Thursday, May 6, 2010

A City, Not In Transit

I had hoped this wouldn't happen, but given the way governments have acted over the last thirty years, it's absolutely no surprise at all. Due to the province of Ontario's massive debt load, itself a result of the recent economic crash and a spate of stimulus spending to keep the lid on things, the deferment of Transit City has begun in force. At this point, it's plausible that the plan Mayor Miller envisioned in 2007 - and for which the province promised support, giving us another lesson in the value of the province's promises - will never be built to its original design.

What we will have instead is an abbreviated system that will not be completed until 2022, and even then will not be "completed" the way it should have been. The airport will still be without fixed transit service, many of the originally planned lines won't be built at all, and the prospects for a Downtown Relief Line look dimmer and dimmer. Once again, Toronto transit is getting the shaft, presumably with the unspoken assumption that transit is a "nice to have" and not a "need to have."

Even this foreshortened plan is becoming the target of critics and candidates alike. Rocco Rossi, who has described Transit City as "Streetcar City," recently unveiled a "Transit City Plus" plan focused around new subway construction. Sarah Thomson's idea of tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway would go toward financing subway construction. It seems like you can't throw a plastic bottle in Toronto without hitting a proponent of subway construction.

There's only one problem - subways are expensive, yet I keep seeing them being championed over light rail solutions like Transit City. In a tweet two days ago, Jennifer Hassum put it into perspective - "why do conservatives favor expensive subways and the left affordable light-rail?"

A light rail train on the Los Angeles Metro Blue Line, in operation since 1990, connecting Long Beach with downtown

The truth of the matter is that somehow, LRT has acquired a bad reputation in Toronto. I just wish that I knew how, because it would make dealing with it so much easier. Part of it, I think, stems not only from the basic unfamiliarity with the modern expression of light rail - the Scarborough RT is the closest thing Toronto has to a modern light rail line, and even then I wouldn't call it an adequate comparison to LRT as it's practiced in other cities - but because, unlike other cities, we have streetcars to reckon with. LRT is descended from the streetcar, but in the vast majority of cities LRT was only installed significantly after the streetcar systems had been removed. Here, we don't have that psychological remove, and it may be that it's easier to think of LRT as "streetcars plus." If former mayor Mel Lastman really said that "real cities don't use streetcars" - I can find quotes across the Internet, but no source - that may be one explanation.

I suppose one reason could be that subways are perceived as being fast and direct, and LRT meandering and slow. This is a mischaracterization based on equating LRT with streetcars. I have ridden on an LRT system - the Los Angeles County Metro Rail is primarily LRT, with only the downtown spine of the system served with subways - and aside from its separated rights-of-way, there's nothing in Toronto that compares to it. My experience with it was of a mode of transit that was fast and effective (though Angelenos who use it on a regular basis may have some words about what may be a rosy view).

The whole point of LRT is that it acts more like a subway than a streetcar - stations rather than stops, and widely-separated stations at that - but because of its surface-running and more limited infrastructure, is cheaper than a subway. This is the paradigm that Transit City should be built upon.
In the end - across North America, more than twenty cities are building or planning light rail systems, whereas only New York is planning new subways. There's a lesson there, I'm sure of it.

Ultimately, though? Much of the vitriol against light rail transit may well stem from two simple sources - first, a general unfamiliarity with LRT in Toronto allows it to be mischaracterized in arguments, and second, Mayor Miller has taken the idea of LRT and made it his. Attacking the man's plan may be, for many people, an appropriate substitute for attacking the man himself.

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