Monday, November 23, 2009

A Fair Measure for Transit

Toronto is one of those cities that would grind to a halt without its public transportation system. The provincial government knows this; recall 2008, when the Toronto Transit Commission strike was settled by back-to-work legislation was pushed through in the space of a weekend, while only a matter of months later Ottawa's OC Transpo strike was allowed to drag on for fifty-one days before that city and its union reached a deal. Recall last week, when a subway shutdown saw so many commuters spill onto the sidewalks at Yonge and Bloor that the police had to be brought in for crowd control.

Transit is of extreme importance to this city. Everyone, including the people who do not set foot on the TTC, should recognize that. Many roads are strained already - the grid would not be able to absorb the million-plus people that ride the system every day. That's why I find it so frustrating that the TTC has to perform a desperate balancing act just to maintain itself, like riding a unicycle on top of a jagged boulder rolling steadily downhill. For most of the last twenty years the TTC has lurched from crisis to crisis, at times barely keeping things together. If Toronto is serious about establishing its bona fides as a city worth reckoning with, there's still a lot of work to be done.

One potential solution comes from Los Angeles. Transit in Los Angeles County was provided purely by buses for almost thirty years, following the total destruction of the original Los Angeles streetcar system, and that city is known for the magnitude of its traffic jams. Maybe that's exactly why Los Angelenos are willing to give transit a chance today - they know what the alternative is.

In November 2008, Los Angeles voters passed Measure R, a half-cent sales tax levied throughout Los Angeles County to finance transportation improvement throughout that jurisdiction's eighty-eight cities, towns, and unincorporated areas. In some places the money - they're expecting to generate $40 billion by 2039 - will be invested in road improvements, but in terms of public transportation, Measure R has provided the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority with a guaranteed income stream to finance service expansions. LACMTA's not sitting on its hands, either; the Expo light-rail line is on target for a first-phase completion in 2011, the Gold Line is on track for another round of expansion, and in the more long-term plan, the subway's Purple Line is to be extended west to the Pacific Ocean, bringing higher-order transit service to areas that lack it. Combined with the lavish governmental support LACMTA receives, the future for transit in Los Angeles looks bright.

Toronto could take lessons from this. Hell, all of Ontario could have. The biggest problem Toronto has is that the provincial and federal governments care nothing about the TTC except when it can be used as a job generator to make them look better. Thus, witness the federal support of the Sheppard East LRT, a white elephant that will only ensure that the Sheppard Line remains a stub unable to realize its potential, and provincial willingness to invest in big-ticket construction projects while refusing to provide a share of the money that will be needed to actually run and maintain those projects once they become part of the system.

Something like a municipal transportation tax could improve matters here, whether it's Toronto-only or province-wide. The latter might be the more palatable option, as it would enable the expansion of systems elsewhere and would eliminate the phenomenon of people hopping north of Steeles to buy their staples. A dedicated half-cent could do a lot to improve the stability of transit and transportation in this province.

Whatever the way it's done, that's what Toronto really needs - stability. A strong foundation. Without that, the TTC will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis, and a system that's devoting all of its time to keeping its head above water misses out on opportunities to innovate, to improve, and to really be the better way.


  1. TTC, in my mind, stands for "Take The Car". Unless you live by a subway stop and work near a subway stop it just is not a practical way to get around. At my current job it takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to work. The car takes 20.

    For years I lived downtown (near Queen & Parliament) and worked in the financial district. Perfect for the street car one might think. But actually I ended up walking to work unless the weather was really bad as the street cars are unrealiable. You never know when exactly they may or may not show up. Will it be 20 minutes to work or 45?

    Another gripe I have about street cars are some of the dirt-bags that ride them. A number of TTC customers them need to have a date with a bar of soap.

  2. I realize this is an old thread, but I wanted to post to support the comment above.

    I live further down the 501 line from anonymous, at the end of the line (in The Beach), and can attest to what he says. After living here for 7 years we've finally given up and purchased a second car - and I'm completey happy with our decision. I'm disabled and not working - so it was a sacrifice for us to purchase a second car. I have treatments at a hospital downtown. When I take the streetcar I have to schedule 1 1/2 hours to get there. Now with the seond car I drive north of the Danforth and take the subway. I shave between 20- 30 minutes off my commute that way, and even then almost always have extra time to stop for coffee, do some shopping etc... Even better, I don't have to put up with the bullying behaviour that seems to be endemic with the majority of streetcar drivers (not all, but most). I'm not subjected to waiting for who-knows-how-long in the heat, the rain, etc...

    And I no longer have to put up with the dreaded driver changeover at Connaught where daily we are reminded exactly who's boss, and how staggeringly unimportant TTC passengers are considered to be.

    I say this with respect, but I think you need to hear it: it's people like you who haven't lived here long and have only experienced a very small portion of the streetcar system, a small portion that appears to work IN YOUR SITUATION, and yet become very loud and vocal supporters of streetcars in general and have a rather contemptuous and dismissive tone against those whose experience is where they don't (and were probably never intended to) work, that are largely responsible for their demise. I've noticed an interesting fact: the most ardent streetcar supporters are either living in situations where streetcars ARE suited (short commutes between home and destintion & short total line length), or they (and this is most of them) live on the subway line. It's fascinating that very few ardent streetcar supporters could give a flying fig about the welfare of the rest of the city that they purport to 'love'. It seems to me that, if you really and truly loved streetcars, you'd be advocating not for their wholesale rollout into areas where they aren't suited, and that further inflame and negatively impact citizens, but instead would be LOUDLY AND AGGRESSIVELY ADVOCATING for STANDARDS and conditions for them such that they are indeed a benefit for the communities and citizens they service. But people in the 'streetcar advocate' community don't.

    Since I've yet to see that in my experience with Toronto Streetcar advocates (and pretty much world-wide according to the transit discussions I've seen), I've taken to supporting the opposite position. Everywhere internationally there is a discussion about streetcars I point them to Toronto's horrible experience with them and loudly warn them against it. That's not too difficult, since there is plenty of evidence to support me.

  3. (Continuation of my comment above)

    Sadly, thanks to misguided streetcar advocacy people become wary of streetcars in general, rather than being wary of BADLY DESIGNED STREETCAR LINES. And so they vote en masse and elect the Rob Fords of the world. Thanks in large part to your fellow supporters who make this a black and white issue and who are entirely too comfortable with pushing their own point-of-view on their fellow citizens so much that it creates a massive backlash. Look where that's gotten us.

    So how about we get all 'communities' together to look for the common ground here: how about people on ALL SIDES get together and discuss WHERE STREETCARS ARE APPROPRIATE, AND WHERE THEY AREN'T. How about we discuss, and then codify into standards and legislation, the type of situations where they're suited, and where they should never be considered. So that EVERYONE can support streetcar advocates in their advocacy for short lines with high frequency needs and high ridership, and EVERYONE can support communites who are opposed to running streetcars where they aren't suited and will guarantee literally decades of horrible service and prevent other more suitable alternatives from even being considered.

    Perhaps its just a crazy notion, but how about we all consider each other for a change, instead of just our own narrow self-interests?