Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Public Transit in Ontario: MIA

Honk. The car ahead rolls forward. Two centimetres. Drum the fingers, fiddle with the music, dying to use the smart phone. Move another centimetre. Or if you don’t have a car, you stand in the packed streetcar, no pole nearby to hold, sweat trickling down your back, practicing your public transit balance as the streetcar jerks forward and lurches to a stop. Or maybe you’re stuffed in a bus wondering how to get past the stroller to the doorway when you do eventually get to your stop. Or perhaps the subway is your route of choice, with people fighting and jostling to get off against the tide of rude people pushing prematurely to get on, the trains so far apart, many have to wait for the next anyway (and if you’re a regular, you know to wait for the third in a row when you’ll have a chance to get on and maybe even get a seat), then squeeze your way on and hope you don’t hang out in a tunnel because of smoke at track level before your stop.

This is Toronto’s commute, the longest in Canada, a drain on productivity, a negative on the economy, never mind our mental health.

Toronto has gone thirty years --. Let’s pause a moment and think about that timeframe. Thirty years. Three decades. Longer than a generation. Over a timespan so great we’ve seen Trudeau in power, resigned, dead; we’ve seen the old Ontario Big Blue Machine die, and a Liberal government come to majority twice.

And in all that time, Ontario built half a subway line to nowhere, Toronto sped up two routes, TTC service went into the crapper, while fares went up and up and Ontario crushed support.

We have not gone this long with no subway building since before the 1950s; with how long it’s taken just to begin extending the Spadina line north a few stops and with the addictive nature of talking, not spending, it’ll be fifty years before we see another rump of a line built.

Meanwhile Toronto’s commute grows every year. We get to work more tired, energy sapped from the angry commute and frustrating hours forced to do nada; we arrive home more fatigued than ten or twenty and definitely thirty years ago. With more time and energy spent on commuting, there’s less time for work and thinking and with family. And it shows in our slipping economy, our mental health, our move from a have province to a have not. Sure, sure recessions played a part, but this has been a slowly worsening problem that’s finally gotten so bad, the media and a few politicians are taking notice. But not enough.

Mayor Rob Ford came to power partly on his promise to build subways. The pent-up desperation for faster commutes showed in his victory. He understands that Torontonians and commuters from outside the city don’t want to spend half their day in a stuffed streetcar or bus stuck in gridlock and construction. He understands that our public transit is simply not big enough to carry our current population. And only subways are big enough and fast enough to meet the needs of working families.

When population grows, public transit must grow.

Everywhere.

Including and especially downtown where there’s huge worker density.

I don’t know why this is such a difficult concept to grasp, why starting with Art Eggleton in the 1980s, doing nothing but resting on our long-gone TTC accolades has been the preferred route. But if politicians don’t get a grip, we might as well give up and agree Toronto will and is becoming a place where only the wealthy and poor live while the middle class move to cities that work, cities where they don’t have to spend so much time commuting and spend it instead on earning an income, part of which goes into taxes. The government loses too by not spending on public transit.

Of course, it’s frightening to politicians to have to spend catch-up money not just build-for-the-future money. We’re talking billions and mega billions on subway expansion, technological improvements, new and accessible cars and buses, expanding routes, and operating and maintenance expenses. But the longer they stall, the bigger the final hit. The Federal government must chip in. Their downloading back in the 1990s created part of the problem. And yes, it’s too bad the Conservatives squandered the surplus, but even US President George Bush understood how important subways are to the economy of a city and the US. People not moving fast to work = people not earning for themselves and for their country.

So what are the parties doing about it? Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals have said they’re spending big bucks already. It’s going to the Spadina Line extension and maybe the Sheppard line and Eglinton LRT, which should be a subway. Scarborough still has no subway line and so is disconnected from the rest of Toronto. As long as Scarborough remains disconnected and Scarberians have to fight through a bottleneck to get into the rest of the city, there can be no real infill growth there where there’s space, though the population influx demands it. McGuinty’s plans aren’t even on a par with the NDP’s of the 1990s. Totally inadequate to the needs of today’s working families and definitely don’t meet future needs.

That pretty much sums up the other parties too except that Andrea Horwath and the NDP have also pledged to return to 50/50 cost sharing for operating expenses. That should help Toronto’s budget and is a drip better than the PCs and Liberals. But where is the expansion money? The courage to do the necessary?

Under all Ontario parties, commute times will continue to lengthen. And we will continue to sit not work.

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