Reasons to Love Toronto Now: because City Hall is finally getting its act together
When Torontonians look for leadership, they’re in the habit of turning to just about anywhere other than city hall to find it. Our political class has long been an infuriating laggard, in stark contrast to the city it pretends to lead. Toronto writ large is an enthusiastic early adopter of new technology. The city’s business class keeps creating jobs (Toronto ranked third for employment growth between 2008 and 2013, among 24 international cities), diversifying into the digital sector (eighth for high-tech employment) and sparking new start-ups (eighth best place in which to start one). Meanwhile, our politicians and public servants fail repeatedly at the simplest reforms. After more than a decade of study and deliberation, for instance, they’re still waffling on the street food file, leaving Toronto far behind the rest of the continent.
New mayor John Tory, in his media interviews last December, described the problem as widespread and systemic: immediately, he perceived a lack of urgency on nearly every file and kicked up a fuss about all the lengthy, cumbersome processes that seem designed to prevent reform from ever taking hold. He’s tearing down that defeatist system by using question marks as crowbars, asking, aloud, all the no-brainer questions most Torontonians had long ago stopped posing because we had given up on ever getting any answers.
What are all these illegally parked cars and trucks doing blocking downtown streets at rush hour? Why are the city’s emergency warming centres closed when it’s obviously cold outside? Can we please speed up the rollout of the Presto transit card? Why can’t the city’s taxi regime integrate new technology? Who do condo developers think they are, closing off entire lanes of traffic for years on end? Why is no one ever held accountable for infrastructure cost overruns, even when they tally in the hundreds of millions? Should half the city’s police officers be earning more than $100,000 per year? Can’t we fix the Gardiner Expressway any faster than this? Is it really so hard to avoid scheduling major road closures the same day as major sporting events? Tory’s first six months as mayor have been defined by a sustained onslaught of Socratic questioning.
The results of his interrogation are both meagre and massive—small steps for Toronto, giant leaps for Torontokind. Suddenly, downtown arteries are free of illegally parked delivery trucks at rush hour. Warming centres are open in cold weather. Bus service, which had been cut back on 104 routes, is being restored. Repair crews have picked up the pace on the Gardiner. The daily grind is easier, or at least it feels that way. Many of the questions are still unanswered, but for the first time in years people aren’t pulling their hair out in frustration, because they believe answers are on the way.
Tory’s reforms are so common-sensical, and so bloody overdue, they are a scathing indictment of all his post-amalgamation predecessors, including Mel Lastman and David Miller—but especially Rob Ford. How could a tax crusader like Ford ignore massive cost overruns on major projects like the Spadina subway extension? How could a devoted car commuter like Ford fail to take action on needlessly blocked traffic lanes? These are the ruins of Ford’s hazy power trip that Tory is cleaning up, and as he does so he chips away at the foundations of Ford Nation.
He could be at it for a while. The city has years of catching up to do, and Tory certainly loves asking the questions. Each day’s work brings a new one to the fore, which the mayor eagerly airs with the media. The press gallery, accustomed to stalking the previous mayor in the hopes of getting a coherent quote on any topic, can’t get the new guy to shut up. Tory has yet to shed his talk show host’s penchant for verbal diarrhea, or his habit of speaking in run-on sentences generously sprinkled with “you knows” and “sort ofs” and other folksy tics.
Our mayor’s ask-questions-first strategy, combined with all his chatter, may come back to haunt him when people start asking him the same reasonable-sounding questions about his own initiatives. Why spend so much money on a Scarborough subway when an LRT would cost less and attract more riders? Who will be held accountable when his SmartTrack plan takes longer than seven years, and more than $8 billion, to complete? But city hall won’t confront those problems for a while yet, and in the meantime it’s being jolted out of its perpetual inertia.
The 21st century belongs to Toronto—or at least it would, if only city hall could keep pace with the rest of us. At long last, there’s reason to think it just might happen.