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A good idea that will never leave the station

Adam Radwanski, National Post
Published: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

It’s 1:30 a.m. Last call won’t be for another half hour; the final stragglers won’t leave the bar for the better part of an hour. And the contingent of patrons who have been frantically checking their watches make a sudden dash for the exits, desperate to catch the last train.

Chances are that they’re young, live outside downtown, and don’t have a ton of spare cash in their pockets — the ones for whom cabbing their way home isn’t an option. They are also the responsible ones.

Perversely, in an era in which drinking and driving is rightly one of the great taboos, Toronto’s public transit system tacitly encourages its would-be customers to do just that by shutting down subway service well before bars close. For those who don’t want to commit to returning home at a certain time and can’t find a designated driver, it’s practically an invitation to hop behind the wheel and hope for the best.

Unlike in New York, Chicago and other cities whose subway runs around the clock, ours simply goes to sleep for four-and-a-half hours. It’s not just drinkers who are affected: Toronto may not be Manhattan, but drive on the streets at any hour and it’s obvious the city never fully shuts down; presumably, overnight workers need to get from Point A to Point B. But that, at least, doesn’t cost lives.

The argument against running the TTC 24/7 is what you would expect — it costs too much. When it briefly considered the idea of extended hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the TTC determined in a 2004 staff report that an insufficient number of passengers would ride the train in the wee hours. “The significant costs involved in extending the hours of subway operation, and the low probability of increased ridership, would result in this service change not meeting the TTC’s minimum financial standard,” it pronounced.

The research on which this was based was hardly in-depth: The report looked only at the number of passengers on the final trip of the night, ignoring that numbers would likely go up if time constraints were not imposed, and that most passengers presumably don’t cut it so close as to grab the very last train leaving the station. But even accepting that the night trains would have to be operated at a deficit is an inadequate argument against doing so.

Anti-drunk-driving commercials, funded either privately or by government, are not commissioned to make money; they’re commissioned to save lives. And if the bottom line were the only standard for the TTC, it would not exist. Public transit, in its current form, is not a profit-maker; it’s there to serve the greater public good, be it economically or socially.

We’re not talking, here, about running a train every 10 minutes; every half-hour would suffice, with skeleton staffs at each station. If it really wanted to cut corners, the TTC could even bypass certain low-volume stations at night. But getting passengers from one end of the city to the other shouldn’t be too much to ask.

The McGuinty government recently earkmarked $1.2-billion for public transit. Running subways 24 hours would cost a fraction of that. If Mothers Against Drunk Driving were really an organization committed to getting drunk drivers off the road, as opposed to a collection of quasi-prohibitionists, it would be all over this — pressuring the province to underwrite what the city can’t afford. Since it is not, it falls on those of us who actually go to bars — and see the cars full of drinkers leaving them — to do so.