Friday, March 9, 2012

Stay Classy, Scarborough

There's nothing like moving to the other side of the country to get a fresh perspective on the place you left. When I lived in Toronto I was too close to it, pressed up against the window, too close to resolve any of the flecks of dirt on the glass. Here in British Columbia I have access to, and continue to follow, the same media sources that kept me informed when I still hung my hat in the megacity, but they're bloodless now. Thankfully, the present antics of the Toronto municipal government have no effect on New Westminster, and I can watch things unfold from a dispassionate, outsider's perspective.

That's the theory, at least. It's kind of harder in practice, particularly when it starts looking like Toronto is about to go Oroborous and start eating its own tail.

Hizzoner da Mayor hasn't done particularly much for municipal unity in the year since a plurality of voters propelled him into power. His support base was in the outer-ring cities of Metro Toronto, and he's been excellent at reopening old wounds and cutting fresh ones. I don't recall suburban venom being so close to the surface during any previous mayoralty. This time, the problem was less the mayor himself than what he set in motion, and it was presented in all its starkness last night at the Scarborough Civic Centre, where hundreds of people crowded in for an honest debate on the merits of light rail transit versus the subway.

"Subways! Subways!" According to the Star that was the sound of the crowd. "Not glorified streetcars!"

Sure looks like a streetcar to me.

It annoys me, but I can also understand it, because the average Torontonian - many of them unwilling to do even a modicum of research themselves, despite having the single largest gathering of knowledge and information in all of human history literally at their fingertips - doesn't know what LRT is, and can only put it in a familiar context; that is, streetcars.

What I can't understand, what drives me to gnash my teeth, is the unrelenting childishness that's surrounding the "debate" of this issue. I mean, really, if you were charged with building a business plan for funding a subway extension, the appropriate response to someone asking where in the plan one could find an explanation for where the money's coming from is not "are you thick or what?"

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what fools like the debate's loudest voices want - the numbers, be they political or financial, are not on their side. Toronto does not have the money to extend the Sheppard Line east, and the people of Toronto are not interested in paying higher taxes in order to build it. At this point, though, Ford's work has been done. Back in 2010 the path was clear for Transit City and LRT, but his constant hectoring has opened a wound there too.

When I look at the arguments that are going on regarding the subway now, I can't help but find them extremely pathetic. Extending the subway into Scarborough doesn't make any sense in terms of the business case or the efficiency of moving people - the fact of the matter is that Sheppard Avenue East cannot support a subway. It was a mistake to build it at all - we can thank Mel Lastman's ambition to make North York a real city for that - and extending it now, when only a fraction of its capacity is used as it is, would only compound that mistake. But people aren't thinking of the business case or the efficiency case. I can only conclude that the big problem here is that the notion of the subway is being tied to Scarborough's sense of self-worth, that if only it can get a subway it'll stop being Scarberia.

I know that all of Scarborough isn't like this. Really, though, these antics are reflecting poorly on its people. It's the sort of situation where I wish I could make every Scarboroughnian subway supporter go up to busy rush-hour bus stops on Finch West and tell the people waiting there that Scarborough deserves a gold-plated subway more than they need a modicum of rapid transit, or have the government of Ontario just throw up its hands and reassign that Transit City money to, say, Hamilton. Let Hamilton build a light rail system and show Toronto how it's done.

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