Editor’s Letter: A train bound for nowhere

Editor’s Letter: A train bound for nowhere

Why is Toronto so clueless when it comes to public transit?

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

The London Underground features 272 stations. New York’s system has 472. Both cities have problems, but getting people from point A to B isn’t foremost among them. Toronto’s feeble yellow U and green slash, by contrast, are dotted with 75 stops plus a smattering of above-ground stations, many of them in various states of decrepitude. If a city overflows with great restaurants, museums, parks and concert halls, but you can’t get to them without tearing your hair out, what’s the point?

In this politically polarizing era, few issues find public consensus. Bad transit is one of them. The woeful state of affairs holds Toronto back in just about every category: economic activity, tourism, productivity, quality of life, reputation and more. Torontonians have become inured to this reality. We’re so resigned to a life of mass transit frustration that we seldom pause to question the status quo. Why is Toronto, which is great at so much, so fatally clueless when it comes to transit?

Photo by Patrick Marcoux

We decided to find out. Toronto Life’s deputy editor, Lauren McKeon, partnered with freelance reporter Stephen Spencer Davis, who has worked with the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Times, Slate and the CBC’s investigative unit, to get answers. Stephen spent months talking to experts, former and current commissioners, bureaucrats, and politicians of all stripes to get the dirt.

One of the TTC’s biggest problems dates back to 1995, when Mike Harris was elected premier. In short order, he made the unforgivably myopic decision to cut off provincial funding to the transit agency, leaving the system too reliant on farebox revenue. That’s manageable when everything’s peachy. But, when riders leave the TTC—as 85 per cent did during the pandemic—its funding pool shrinks, which exacerbates existing problems and provides residents with even more reason not to take it. It’s called a transit death spiral, and we’re in one.

Photo by Getty Images

Harris was just one factor. Politicians of every leaning have drummed up their own hare-brained schemes to help get themselves elected, never mind the viability of their proposals. Once in office, they realize that what they scribbled on the back of a napkin is in fact not achievable, practical or cost-effective, but they’re compelled by ego and duty to pour money into it. And so ensues the parade of pet projects that never see the light of day. Transit City, David Miller’s plan for a vast light-rail network, was scrapped by Rob Ford, who wanted subways instead. Ford’s successor, John Tory, pushed a plan he called SmartTrack, which really wasn’t so smart at all. What do we have to show for all this nonsense? In the 16 years since Transit City was released, Toronto has burned through billions of dollars, and the transit map has barely changed.

Even when a project does, by some miracle, break through and get built, it’s mired in scandal. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT, for example, is millions over budget and years behind schedule. There’s still no end in sight, and the reasons for its delays are shrouded in secrecy (more on that here). So how do we break the cycle of inaction? How does Toronto build a transit network that is clean, efficient, reliable, safe, wide-reaching and designed for the future? Step one is to recognize where we’ve been and what to avoid. In that respect, our sprawling cover story, “Who Broke the TTC?,” is required reading.

Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be reached via email at [email protected].