Monday, March 19, 2012

A World-Class Misfortune

Once in a rare while, I come across people talking about how Vancouver is, or should be, a world-class city. This fills me with shivers and dread. Not because I'm opposed to the idea of living in a world-class city, mind, but because in my experience it is easy for the "world-class" ideal to twist the political narrative in an unfriendly, distinctly unwelcome way, reducing it to a political dogwhistle. For now, I'm happy for it to stay below the horizon in Vancouver. This city knows what it is - wet, green, unaffordable - and knows where it sits in the community of cities. Sure, people may criticize the installation of separated bike lanes, but generally they're basing their criticism on reasons other than "world-class cities don't have separated bike lanes."

Not so in Toronto.

Toronto may look monolithic and imposing from the outside, but on the inside it's an insecure city that has been grappling with a monumental identity crisis for decades. Fifty years ago it was the second city of Canada, an Indianapolis of the North, making its way in the world while the real center of national gravity was over in Montreal. When the Parti Québécois came to power and started making noise about independence, there was a corporate exodus down the highway to Toronto and by the 1980s, it had taken over Montreal's position as nerve center of the country. The problem was that Toronto didn't have to do anything to achieve that - its primacy was awarded by pure circumstance.

As a result, in the decades that followed there's been a great deal of hand-wringing in Toronto that boils down to whether or not the city deserves to be on top, and a lot of ambitious plans that are in essence meant to prove that Toronto is worthy of being in the top spot, and not just an Indianapolis of the North that got lucky off Montreal's misfortune.

The winner, by technical knockout...

I'm glad that the Evergreen Line is finally being built. It's extending rapid transit service into an area of Metro Vancouver that has never had it, where the downtowns were built with the understanding that such transit service would be extended there. They've been waiting twenty years, but now the preliminary work is finally, astonishingly underway. Imagine, though, that instead of using SkyTrain, the decision had been made to build the line using ground-level light rail technology, as was considered during the early planning of the line. Then imagine a popular push-back in the Tri-Cities, with people clamoring and yelling that Vancouver was a world-class city and deserved world-class transit, namely SkyTrain.

This is precisely what's going on in Toronto today. Organizations in Scarborough, one of Toronto's eastern inner suburbs, are jostling for the incipient city-wide light rail plan to be overturned in favor of extending a single subway line into Scarborough, a subway line that would cost billions and doesn't even meet subway ridership levels as it is. Sure, the construction of the subway would mean that underserved areas of the city would get nothing... but Toronto is a world-class city and deserves world-class transit.

That is, without exaggeration, the argument being made by the pro-subway group SAFE - a group which seems to be at odds with reality. They're even agitating for a Finch Avenue subway, something which never existed in any official plan and exists only because a particularly outspoken councillor had no grasp of what was being done - a rough Metro Vancouver equivalent would be not only agitating for a SkyTrain line all the way down King George Boulevard to the White Rock border, but agitating for it to be completely underground as well... and even that probably has a far better business case.

There are some people in Toronto who desperately want to make sure that it's a "world-class" city, though strangely enough the "world-class" option generally seems to be the most expensive of all of them. Boosters use language like "building for the future" or argue that Toronto should be following the example of cities like New York and London - which really gives insight into the world-class mindset, because the only way I can see Toronto becoming equivalent to New York and London involves New York and London ceasing to exist.

Vancouver, it seems, has no such identity crisis. Vancouver knows what it is, and is satisfied with moving forward at its own pace, on its own merits. Like many other things, the ideology of city-building is more relaxed out here. In Toronto, it's maddening - many people there see themselves as living in a city that's just barely not world-class, that it's just too far away to grab, hanging there, tormenting them.

That's no way to build a city.

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