Monday, February 1, 2010

Rossi: Campaigning Against Our Interests

If transit is going to be a major issue in the Toronto muncipal election, so be it. Good transit is one of the measures of a great city, and we should be focusing our attention on it. I can't speak for my fellow mayoral candidates, as I don't really know their attitudes or interests, but I myself am a dedicated transit user. I do not own a car. I do not want to own a car. I have a G1 driver's license that is used as identification while purchasing beer and entering bars. Transit is thus an important issue for me, as it is for many Torontonians, because it's how I get from one place to another when it's too far, too cold, or too much of a lazy day to walk.

So you can imagine how I reacted when Rocco Rossi, one of the present frontrunners in this embryonic race, revealed the first plank of his platform to be an opposition to transit initiatives. In fact, you don't have to imagine it, because I wrote about it when it happened. Since then, I've been thinking about it more and more.

A few days ago I read a story on the BBC dealing with the popular response to President Obama's health care proposals in the United States, with the author trying to determine why so many of the people who would be helped by the proposed program were so vehemently against it. One of the main conclusions, as I recall, was that the people in question resented being told what they needed by the government, rather than arriving at that conclusion themselves.

In much the same way, I resent Rossi's suggestion that transit is something that can, or should, be simply put on hold, his implication that the current state of transit is adequate for Toronto. It isn't. We are still coasting on projects that were begun in the 1970s. That we've waited decades to begin a new system expansion like Transit City is bad enough - to bury it because Rossi wants to score some emotional points with people who are fed up by the TTC is indicative of a perspective that looks backward, not forward. That's the kind of perspective this city cannot afford to have in power. It's the twenty-first century - we will get nowhere contemplating the twentieth.

Realistically, transit is absolutely essential to Toronto, full stop. Because that's exactly what would happen to the city if transit was unavailable. We saw it back in 2008, in the provincial government's lightning-quick response to the TTC strike - within forty-eight hours the union was legislated back to work. Contrast this to Ottawa's experience, where OC Transpo, the city's public transit operator, was on strike for fifty-one days before the situation was resolved. Toronto could not last fifty-one days with its transit stopped. I'd be surprised if it could last 5.1 days without things getting seriously squirrely.

Beyond that, I believe that limiting public transit options is an assault on freedom of choice. Every once in a while I see people fulminating about how public transit is a waste of money, how no one uses it, and it'd be better off gone, and it's hilarious. No one is herding people onto buses, subways, or streetcars at gunpoint. If anything, the opposite is true; the planning decisions that have been made over the last seventy years across North America amount to forcing people to use cars, as most North American cities are completely unsuited for transit.

In Toronto, we have an opportunity many cities lack - to have a city where transit is a comfortable, reliable alternative. To have the choice of not having to take the car. To throw that away would be to abandon the wisdom of those who refused to gut the TTC when every other city thought automobiles were the future, and of those who kept the Spadina Expressway on the planning maps where it belongs.

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