Toronto needs to maintain control of its transit planning
In the summer of 1972, Toronto east-enders had had enough. The Toronto Transit Commission wouldn’t hear their petition for a new bus route on Jones Avenue. They descended on TTC headquarters, armed with a copy of the Municipal Act, which said that the TTC, like all city committees, had to hear public deputations. Eventually, the commissioners capitulated. Henceforth, all TTC meetings would be open to the public. Not long after, a TTC staff plan to eliminate all streetcar service was soundly thumped by public outcry at the newly open Commission meetings.
I think about the Jones Ave. bus when I ride the King streetcar, whose recent improvements have brought incredible ridership growth for what amounts to pennies. More recently, Torontonians have been fixtures at city hall, demanding safer streets. At our July council meeting, we completely reformed how we regulate and design city streets with a safety-first approach.
Sidewalk Labs has a different idea for transit governance. It proposes that Canada, Ontario and Toronto should jointly create a public administrative body with many of the regulatory and management powers that would normally belong to city council. Among other things, this entity would oversee the setting of all traffic and transportation in the IDEA District: parking, speed limits, traffic lights. Considering that the area is about the size of the downtown core, that’s a lot of power for one unelected body.
Sidewalk says Waterfront Toronto, which the three governments created to manage development in the area, is a good model for this new agency. A year ago, I met with Waterfront officials to discuss Sidewalk. I was told that only those who had signed NDAs could get details about the plans. Worse still, Torontonians aren’t allowed to see minutes of key meetings of the Waterfront board. And over the past year, a number of board members and advisors have walked away from the project, citing issues relating to privacy and public accountability. That doesn’t give me a lot of faith in any new government body modelled on the Waterfront blueprint, much less one to control something as crucial as transit.
Sidewalk deploys a thicket of buzzwords to explain why we should do away with local control. “Smart Cities”; “pioneering a 21st-century mobility network”; and, that old stand-by, “innovation.” Don’t buy it. It’s just the latest entity that thinks it knows how to run a city better than the city’s inhabitants do. A privately developed “smart” transportation system hidden behind a wall of closed meetings and NDAs is no substitute for local democracy.
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.