The very government closest to the people has proven to be the one most corrupted by the politics of transit planning. The Scarborough subway is the latest example.
Transit decisions of all kinds, including this week’s city council vote to push ahead with the Bloor-Danforth line extension to the Scarborough Town Centre, provide further evidence that you can’t fight city hall.
The very government closest to the people and most susceptible to pressure from the masses has proven to be the one most corrupted by the politics of transit planning.
The political apparatus, once ramped up and placed in the hands of a mayor, becomes a marauding force capable of delivering the vilest conclusions in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Instead of going where the evidence takes him or her, our mayors declare a position on the campaign trail, get elected, claim the mandate of the electorate, marshal the city’s compliant bureaucrats, commission studies that support the prevailing position, ignore evidence to the contrary, trumpet every smidgen of supporting document and bury conflicting findings, repeat the campaign dogma ad nauseam until the very falsities become ingrained as fake truths — and before long the very citizens believe the lies and clamor for the very solution that is destined to destroy the very enjoyment of their city.
Such is the case of transit planning in Toronto. It’s been trending this way for decades. It is particularly galling now, in 2017, because the region is on the cusp of a grand transit expansion and massive expenditure. And we are deliberately making critical and costly “mistakes” that will bedevil commuters for generations.
In a sense, we get what we deserve. But it’s almost as if we are all stuck in this vortex, unable to disentangle, destined to self-destruction. Civic suicide.
Deliverance normally rests with politicians. Or civil society, including opinion leaders and the media — dismissed by demagogues as the elite. Or the masses. Or a combination, in desperate times. It will be a while before we fully realize how our guardians spectacularly failed the city region in this critical era of transit building. The extent of the damage depends on how much Torontonians care to learn about their real needs and insist on getting transit right.
The base principles that should guide transit planning are readily available.
- Good transit provides a network of options that moves masses of commuters effectively where they need to go. Most jurisdictions can’t afford a subway to everywhere so the wise course is to provide movement along the essential corridors where citizens connect.
- In a tight economy, decision makers do cost-benefit analyses and deliver the best bang for the buck.
- And they use universal, tried-and-tested measurements to evaluate options, striving to remove partisan and parochial and political influence from polluting the outcome.
Unfortunately, most of our transit debates start and end with technology. Streetcars and bus bad, subways good. This prevailing view forgets a key element of successful transit systems: they provide the appropriate transit mode for the appropriate needs, always looking to future demands and growth. So, for example, at some point in the future, Highway 7 will have a rapid transit system running there — either a subway, or the subway equivalent of the year 2095. But, for now, a BRT is the appropriate choice.
To patiently wait for the evolution from bus to rail requires much civic maturity. This is especially difficult, given our history of largesse, political back-scratching, immoral decision-making and brutal choices that force the aggrieved to say, “If they can get a subway, what about us. What are we chopped liver?”
Sheppard jumped the queue. The line is nowhere near capacity and the promised jobs and densities far from realized.
The University-Spadina extension to Vaughan corporate centre was greased by political patronage and private deal-making, admitted former Ontario deputy premier Greg Sorbara in his memoirs.
Next, watch for this: Richmond Hill and York Region will find a political white knight to propel the Yonge subway extension north of Steeles, ahead of essential fixes downstream that are to alleviate overcrowding on Line 1.
So, what to do?
The agencies (Metrolinx and TTC) and their boards, hired to provide uncontaminated reports, too often succumb to political pressure. And media is too often distracted and prone to reflect public impatience to the point of adopting the attitude of “just build something.”
Is there a better system? Are there democratic jurisdictions that have managed to plan transit according to real needs, not political exigencies? We need to learn from these.
Royson James’ column appears weekly. email@example.com