Q&A: Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat on public transit, The Voice and taking a pay cut

Q&A: Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat on public transit, The Voice and taking a pay cut

You left a rather prosperous job as a partner at a private firm six months ago to become Toronto’s chief planner, and you took a pay cut of more than 40 per cent in the process. Who does that?
I don’t know! Look: my friend died of cancer last year, at age 39. Gone. I know this sounds heavy, but I want every day to matter. I didn’t hate what I did, but I love what I’m doing now.

For a professional planner, you’ve got a surprisingly haphazard office. I count four paintings on the floor waiting to be hung. What’s the deal?
Oh no! I’m mortified, because I am actually extremely particular. I’ve got big dreams for this office, but I’m busy planning a city. The walls used to be yellow and there was bad art everywhere, so I painted everything white and ordered new furniture, and I don’t want to hang anything until it arrives.

You’re a big fan of bike lanes and walkable neighbourhoods, which can sometimes put you at odds with the mayor. Your husband played football against Ford in high school. Did that connection help break the ice?
It did. When I told him who I was married to, he said, “Oh, Tommy Freeman! He was big and fast!” My husband’s team won the Metro Bowl, and he was a starting rookie fullback at the University of Guelph. He was hard to miss if you were following football at the time.

Where did you two meet?
At Muskoka Woods summer camp. I was a basketball instructor; he was a waterski instructor. We got married 18 years ago. Today, he runs a company that sells products to five-star hotels—everything from lighting to art.

Your transition to public life has been a tad bumpy. In November, you tweeted: “Now that half of council is considering running for mayor, the speeches are insufferable.” Many people agreed with you, but you took some flak.
I did. Seconds after I tweeted that, a few councillors walked up to me and said, “People are unhappy.” So I deleted it. Was the tweet untrue? Probably not. It did undermine the democratic process, however, which was not my intention.

I’ve heard you don’t watch TV. Why not?
I’m too busy. The only thing I watch is The Voice, with my daughter. I love it. Especially Adam Levine.

Yours isn’t the kind of job you can leave at the office. Can you still go to dinner parties without your tablemates venting spleen about city hall?
I can with my close friends. They’ve created a bubble around me and never ask about work. But everyone else vents, all the time. And nine times out of 10, I totally love it. Their engagement fires me up.

And that other time?
I just want to go home. Especially when they complain about garbage collection. That’s not a
planning issue!

You live at Yonge and Eglinton. What’s your commute like?
It’s a six-minute walk to Eglinton Station. I’m usually running late, so I walk fast. If I get to the platform by 7:30 a.m., it’s a breeze; if it’s a bit later, I have to jam in.

So when you say Toronto is on the verge of a transportation crisis, you’re speaking from experience.
Yes. When I was a kid, the TTC was one of the best public transit systems in the world. Now our commute is worse than L.A.’s, and congestion costs us $6 billion a year in lost productivity. The scary thing is that we don’t have the $2 billion year we need across the region just to maintain the system we have now.

You’ve launched a public consultation initiative called “Feeling Congested?” to, in part, solicit public feedback on how to raise funds for improved transit. What’s your preference?
Anything that’s quick to implement, such as sales and property taxes. Really, I don’t care how we do it, as long as we do it.

Ford isn’t interested in any new taxes. In fact, he’s trying to scrap the land transfer tax, which generated $340 million last year. Is that a mistake?
I can’t answer that. I can tell you there are no pots of gold lying around city hall. This is one lean, mean organization. I can also tell you that if we don’t have revenue, we can’t improve transit. I am a fan of a dedicated transit tax. If I asked you for $60 a year to create a state-of-the-art transportation system, would you pay it?

Well, I might, but a lot of people would say no. Finish this sentence: “Torontonians who want better transit but don’t want to pay extra for it are…”