Speaking as the senior content editor at Transit Toronto — but only for myself and not necessarily for others involved in the operation of this website — I note that we at this web site have tried to stay out of political matters. This is not an easy thing to do, since all politics is local, and there are few issues that have more impact on us locally than public transit. However, Transit Toronto is still a site that is about the history of public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. We exist to log what used to be, and how we came to be here today. Outside of our mailing list, we do not have a forum or a comment platform to hold debates, and while we generally believe in the importance of good public transit in building a vibrant urban region, we’ve refrained from serious activism. After all, with Steve Munro, CodeRed TO, TTCriders and others doing the heavy lifting, why should we step on their toes?
But transit activist Steve Munro has released an important editorial that you have to read examining the next five years of public transit in Toronto, and how the TTC plans to handle the increasing demands for service. Frankly, it’s a mess. Ridership is rising, but little to no money has been provided to ensure that Toronto’s buses, streetcars or even its subways can handle the loads we have, much less the loads we are going to encounter. Serious issues of maintenance, fleet size, and a lack of transparency to even highlight the issues ahead threaten to make our commutes in 2018 even more arduous than they are now. Indeed, reading Steve Munro’s editorial, I have a chilling sensation of deja vu. It’s like we’re standing on the verge of twenty years ago.
In the mid 1990s, the Toronto Transit Commission encountered a double whammy of a sharp recession and steep government cuts. Funding cuts made TTC properties dirtier, vehicles less comfortable and the whole system less reliable. The loss of service and the sharp increase in fares cut TTC ridership by 20% and made commuting in Toronto substantially worse.
What was most frustrating, however, was how little attention politicians paid to public transit issues at the time. Not just during the recession-bound 1990s, but throughout the 1980s, regardless of the political stripe of the party in power at Queen’s Park, needed investments in the day-to-day operations and maintenance of Toronto’s public transit were shunned by politicians that preferred to invest tax dollars in big, flashy projects like suburban subways whose capacity far exceeded the available ridership.
Rather than ensure that the service was available and maintenance performed, public transit was the easy target for cuts. After all, who would miss that last bus operating late at night? Who would notice if we stopped maintaining our signals and tracks on a monthly basis and let it all slide to every two?
Well, we didn’t notice, until substantial areas of our city were accessible during rush hours only and, in August 1995, a inadequately trained subway driver pushed his train past an inadequately maintained stop signal and ploughed into the back of another train in the worst accident the TTC has ever seen.
That, at least, shook us up, and convinced politicians that the day-to-day maintenance and operation of public transit was important. The TTC enacted a state of good repair program, to ensure that while the system might not get fancy new lines, the lines they had would still run reliably.
And with the riding public pushing politicians on transit issues, we made progress into the new millennium. We had a Ridership Growth Strategy that reduced crowding and succeeded in pushing TTC’s annual ridership past the half billion mark. Until Rob Ford and Karen Stintz made short-sighted cuts in the name of gravy hunting, almost every Torontonian was within a five minute walk of a transit stop that was served at intervals of every thirty minutes or better, from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
The election of Rob Ford in 2010 is a symptom of how voters lost focus on the importance of public transportation issues, and the need to fund not just the splashy, flashy new projects, but the day-to-day, bread-and-butter, unglamorous operations that simply ensure that Torontonians get from where they live to where they shop and work, and back again.
As Steve Munro illustrates, by carefully and clinically laying out the evidence, the lack of leadership at City Hall, from the mayor’s office all down the line, has allowed the TTC to deteriorate to the point that days akin to the abysmal service quality offered in the mid 1990s are possible once again. The task of fixing this problem lies not with the current politicians at city hall, but the voters who elect them.
If you want better transit service throughout the city, and if you want more meaningful investment than a handful of subway extensions — if you want buses and streetcars that are more frequent and less sporadic — if you want new rapid transit lines built to where they’re needed, not where politicians think they can get votes, then you need to speak up.
You need to ask the candidates running to represent you in City Hall this coming October where they stand on improving public transportation. You need to press them on the need to increase the TTC’s operating subsidy, and to stand firm and demand transparency and accountability from the commission. You need to demand a solid plan, and you need to push back against and call out any platitudes that are thrown your way. And you need to get out and vote.
The good news is, we know this approach can work because it’s worked before. From 2000 to 2010, we saw a substantial increase in service. We have a streetcar on private right-of-way on St. Clair that, in spite of what its detractors say, is contributing to the renaissance of the area. We had, for a moment, a reasonable plan to significantly increase rapid transit service to every corner of the city, at prices we taxpayers could actually afford. The bad news is, just as freedom is only maintained through constant vigilance, so to is good governance. It’s time to pay attention to transit once again.
In the coming municipal election, TTC riders need to ask themselves if they are really better off now than they were four years ago. They need to examine why they might not be so, and they need to get out and vote. It is not just the next election that is in their hands, but the future of their commute.