At first, it seemed like 2016 would not end on a terrible note. After a few solid years of tampering, tinkering, flipping, and flopping, it looked like some consensus had been reached and we might actually move forward to see transit improve in Scarborough. Just as we were about to raise our glasses to a new era of stability into the holiday season, the usual suspects of politicians decided to rip off the scabs and open the old wounds of frantic and disjointed transit plans once more.
This political tinkering with transit in Scarborough is far from new; in fact it extends over more than 30 years. We all know that things have heated up greatly since 2010. Around that time some people proposed the idea that subways were the top of Toronto’s transit food chain – the universal solution to every travel problem – and that proposing anything else was merely forcing mediocrity on unwitting victims. In all of the GTA, this way of talking has taken hold strongest in Scarborough where it has been deployed in battle terms: subways vs. LRTs, subway-rich ‘downtown’ vs. subway-poor Scarborough. It is said that nobody wins a war, and in this battle it is transit riders in Scarborough who have fared the worst: actual planning and construction has been thrown aside as haphazard and ill-informed proposals waste our time and our money.
So why has it been so popular for politicians to talk like this? Well, according to investigative journalism and informed editorial, this has been political gold for the people who use it. We could go on about the self-proclaimed “Defenders of Scarborough” and “Subway Champions,” but that is not the point of this article. After all, we are of the opinion that the best way to deal with folks who seek attention by promoting foolishness is to ignore the foolishness that they promote. Instead of perpetuating the “battle” that politicians win and transit riders lose, we would like to promote something more useful: new and better ways of talking about transit in Scarborough.
Our resolution for 2017 is that any discussion about the new transit that we need in Scarborough be based on two central points: 1) network, and 2) value.
Contrary to many of our politicians, riders of the TTC know that public transit functions as a network with many different parts. It is this network effect that allows us to get from a huge number of ‘Points A’ to any number of ‘Points B’, and it is this effect that makes a public transit system useful for actually getting around a city to conduct any one of the many trips that are useful in daily life.
I suppose we can forgive our politicians for not knowing this since we do not see them much on the inside of a transit vehicle unless there are photographers around. Forgiving is, however, not the same as accepting short sightedness and ignorance. We will not accept the latter.
Thinking that the TTC is the subway is an extremely partial view that ignores that even with 3 or 4 times the amount of subway we have now, most TTC trips would still involve a bus or a streetcar in order to get on the system in the first place. That is unless you think it is normal to have to walk a few kilometres on at least one end of every trip you make. Think about how some people talk about subways as the only type of public transit. Now imagine a similar proposition for cars:
“Since driveways are in the way and nobody likes side streets, we will instead replace all of these in Scarborough with three…no maybe four…mega parking lots. Only the best parking lots for Scarborough! World class parking lots.”
Ridiculous, I know. Yet when people talk about a subway or two – or even a Smart Track – as a silver bullet answer to all of our travel woes, they are basically dumbing down our complex transit system in the same way. And this could seriously punish Scarborough transit riders for yet another generation.
Subways can be an important part of a network, but they are rarely a network in and of themselves. Even cities like London, Hong Kong, New York and Paris – cities built to densities that make public transit far more useful than in the ‘designed mostly for cars’ sprawling GTA – rely on a variety of public transit arrangements, not only what we call subways here.
Since a functional and useful transit network allows a whole bunch of different people to start and finish their trips in different places, anyone who is talking about new transit should be able to talk about the trips you need to make. And these trips should not just be a blank statement about “going downtown”: people talking like this seem to forget that people need a way to get to a subway station in the first place. On top of this, even if a rider could get to a Line 2 subway station in Scarborough, the subway going downtown is not much use if they cannot fit onto a train at Bloor-Yonge because the entire system is out of whack.
People need to know not only how to get from their home to work, but also to the grocery store and how their kids will get to school. They also need to know “by building this, what will we lose?” A very popular mantra for at least four years now has been that we can have whatever we want, through magic and for free. Meanwhile, the reality has been that the same people proposing this have mostly cut services, and raised user-fees; deciding to not talk about those things while bragging about “respecting the tax-payer.” The fact remains that sometimes by paying for one thing, we cannot pay for another, and that brings us to the second important point about how to talk about transit: considering value.
Since transit networks exist to get us from Points A to Points B, and can be built in any number of functional and useful ways, there are many possible ways that a good network could be built. So when we are looking to build one, or add on to an existing one, how do we choose the ones that make the most sense for our city, or our part of the city?
Regardless of how you choose to dream or cover every need, at some point you will run into limitations and tradeoffs. Unfortunately, this fact is a hard element of reality. Limitations can relate to things like space or natural resources, but in Canada, in this day and age, the prime limitation that we are told we face is that of money. On the subject of money we could take a tangent on what are essentially gifts of public money to corporations, but that is beside the point today. For the time being, let us accept that there is a given amount of money to be spent and the challenge is about how to spend it to provide the biggest benefit. Enter the concept of value.
One chronic mistake that well-meaning transit advocates have made in recent years was to talk about cost. In comparing the Line 2 subway extension (aka “the Scarborough subway”) to an LRT running through Scarborough Town Centre and Centennial College towards Malvern, one LRT argument has been that it is cheaper. As advocates for better transit in Scarborough we do not want cheap things for Scarborough and therefore reject this argument. We want good things, and that is why we preferred the LRT replacement and extension of the SRT. Why? Because it would serve more destinations, more people would live near the stations, because it reaches further into Scarborough, and because it is already designed and ready to be built.
Seeing as the LRT would have not only been better, but since it would also have been less money, it is substantially more valuable for our investment. Previous plans that would connect far more neighbourhoods and the universities and colleges have been shelved because of a lack of money. More buses? Definitely. Even with an extensive LRT network, many people who live, work, shop and play in Scarborough will need to ride a bus for part of their trip. This does not need to be a bad thing: even if we wanted to, we could not completely change Scarborough by moving it from its currently spread out form to one intensified around higher-order transit. The suburban design of Scarborough is therefore something that needs to be considered as we build the most valuable network.
Moving forward in 2017?
Interestingly, some analysts have noted that the politicians may have put their own pet project at risk through their own tinkering. Indeed, their talking more about this has given us a reason to raise our voices about the initial circumvention of actual transit planning processes, particularly the engagement of current riders.
In light of all of this, we think that the noise created by our politicians, crafted in populism, developed for sound bites, and delivered as Scarborough vs the World, further damages our ability to get around. As citizens and as transit riders we propose that we can drown this out by speaking intelligibly; by making our own contributions that are based on experience yet grounded in principles. Centering this talk around networks, and the value of the possible additions to it, is already a dramatic improvement on our civic discourse. It is then up to our “leaders” to keep up, if they so choose. After all, we have spent a lot of time waiting unpredictably at all-too-crowded stops.
We are no longer willing to do so into 2017. The LRT option is clearly superior to the subway in terms of network and value, and Scarborough transit riders deserve no less.
By Shaun Cleaver, STA Ally