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Some cures for transit angst

By Gordon Chong
Former chair of GO Transit and TTC vice-chair

Save Transit City, build subways, build more bike lanes, build HOV lanes, build HOT lanes and levy tolls!

Transit and transportation have generated a lot of heat and ink with no end in sight as they have moved to centre stage in the mayoralty campaign.

Improving public transit and reducing congestion are worthy public policy objectives, but is it worth all the angst, hysteria, hyperbole and righteous indignation?

Improved public transit is critical for the transit-captive poor who are car-deprived. However, I would wager that even they would prefer to get around in their own vehicles, if that were an option — unless, of course, they live and work near a subway line.

Why? Freedom of mobility! Our self-interest motivates us to want to retain some measure of control over our lives in a world where it is diminishing daily. We want to go where we want, when we want and with whom we want. We don’t really yearn to get squeezed into crowded public transit.

Most people, rich or poor, fantasize about cars. They want freedom! If in doubt, peruse all the media advertising. If still in doubt, note that all the nouveau riche who used to ride bicycles in mainland China now drive fancy cars and are clamouring for more despite the congestion.

Maybe cars should be radically downsized, as well as less expensive and more environmentally friendly. They could be called POVs (Personal Occupancy Vehicles).

Short of that fantasy or building subways everywhere, what else can be done?

Why not incentivize people to car pool and van pool even more, like an organization called Smart Commute is already doing?

Why not legalize and incentivize entrepreneurs to operate minibuses? After all, vans and minibuses most closely replicate the comfort, convenience and flexibility of the SOV (Single Occupancy Vehicle).

Come to think of it, so do bicycles!

Hard-core cyclists and some of their snide supporters must fantasize about their own network of bicycle paths that would rival the road network — not a bad goal if approached in a sensible fashion. Cyclists have a lot in common with drivers.

Both want control!

Cyclists want to go where they want — the wrong way on one-way streets and on the sidewalk. Cyclists want to go when they want — through red lights and stop signs. I’ve even seen cyclists at 6 a.m. flying down sidewalks while decked out in helmets! They want to go with whom they want — most of the time alone — just like those in SOVs.

No matter how grandiose their fantasies, it doesn’t justify bike lanes on major arterials. It also doesn’t excuse the dismissive arrogance toward taxpayers with opposing views at public venues.

As for the University Avenue pilot project — mothball it! We don’t need another pilot. We have dozens of them every spring, summer and fall. They’re known as lane closures for road repairs. Competent professionals can measure the delays and extrapolate them to lane removals for potential bike lanes. Then they’ll have the required metrics for an informed debate.

There is another decades-old pilot on Bay Street beside Toronto City Hall. The curb lane is supposed to be reserved for buses, taxis and bicycles between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays. It is clogged with cars every day because the restrictions are not enforceable due to the natural spillover of north-south traffic from other routes. What conclusions have been drawn?

I spent the first 30 years of my life south of St. Clair Ave. I was a cyclist as a teenager until I ran into a couple of car doors. I spent the following 30 years of my life sleeping in North York but working in downtown Toronto. Toronto is not, and not likely to be, a bicycle town.

In order to improve traffic flow for drivers, cyclists and transit users, greater use must be made of ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems). The University of Toronto is a leader in the field and its knowledge should inform Toronto’s strategies.

Long-term, we should be striving to put public transit underground. It lasts longer and frees up road space for bikes, cars and pedestrians. Even LRT is better underground than above-ground. Switches and doors do freeze. And removing just 10 per cent of the cars from the roads will have a measurable visible impact.

Work with human nature, rather than against it — and let’s discard the moralizing and zealotry.