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A futuristic vision for the TTC - from 1910

With remarkable prescience, a century-old report anticipates Toronto transit’s current predicament

Feb 07, 2009 04:30
Iain Marlow
Staff Reporter

The tale of the present-day TTC’s mediocrity seems to have been a tale foretold - for a fee, to be precise, by a New York City consulting firm called Jacobs & Davies, Inc.

In 1910, the company’s engineers produced a report for Toronto’s council on the feasibility of an underground rail network, recommending the system’s creation with reference to the flourishing underground systems in London and New York.

Three things about the report are noteworthy, nearly 100 years after it was submitted.

First, noting the “fan-shaped” nature of Toronto’s development, it favoured the construction of a subway that looks astonishingly similar to the downtown “relief” line featured in Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan from 2008 and debated by council in late January: “We believe the wisdom of this proposal is indubitable … some diagonal routes would seem to be strongly needed, and of course the longer they are delayed the more expensive this surgical operation will become…”

Second, the report predicted the current situation of Toronto’s public transit under the city’s control: “…we would not be understood to favour municipal operation, as we are convinced that such operation, even with the best will in the world, is usually incompetent and wasteful and unsatisfactory to the public.”

And third - ironically, considering this report resulted in city council commissioning another report, which ultimately voided the first - it prophesied the difficulties associated with having transportation subject to the political whims of councillors, noting the difficulty in creating and sustaining a rail network “with ever changing government.”

In late January, city councillors voted 31-13 to ask Metrolinx, the provincial agency tasked with rolling out the region’s transit system, to prioritize the “relief” line over a Yonge line extension into York Region - moving it from a 25-year plan into a 15-year one. The line is designed to loop from Pape or Donlands down through Union Station and back up again to Dundas West.

The move symbolizes the desire of some councillors to thicken the downtown core’s strained transit network over expanding into the suburbs. But York Region’s vice-president of transit and Metrolinx’s chair both seemed anxious about Toronto not playing by the regional plan’s rules. And so again, the debating continues; meanwhile the TTC rusts.

But as the century-old report implies, we should not be surprised by the state of the TTC, which acts heroically under the strain. Toronto’s public transportation has a surplus of demand and dissatisfaction and a deficit of money and political courage. “Maybe we do have the system we deserve, given the inattention we’ve paid to it and the lack of investment that has occurred over a number of decades,” says Eric Miller, director of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto.

“We need a much more complete system, a much denser network, a higher frequency system, more high-order transit, both within the city itself and out into the 905.”

We’re behind, but we know that. In Toronto, we have underserviced neighbourhoods, subsidized routes into the city’s fringes, and unreliable service in the core. In rush hour, the subways and streetcars are bursting.

“Sure, it’s nice to have a seat, but in any big city in the world, people stand,” says Paul Bedford, Toronto’s former chief planner and a board member of Metrolinx. “The collective `we’ is going to have to figure out how bad we want to invest in building the transit networks we need. That so-called relief line, as far as I’m concerned, is just one of many lines that makes total sense … You’ve got to build a network.

“But you can dream all you want if you don’t have the funding sources.”

The cobweb-like networks of London or New York are not always comfortable, either. But there is a sense that they befit the cities they lay beneath. They were created in the heady days when businessmen invested in subway systems for profit, not for the public good. Toronto already suffered from poor service and belligerence from the Toronto Railway Company, and privatization did not seem the route to take.

The first subway line was not the result of a funding of “vision” by politicians. The TTC dug from Union Station to Eglinton Ave. only after a surplus piled up during World War II, when gas was a luxury, there was a surge in ridership, and the TTC was unable to invest in new bus tires, let alone new streetcars.

So they proposed a subway under Yonge and Queen Sts. The Yonge line was opened in 1954, and they eventually built the other line on Bloor St. instead of one along Queen St., but by then things were changing. Rates of car ownership have soared, suburban sprawl and highways have rolled out across North America, and urban landscapes have shifted to favour the automobile, says Scott Haskill, a senior planner at the TTC.

Though Haskill is hesitant to draw comparisons between starting new lines then and now, it appears that we only rolled up our sleeves to dig a new subway line after the impetus of a global war. And although surveys, Haskill says, show riders don’t mind fare increases as long as it means they will get better service, some of the funding moves for the larger networks, such as London’s congestion charge, required politicians to take huge risks. Heading into a global recession, it’s unclear whether money and valour will be readily available.

Bedford estimates, in published journal articles, that the transit system Greater Toronto needs would cost around $100 billion. Such a network would require stratospheric levels of funding. That could mean charging tolls on all the 400 series highways, the Don Valley Parkway, and the Gardiner, which Bedford estimates would raise almost $1.5 billion a year. More might have to come from a greater share of the gas tax, part of the income tax, and portions of federal or provincial sales taxes.

“This type of revenue menu,” Bedford writes in Planning Futures, “is neither unique nor radical. It is how major urban transit systems are built, funded and sustained in major city-regions around the world.”

For Steve Munro, an influential transit critic, the issue is simple: If we want people to climb out of their cars and onto the TTC, public transit cannot loom as an uncomfortable, off-putting obstacle between points A and B.

“We have to not make do with `just good enough,’” Munro says. Because talk of road tolls and increased fares has continued without anyone really having a clear idea of what it would be like to have a truly great public transportation system. The system must morph into a pulsing facet of the city, as distinct and pleasant as Queen Street’s bistros.

“The goal is to make it easy to get around the city,” Munro says. “The TTC has done such an appalling job of showing what good is.”