Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Toronto's Unfortunate Transit Classism

It's been almost a month now since the Ontario budget dropped, and there's been nothing but the usual political jumbletalk about the future of Transit City since then. Mayor Miller has taken to the free newspapers and the TTC announcement system to plead his case for light rail in Toronto, and I plan to send a letter to my MPP about the need to fund this system. We've come to the point where we can't just leave it for the future to worry about. That time-honored tactic, relied upon by premiers for more than thirty years, has reached the end of its shelf life.

As usual, it's the people who are least able to roll with the punches that are caught in the ring by this. The Etobicoke-Finch West line, the Eglinton Crosstown line, the Scarborough RT conversion and extension all extend higher-order transit outside of the traditional, built-up corridors and take it to the fringes of the city, to the suburbs built with the assumption that cars would be so cheap everyone would own one and there would be no reason to think about allowance for public transit. These postwar neighborhoods are where Toronto is coming to grips with a looming poverty crisis, and it's where public transit improvements - making it possible for families to reduce or eliminate their reliance on automobiles, and thereby spend that money elsewhere. People should not have to choose between transportation and rent, transportation and food, or transportation and anything. People need to get around.

This is true in Los Angeles just as it is in Toronto. I recently came across an article via the Bus Bench in the Claremont Progressive, "Transit Racism in Los Angeles," that really puts the issue into perspective. The sprawling bus network in Los Angeles - until 1990, the only public transportation available in that city - is predominantly (80%) used by working-class black and Latino populations, of whom 75% earn $12,000-$20,000 a year. The authors of the piece take issue with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's aggressive pursuit of rail construction projects, focusing on the Foothill Extension of the Metro Gold Line, approved in late March and poised to extend light rail even further afield. The argument is that not only would the $690-million earmarked for this extension be better spent on improving the Los Angeles bus system, the problem is that in this framework, bus fares are being used as a "cash cow" to subsidize extensions to the doorsteps of affluent suburban riders.

While I don't think the situation is rather that bad in Toronto - from what I've encountered, the TTC is widely used across much of the social spectrum - if we sit back and do nothing, that's what we'll get. Too, I couldn't help but be reminded of the lamented Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension north from Downsview station in North York to Vaughan, which the TTC website in all seriousness describes as "critical." Design documents available on the TTC website give an estimated final cost of $807-million just for building the six stations along this line - nonwithstanding the cost of tunnel boring machines or tunnel construction. What's even more comforting is that I've heard reports - unconfirmed, so hopefully that's all they are - that York Region is not going to pay a share into the operations budget of the extension, even though two of its stations rise up on the far side of the Toronto border.

Is a subway to Vaughan really a project the TTC should be focusing on when there are scores of underserved neighborhoods throughout the city? Personally, I say no - but I know it will still get built. For one, construction is to start this year, and that means jobs that Queen's Park can crow about. More than that, though, the construction is being bankrolled by the federal and provincial governments - and this way the province can pretend it cares a whit about public transportation while its funding choices actively degrade the state of it.

Toronto needs another solution.

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