Monday, 15 December 2014

Talking Transit in Toronto

When I was a small child growing up in the 1980s, I heard nothing but good things about Toronto's public transit system.  I can still remember enjoying myself riding on the TTC's buses, streetcars and subways.  My parents even used to say to me that we had one of the best public transportation systems in the world.  I'm not sure if that was true, but I do know that back in the 1980s, public transit in Toronto was pretty good.  But fast forward about three decades later, and I am hard-pressed to hear anyone say anything good about public transit in this city.  All I hear most of the time are people complaining about it.  How slow it is, how crowded it is, how antiquated it is, how rude the staff are, and how many times parts of it break down.  There are indeed a lot of problems with public transit in Toronto, but it basically all boils down to the fact that the system has not kept pace with the city's population.  In fact, the system that was in place in the 1980s is basically the same system that is in place now, and it is woefully inadequate in 2014 when Toronto has hundreds of thousands more people living in it.  So what's happened over the last 30 years?  Why has our public transit system not been adapted to fit the needs of today's Toronto?  The answer mostly lies with the folks who make the decisions regarding public transit: our noble politicians and bureaucrats.

Thirty Years of Endless Squabbling and Dithering:

Over the past three decades, plenty of politicians and bureaucrats have come up with plans to modernize public transit in Toronto.  It seems like not a year goes by without somebody at City Hall bringing out a map featuring new subway lines, GO train routes, or LRT projects.  There have been some great ideas, but most of them have not left the paper that they've been written on.  And in the few cases when the shovels have been dug into the ground, a change in leadership takes place at some level of government and the shovels come right back out.  To make a long story short, our illustrious bureaucrats and politicians haven't been able to make up their minds on very much or agree on very much in the past three decades, leading to a situation in which Toronto's public transit system has changed little since the 80s, but the city's population has grown by hundreds of thousands within the same time frame.  Now as we all should know, earlier this fall, we had a municipal election that put John Tory in the mayor's chair.  Tory, who I supported in one of my blogs during the campaign, Why I Will Support John Tory for Mayor of Toronto, has his own plan that he calls Smartrack.  It looks very promising, which is one of the reasons why I supported Mr. Tory for mayor.  I just hope it goes where many other transit plans haven't gone before: off the drawing board and into Toronto's public transit network. 

How Do We Make Public Transit Work Again?

I have some ideas that I think would make public transit in Toronto a lot better, but they're certainly not original ideas.  In other words, plenty of folks have put these ideas forward in the past, but like most proposals that have to do with public transit in this city, they almost never see the light of day.  Here are some examples:

1.  Innovate and Upgrade

What do I mean by this?  Basically, I mean modernizing our public transit system's infrastructure.  Our system uses some very old technology, to the point where people from some cities around the world could come over hear and laugh at us.  Thankfully, I'm finally beginning to see some of this being done after so many years.  New buses have slowly been rolling out over the past decade and the city has just this year begun to replace our aging streetcars.

We also need to find new ways of making the system run more efficiently without making wholesale changes.  This is what I mean by innovation.  For example, the recent decision to use the honour system in regards to fare payment when passengers board our streetcars will save riders a lot of time because studies have shown that much of the time that streetcars lie idle is owed to people getting on and off them, especially on the really busy streetcar lines, like King St. 

Actually, I would prefer we ditch streetcars altogether, like almost all other major North American cities have, because unless they have their own right-of-way, as on St. Clair or Spadina Ave., they are a major source of gridlock and pollution, holding up traffic behind them as they wait for people to get on and off.  Unfortunately, City Hall has made it clear that streetcars will remain for the foreseeable future.  They do, of course, move a lot more people than buses and even I wouldn't recommend getting rid of them until we can replace them with subway lines - we can only pray at this point.

2.  Less! Less! Less!

They call our TTC "the better way", but the reality for a lot of people in Toronto is that it's the only way, because cars are too expensive for many of our residents, and this city is far too big for people to be walking or biking everywhere across town.  So when TTC or GO fares are raised, many folks in Toronto feel the pinch.  Unfortunately, City Hall usually has no choice but to raise fares to cover increasing costs and pay for equipment and service upgrades.  Why?  Because our politicians at the federal and provincial levels simply won't pony up more dough for big cities like Toronto to improve public transit.  In fact, from what I've heard, Toronto's public transit system is one of the least subsidized in North America with a much higher portion of its revenue coming from the fare box than in many other cities.  I believe that our goal should be to make public transit less expensive, not more expensive.  That means avoiding fare increases, especially for frequent users.  It also means not making new transit services outrageously expensive.  Case in point: the new Union-Pearson Express train.  The recently announced fare of $27.50 is anything but fair.  Now of course, the stiffs at Metrolinx say that this service is not meant to be a commuter service for Torontonians, but rather a service for international business travellers.  Okay, then let these international business travellers pay for it!  Don't use our tax dollars to build it and then stick us with a ludicrous price for using it.  As I've said, our bureaucrats and politicians are often part of the problem when it comes to Toronto transit, rather than part of the solution.

3.  More! More! More!

Our public transit system needs more of everything.  More buses, more subways, and so forth.  But of course, for this to happen, the system is going to need more money.  As I've already said, public transit in Toronto is already too dependent on the fare box to finance itself.  It needs more money from the federal and provincial governments and that money needs to be spent wisely.  Too much money earmarked for transit has been squandered over the years on things like the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way, which proved to be an epic disaster for businesses in that area of the city, not to mention the Sheppard subway to nowhere, otherwise knows as the Sheppard "stubway", which carries less riders per day than the streetcar on King St.

4.  Introduce Competition into the Public Transit Sector

One of the biggest problems with transit in Toronto is one that few people talk about: the TTC's monopoly.  Why is this a problem?  Because the TTC lacks the incentive to improve itself that a good dose of capitalist competition could provide.  After all, why would the folks at the TTC worry about how good their service is when they know that many people in the city have no other choice if they want to get from point A to point B?  A lot of people think that TTC should stand for "take the car", but the fact of the matter is that cars are not an option for many people in Toronto and so the TTC is the only option that they can afford.  Like I said before, for many, the TTC isn't "the better way", it's the only way - and this needs to change.

Recently, some folks in Toronto's Liberty Village got so fed up with inadequate TTC service that they got funds together to create their own local shuttle bus service complete with free Wi-Fi (see: Public Need Not Fear Private Transit Test Run on King St.).  For now, this is simply an experiment in private entrepreneurship and there are doubts as to whether or not it can work.  In fact, I recently went to the shuttle bus service's website,, only to find it asking for my e-mail so that they can let me know once they re-launch the service.  My point, however, is that the legal monopoly that the TTC has on public transit in Toronto should end and private providers should be allowed to move in and offer alternative means of public transportation.  Competition would not just mean an added incentive for the TTC to improve its service, but would also lead to less crowding on the TTC because some riders would opt to use the private alternatives.

Improved Transit Means Less Gridlock

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the better a public transit system is, the more likely people are to use it and leave their cars at home.  The joke that TTC stands for "take the car" basically sums up all the reasons why many people who have a choice would rather fight the traffic in their own private vehicle than get onto a slow and overcrowded bus, streetcar, or subway train.  I see some glimmers of hope in the new mayor as well as in the slight improvements to infrastructure and service that have been undertaken in recent years, but I also see that we've still got a long way to go before our public transit system regains the world class reputation it once had when I was a small child.      

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