.  The last time the TTC paid me for anything was in 1969 when I left a clerical position there to return to school.

My professional life throughout the entire period of my transit activism has been in the Information Technology sector, most recently as Operations Manager for the Toronto District School Board’s IT department.  I have my opinions about how TDSB was managed, but I keep them to myself as befits the role of an employee, and my advocacy has been in other sectors, mainly transit.  I retired at the end of March.  And, yes, as a manager I appeared on the “sunshine list” for 2008.

Over the decades, I have co-authored a few small reports for non-TTC agencies and have received small honoraria for appearing at community events.  A $50 Chapter’s gift card is not going to change my lifestyle or buy my opinion.

I’ve been to countless meetings where the refreshments ranged from pizza and sandwiches, cookies, coffee, cold drinks (if you get there early), water or nothing at all.  People buy me a beer now and then.  Oh yes, Bombardier bought me breakfast once.  I think it cost them about $15.  Dinners at the Ritz are not my lot.

I am actually paid, but not much, for the articles I write in spacing magazine.  The hard copy version, not the blog.

Part of being a “transit advocate” is to talk to people, to advise them on the details of my thoughts on issues.  These have ranged over the years through the media, many parts of City Hall and Queen’s Park, community groups, even people within the TTC.  Some listen more than others, but an advocate can’t expect to hit 100%.  It’s the consistency and credibility of the message that matters.

I must say that the current environment both at the TTC and City Hall are a vast improvement over the days when talking to me was a firing offence at the TTC.  That was a few Chief General Managers ago, and it’s not hard to figure out which CGM might have been so insecure as to have such an attitude.  David Gunn was a huge breath of fresh air by contrast.

There are times that what I say supports TTC policies, and more times when I am highly critical.  Indeed, there have been occasions when I do a better job of explaining what the TTC is up to than their own staff do (or can, given constraints on what employees can say).

Would I like to be paid for all of this?  Well, at times I wonder why I do it, particularly all the work of maintaining this site, but it’s for a good cause.  My cause may not align with the views others have of Toronto’s planning and transit.  They are free to advocate on their own, although I have a few years’ head start.

The moment I get paid, my role would be suspect, and after a long period as a pro bono advocate, showing up as a paid spokesman might confer a credibility undeserved by the client.  I’m not selling my reputation.

The 2005 Jane Jacobs Prize was a special honour in recognition of years of work.  When I did a quick calculation, the $15k award came out to well under $1 an hour, although it was tax free.  The honour was to receive this from Jane while she was still alive, and that I share it with so many others of distinction in our city.  There is no formal requirement of the prize, although continuing my effort is likely assumed.  It’s hard to imagine anyone on that award list treating it as a chance to retire from public life.

If I ever take on paid work, I will be the first to declare it here so that any possible conflict of interest is visible to all.

Santa Rides the 502

Today’s Star contains an article about yours truly.  While I’m really not one to bang my big bass drum (I will leave that to the politicians), I felt that some of you who either don’t read the Star or are further flung than its circulation territory might like to know about it.

Many thanks to Tess Kalinowski for such a flattering piece and to others for their kind, if occasionally frustrated, words.

Sixty

On Sunday, I celebrated my sixtieth birthday by spending a great deal of time at the Film Festival.  You will all have to put up with a series of reviews later in September as is my wont at this time of year.  Yes, there was a party, but on Saturday and the hard core who stayed up late enough got to hear the City Hall clock chime in the day itself.

To my many friends and allies in the transit wars, thanks for helping to make this site a vital part of Toronto’s transit discussions.  It’s not just my opinions that make the site work, but the interplay among the comments left by many readers.

To those who regard my views as hopelessly misguided, you’re welcome to your opinion, but I don’t have to publish it.  Certain newspapers in this town don’t exectly line up with my political views.  I may read them now and then, but I don’t waste my time on letters to the editor, and if I did, they certainly wouldn’t get printed.

Yes, I can be feisty at times and give ground rarely in debate.  Over the decades, I have learned that feisty works with consistent, well thought-out positions.  Being ever so concilliatory in the “please, Sir, will you read my humble submission” manner is a fast way to be ignored.

Underlying all of my activism on transit and other fronts is a strong desire to see a better Toronto.  We have been waiting far too long for far too much.  Toronto basks in a reputation earned when I was young, and we are still nowhere near building a 21st-century Toronto that comes up to the city’s mythology.

Retirement from my “real” job will come next April, but there’s much to do on the transit scene and retirement there is a long way off.

About me

Who is Steve Munro and why should you read my stuff?

Well, let’s take the second question first.  I hope that you’re reading this site because you are interested in transit (or any other topic I happen to take on) and its role in making Toronto a great city.  You may not agree with everything I say, and I’m more than happy to listen to alternate opinions.  In fact, there are some issues where I really can’t take a hardline position on one side or another.  That’s one of the things that make a city work:  that people care enough about it to discuss what we do well now, what we screwed up in the past, and where we should go in the future.  That discussion, the exchange of ideas is what’s important so that we can build a better city.

Now if we happen to do so with more of my ideas than the contrary ones, I will grin and be happy. Continue reading