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TTC now just 'hick town' transit


Sometime in the last few decades, the TTC went off the rails. And what was once considered one of the best public transit systems in North America is now strictly second-class.

This is nothing new, of course, but things have reached the point where even commission officials seem to have given up the fight and are telling us now that we’d better get used to it.

Most obviously, that can be seen in the emphasis on Light Rail Transit over subways. The latter, we’re told, are no longer affordable; LRT is.

Unfortunately, however, the two aren’t comparable. As TTC vice-chair, Joe Mihevc, points out, “Subways are the spine of a transit system, LRT is the ribs.”

But, he adds, no city in North America is currently building a subway. They opt for LRT.

The reason, naturally, is money. Subways cost $150 million per kilometre, LRT $20 million.

What TTC officials don’t like to talk about is what economists call the opportunity cost. In other words, what’s the price of not building subways?

“Subways,” explains one of Canada’s foremost transportation consultants, Edward Levy, “are built in anticipation of where people will be. And they should also be built where density already exists. We should have put a subway along Eglinton, but that didn’t happen. We need connectivity in public transit and proper junctions between GO and TTC.

“The TTC doesn’t have money. But there are all kinds of ways other cities seem to find money. How come we could afford to build the subway 40 or 50 years ago when we had half the population? There are ways of doing it.

“The situation the TTC finds itself in is just disgraceful. The attitude in this town is horrific.”

Levy argues that as Canada becomes more like the U.S., public transit is increasingly seen as a social service rather than an essential element of city building.

That attitude was expressed by former Conservative transportation minister, Tony Clement, who during a TTC strike in 1999, admonished Torontonians for being “too reliant” on public transit. Such breathtaking stupidity is rare even for a Tory politician, but Clement, who mercifully has vanished from Ontario politics, spoke for any number of people who live in a province where the car is king.

The McGuinty Liberals are more sophisticated than were Mike Harris and his horde, but they have yet to grasp the absolutely crucial role of public transit. As Levy argues, it’s the key to urban health, controlling sprawl and all future development.

A good place to start, he suggests, would be to extend the Sheppard line west and connect it to Downsview, now one of the least used stations in the city. Indeed, it is a facility that sits in an environment so suburban there are no sidewalks around it.

“This is a key link,” Levy explains. “It is the link that makes a network.”

Among the TTC planners’ greatest mistakes, he says, was failing to make connections.

Levy points to a transit plan from 1910 — when Toronto’s population was 340,000 and the TTC hadn’t been created — that proposes a roughly circular loop bounded by Union Station on the south, Bloor on the north, Broadview and Don Mills on the east and Spadina on the west. The scheme was generational in its thinking; visionary in its approach.

This is precisely what has been lost today. Instead of visionaries, the TTC and its masters have reduced themselves to the roles of short-term fixers more preoccupied with nickels and dimes and tax cuts than in preparing Canada’s largest city for the future it regards as its right.

These days, when TTC officials talk about efficiency, they are referring to fiscal operations. We are, after all, the least subsidized system on the continent, with fully 78 per cent of cost borne by riders.

Now that’s something to be proud of.

Is it any wonder Levy, a man who lives and breathes transportation, who has travelled around the world to study public transit, has grown so frustrated with Toronto?

“We are,” he says angrily, “nothing more than an overgrown hick town.

“Not only that, but we’ve grown to accept it.”

Christopher Hume can be reached at