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September 27, 2009 at 10 PM

The mayor of Transit City

On the Spacing blog, Steve Munro defends the record of Toronto’s mayor, David Miller, who recently announced he would step down after this term. Miller’s popularity plummeted after this summer’s civic workers’ strike, along with his failed attempt to convince the Government of Canada to pay for new streetcars.

I’m a big believer in public transit, and for that reason alone, I can appreciate what Miller has tried to do as mayor of the country’s largest city: turn Toronto’s aching, geriatric transit system, the TTC, into a modern, attractive, financially sustainable service. Recent coverage in the media has focused on Miller’s failures, but Munro eloquently highlights his successes:

  • the creation of the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy
  • moving future expansion away from new subways towards modern light rail
  • pushing funding from being more fare-based to more subsidy-based

Of course these are controversial measures for some people. Even though there is no public transit system on earth that is fully self-funded, there are many in Toronto who think that if the TTC needs more money, it should simply raise fares; that those who use it should pay for it. Munro explains: “Operating subsidies fell over the years, and farebox cost recovery grew from about 70% in 1988 to almost 85% by 2000. Partly this was achieved through fare increases, and partly through service cuts.” Miller has pushed the level back down to 70%, and ridership is at an all-time high in absolute numbers — projected to be 473 million rides this year. To put things in perspective though, the previous all-time high was 463 million in 1988. According to Wikipedia, the City of Toronto’s population has grown about 300,000 since then, and the Greater Toronto Area’s has grown by at least 1.3 million. In proportional terms then, 2009 is hardly a peak. Also, 70% of funding through fares is exceptionally high, even within Canada, but especially when compared to the other countries. Recent headlines about how monthly pass popularity has “hurt” the TTC’s budget are an absurd way of suggesting that the TTC needs to increase fares. Our own transit agency is complaining that more people are using public transit? It’s pretty simple: if Torontonians want good public transit, then their government(s) must pay for it.

It’s been one year since my wife and I moved to Toronto, and in that time I’ve come to know the TTC for better and worse. I had expectations based on previous visits to the city that transit here was good. I remembered a subway and streetcar system that ran reliably and frequently, and that many of the streetcars operated twenty-four hours a day. Single fares are pretty reasonable: $2.25 if you buy tokens and no “zones” — one fare can take you 40 km from Kipling Station in Etobicoke to McCowan Station in Scarborough. Saying all that, I can see now how the TTC creaks and groans as one the most heavily-used transit systems in North America. Its most frequent customers are often its biggest critics, and like all public transit systems in Canada, it struggles for funding to expand or even just to maintain existing service.

What’s wrong with the TTC? The subway is good if your origin and destination are close to it, but Toronto suffers from arriving late to the underground party. The two original lines, built in the 1950s and ’60s, provide insufficient coverage for today’s population. Sadly, the only recent expansions — the Scarborough RT in the ’80s and the Sheppard line in 2002 — are suburban routes that attract but a fraction of the ridership of the two older lines.

Meanwhile, the iconic streetcars prove better in theory (clean, reliable and frequent!) than in reality (garbage-laden, crowded and stuck in traffic!). Waiting half an hour on a “frequent service” route is common — eventually three or four packed cars will show up, making one feel that walking would have been a faster choice. (Cycling is always faster.) Queen Street, the retail heart of the city from east to west, ought to be one of the city’s best-served transit corridors, but the Queen streetcar is among the system’s least reliable. Buses are good in some places, but service can be patchy (half-hour schedules on Sundays on downtown routes is nearly criminal), especially once one gets north of Bloor Street.

If you’re a regular customer, the TTC is not cheap. The cost of a monthly pass ($109) is markedly higher than in Vancouver ($73) or Montreal ($68.50), making driving more attractive to many people. There’s also the fare system itself that could charitably be described as antique. If you don’t want or need a pass, there are only small, easy-to-lose tokens and old-fashioned paper transfers. If you switch from a surface-level route to a subway at an older station, you have to line up to show your transfer to the booth attendant because the turnstiles don’t permit them. And forget about any integration with the city’s GO commuter trains. The provincially-knighted but totally toothless regional transit authority, Metrolinx, would like to implement a modern smart card system, but has no ability to pay for it.

Nonetheless, David Miller and his followers have fought to make improvements, and growth in ridership and more frequent service are positive signs. Ironically though, the biggest achievement of all may be one that doesn’t come to fruition until well after Miller’s retirement. “Transit City” is the city’s comprehensive light rail plan that would see the construction of seven new light rail lines (all with dedicated rights-of-way to ensure reliable service). If it all gets built — and that is a mighty “if” — the plan has the potential to drastically alter life in a city whose pervasive car culture threatens to choke it to death by smog.

The “if”, as always, is where the money will come from. Although Miller has been successful in increasing the TTC’s budget during his reign, it has come largely through ritual cap-in-hand begging at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. This is a testament to what, in my mind, is the biggest problem facing confederation. It is certainly the thing that has brought a premature end to Miller’s mayoral career. Put simply, the inability for Canadian cities to pay for the services their citizens need is ruining the very places where most Canadians live. Canadian cities are not allowed to levy income or sales taxes, but property taxes are insufficient to pay for the services that so many Canadians, especially lower-income Canadians, rely on. Successive provincial and federal governments have found reason to cut permanent funding in transit, housing and social services while simultaneously giving responsibility for them to the cities. Toronto runs its own welfare program, has its own public housing agency, and operates its own transit system, but is extremely reliant on provincial transfers to pay for all of it. Any change in the political winds or the economy threatens that arrangement.

How does this make any sense? Shouldn’t the government most directly involved in providing a service be the one that raises the taxes to pay for it? This is something on which I believe most taxpayers would agree, because it urges transparency about how tax dollars are spent. The current dysfunctional arrangement, where cities go begging to the province, and the province goes begging to Ottawa, does quite the opposite, all but eliminating accountability. (Perhaps federal politicians like it this way.) Sadly, the design of the political system in Canada makes change difficult, to say the least. Our country’s historical legacy has given us provincial legislatures and a national Parliament where the rural population is overrepresented, and it has blessed us with a winner-takes-all voting system that locks many ridings to one party. In the City of Toronto, the Liberal party has a virtual lock on most seats, both provincially and federally. Thus the Liberals in power at Queen’s Park all but take Toronto voter support for granted, while the Conservatives in Ottawa all but write it off. Worst of all, the system breeds apathy, leading to declining voter turnouts with each passing year.

David Miller spent some of his time fighting the system, but he largely approached his role as a pragmatist, with a level bravado that bordered on brinkmanship. He successfully convinced the province and Ottawa to fund the Spadina subway extension by bullying. Similarly, the subsequent announcement and promotion of Transit City before any funding was in place was essentially a dare to the province and Ottawa to say no, to risk public backlash. It worked with Ontario’s sympathetic premier, Dalton McGuinty, but it backfired spectacularly when Miller pressed Ottawa to use recession “stimulus” money to buy the city new streetcars. The federal cabinet said privately it wouldn’t do it, and Miller pressed them publicly. Eventually Miller was made to look like a fool after the Conservatives did the political arithmetic. (No Tory seats in Toronto means no angry voters.) Miller’s credibility took a big hit, and then it was damaged further by the civic workers strike. I think Miller’s P.R. team failed him during the strike, but the strike itself was an inevitable outcome in a city whose costs simply outweigh its capacity to pay. Until this changes, it will be nearly impossible for any Toronto mayor to do better than David Miller. The city is ungovernable.

Subsequently: Migrations and hatching

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