A Streetcar Named Congestion

I’ve changed my relationship with my car. I was a commuter for 12 years, driving to work from a Montreal suburb. Last year I sold my house and bought a condo in the working class neighbourhood of St. Henri. My new neighbourhood is a Jane Jacobs’ success story: there is mixed income housing, a high street with small businesses, repurposed old buildings and a very distinct sense of eyes on the street. Two blocks west is a tree bordered square with an art deco fountain. Apart from the parking tickets I keep getting, I couldn’t be happier.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs

I no longer need to drive, except to visit my mother’s nursing home, which is difficult to access by public transit. A trip that would take me over an hour using the bus and metro takes me 15 minutes by car. I’m still thinking of selling it, although that would mean losing a significant amount of money.

I left the suburbs for a few reasons. The most important ones, however, had to do with the commute. Although I lived relatively close — in Dorval — the wait times on the highway were getting longer. To make the drive’s duration more predictable, I often opted for a back route along the Lakeshore Boulevard. However, with the completion of Montreal’s superhospital looming, I knew that route would soon be just as congested. Over the years I’d also felt a more prescient fear of having a collision and it was beginning to weigh on me. When I spied an 1860s building near work being converted into condos, I went to an open house and plonked money down immediately. 12 years of commuting had made me very decisive.

One aspect of the decision had to do with what I call transit-shaming. Smokers know the feeling. Tobacco-shaming is down to third or fourth place in the shaming game, after green and fat shaming, leaving inveterate perfectionists scrambling to find other reasons for making friends, neighbours and strangers feel shitty about themselves. Well-intentioned hostility springs forth from these creatures like heat-seeking missiles. It’s a form of energy that some of them, especially those who know it’s their job to know better, can simply not contain.


So let me tell you what my drive to Dorval was like at 4:00 in the afternoon. Since the highway was slow, I would take the Lakeshore. A few kilometres from home is when I would see them: the diabolical über-cyclists. They were easy to spot because they wore cycling gear that was loud, bright and ugly. They also rode in the middle of the one homebound lane because they thought they were doing the speed limit and would take an agonizingly long time to pull over, creating a chain of frustrated drivers in their wake. Anyone who dared to honk risked being treated to side-door kicks or side-window spittle.

1105-toronto-mayor-rob-ford_full_600And so what was I thinking? Mostly this: I too spent seven years as an urban cyclist. However, I obeyed the rules of the road out of fear, a healthy fear. I wore a helmet, drove an old-fashioned upright bike, had a front carrier, a back mud-flap and stayed off the crazy busy streets. I loved how fit I was during that time and felt I was experiencing Montreal the way it was meant to be experienced: slowly, meticulously and at street level. This idyll ended when I had a knee injury and was advised to stop cycling altogether. Around this time my mother offered me a car so I could visit her in Ontario more often. That’s how I became a driver again.

So while Jane Jacobs’ name and legacy are being invoked in the run up to the mayoral election, and Ford is being vilified in some quarters for his wish to “Stop the war on the car,” I am in two minds about what this actually means. On the one hand, I understand the kind of urban life Jacobs was trying to preserve in her landmark book, The Death and Life of American Cities. I’m living that life right now and all of the elements that make a city worth living in are at my doorstep. On the other hand, my life in the suburbs was good too. I had helpful neighbours and great dog-walking friends. I had easy access to green space and local cultural events, some sponsored by companies in the area. I lived life on a larger spatial scale — I had to drive to do any shopping — but it seemed natural in that setting and actually kept me from spending too much.

What I find outdated, or perhaps overrated, is the idea that creating disincentives will make drivers change their transportation choices. For those living within a stone’s throw of a subway station, this might be true, but for those of us who have good reasons for driving, it only makes life more stressful. I’m a migraine sufferer and taking public transit is hard on me. Friends with kids think along the same lines: they are able to create more family time if they drive their kids to school and pick them up on the way home. Others work rotating shifts, which means they need to travel during slow-service hours. In short there are a lot of good reasons for driving, reasons that won’t respond to disincentives. When I encountered those über-cyclists, for example, I would just switch to a parallel route, one with more stop signs and traffic lights. I wasn’t happy about it, but it didn’t stop me from driving. And I only switched because of the risks these cyclists were taking: I didn’t want to be responsible if one fell in front of my car.

So I think it’s time for us to update our thinking about how space changes the further out one travels from a city’s center.

The LRT in Madrid, Spain.
The LRT in Madrid, Spain.

Left is a photo of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system in Madrid, Spain. What this photo conveys is the complete victory of green thinking. Not only is this a transit system that is environmentally friendly — it’s run by low-level electricity — it also glides over a pathway of grass. This is precisely how the Toronto Environmental Alliance would like to see things done and here is how they would rationalize it:

Why not just build subways?

• It costs more to build. A lot more. Subways cost an average of $300 million per km. LRT is $100 million per km for surface routes and $250 million for underground routes.

• It costs more to maintain. Not only are underground stations more expensive to build, but, they also cost more to light, keep safe and secure, and clean.

• By spending less money per kilometre to build, our money literally takes us further. By some estimates, the Transit City plan would provide 10 times as many people with access to transit than the subway extension Mayor Ford is proposing.

• Speed is a trade off with access. Subways go faster by providing stations further apart. LRT stops can be closer together, meaning shorter walks and easier access.

• LRT can be built faster. Some lines could open in as little as two years. The existing Sheppard subway extension took a decade.

• Subway isn’t needed everywhere. 

• Being above ground is good for business. When the ride is fast and smooth, passengers like being above ground, where they look can out the window, and see passing businesses as they go by. 

• Subway construction takes longer and requires digging large sections of road, and thus is much more disruptive for local businesses, residents, car and bus traffic and pedestrians.

The LRT situated in the median of a Madrid street.
The LRT situated in the median of a Madrid street.

One problem with their argument is this: LRTs are spatially disruptive. They will take up space on city streets that are already congested and, like the Spadina Expressway that Jane Jacobs was instrumental in fighting, they will physically slice up neighbourhoods. Madrid’s use of grass as bedding for the rails and trains is novel and certainly environmentally friendly, but that does not alter the fact that the train, and the land around it, form a divider, one that can cut one part of a neighbourhood off from another.

The fact is that urban planners may not be able to keep naturally formed neighbourhoods from being carved up in ways that counter spatial unity: tracks may run right through socially cohesive spaces. There is also the issue of frequent stops. While taking a light rail trip of 6 or 7 stops sounds fine, it is less attractive to those commuting in from longer distances. A trip of 30 stops on light rail is less attractive than 15 stops on a subway. But urban-centric thinkers are ignoring, perhaps deliberately, the significant differences between the two.

Reading the history of Toronto’s transit system makes one thing perfectly clear: there has been a long series of feckless half-measures that have led to the current mess Mayor Ford has inherited. The pattern of making bold plans and then becoming skittish over them is writ large in the narrative. There seem to be two major problems: the raised Gardiner Expressway that is cutting the waterfront off from the rest of the city and the lack of efficient transit servicing areas in the middle and far distances from the downtown core.

Efficiency is why light rail isn’t attractive to residents of places like Scarborough: they know subways are faster. That’s why when Ford says he is trying to curb spending at city hall, his followers, the Ford Nation, are in agreement. It’s not because they want to see libraries shut down. It’s not because they don’t care about services. It’s because like a lot of home-owning suburbanites, they understand the sacrifice that comes with large purchases. And this is where they differ from those Torontonians who would only be riding LRTs for 6 or 7 stops. Ford’s followers agree with his complaints about over-spending, like the Sugar Beach project, because currently, places like Sugar Beach aren’t convenient for them to visit. $12,000 pink weather-proof umbrellas really don’t make sense to those whose transit wait times feel punitive. One view, that the Ford Nation is made up of artless philistines, appears to be the common view held by downtown pundits and it’s unfair. After years of competing for funding, commuters in the outer reaches have been put on hold for far too long. The Ford Nation is their resentment personified. It was predictable, inevitable.

And funding is what is needed in Toronto. Montreal’s Ville Marie Tunnel, while not universally loved, is a structure that put the A720 highway in an underground conduit, leaving Montreal’s connection with its waterfront intact. A similar plan could replace the Gardiner — most of Union Station is underground after all — but watching the battle over subways in Toronto tells me the political will to spend money on a structure like it won’t be there while cheaper and faster options beckon. Montreal also has a subway system far more complex and user friendly than Toronto’s, but Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympics, and the funding they brought, helped Quebec politicians realize the subway system relatively quickly.

The Ville Marie Tunnel
Montreal’s Ville Marie Tunnel

In the end, a lack of funding and resistance to Ford the man may end up being Toronto’s undoing. The resistance to the mayor’s ambitions is revealing: it comes from patrician Toronto hipsters who, it must be said, like their leaders to look and act just like them. These are the infamous “latte-sipping elites,” those downtowners who refer to themselves in the ironical and who are gleefully taking Ford to task for his appetites and the videos they’ve spawned. Their fury belies the staid composure Toronto and its inhabitants are famous for: when it comes to social media, their criticisms of Ford are only available by the landslide.

Rob Ford is no Frank Gehry, but that doesn’t make him any less of a visionary. And that’s because we don’t choose visionaries; they choose us. The undertaking Ford is attempting — to make subways and not LRTs the standard for Toronto — outsizes the ambitions of more recent mayors. It’s a grand gesture and grand gestures require grand personalities. Ford is not what most Torontonians expected. He’s polarizing and the scale of his plans, especially his willingness to move money around to achieve them, is jarring the Toronto establishment in profoundly evocative ways. However, the Toronto Transit Commission needs help and I suspect Ford is their most likely saviour. Residents should remember that and remember that leaders do not need to look like them to succeed.

Diversity doesn’t begin and end with special interest groups. Accepting Ford and his demons may be the most enlightened thing Torontonians can do.




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  1. “Efficiency is why light rail isn’t attractive to residents of places like Scarborough: they know subways are faster.”

    Transit users anywhere in Toronto want rapid transit that takes them to the maximum number of locations. It has nothing to do with speed – that’s a construct that assumes that people are only going from ‘point A to point B, as fast as possible’. The majority of TTC users are women and most of those are making multiple trips a day – to kindergarten, daycare, school, work, dentist, doctor, parents’ house, friends’ house, kids’ activities, and shopping. The proposed 3-stop subway line REPLACES THE SCARBOROUGH SRT AND NOTHING MORE. Apart from a final deke up to Sheppard E, Rob’s subway serves no new customers. They want to be able to get to those places. Remember, at least one third of TTC passengers DO NOT OWN A CAR.

    The proposed 7-stop LRT serves potentially 47,000 people in Scarborough – that’s twice as many as the subway and includes the Centennial campus. That’s why it’s better. And it wouldn’t disrupt anything as it would run along corridors of land that don’t have roads on them. This is another Rob Ford bait you’ve swallowed whole.

    Most Scarborough residents, in polls, prefer a quicker, cheaper, faster solution by the way. If you believe what Rob Ford tells you, you’d believe he has a vision. Oh wait …

    And by the way, what in tarnation is a ‘patrician Toronto hipster’? I’ve lived in Toronto for 30+ years and have yet to spot one of these exotic creatures.

    This is a sloppy, lazy opinion piece that bears very little resemblance to actual transit and planning policy or to the needs of residents across the entire GTA.

    By the way, I was at Sugar Beach the other day and also Toronto islands. Packed with people – many of whom don’t own cars, all having a great time.

  2. Oh, there’s a moron here but the only Oxy is being taken by Mayor Ford these days. And what is a “latte sipping elite” when Tim Horton’s sells lattes? Just more sloppy writing without substance or meaning. .
    In the previous election campaign, Ford was championing private money used for infrastructure. He totally failed at that, and now no one is going to talk to a crackhead about investing. I was down at Sugar Beach yesterday, there are BILLIONS being invested in condo development in that area. The city should be spending even more on parkettes and recreational areas for the people who are expected to move into the area. Instead the short-sighted non-visionary Ford is braying about a few million dollars invested for those taxpayers, citizens, folks.

  3. Yes, if you’re in a hurry, don’t rely of public transit. Another awful repercussion of the $2-billion losing Scarborough subway plan is that it will tie up any money that could have been used for the much more rational and needed DRL.

  4. I’m not an urban planner and I haven’t even followed what the Ford’s are saying apart from wanting subways. I’m writing as someone who has lived in Toronto and Montreal suburbs AND downtown. I lived on McCaul in the late 1980s and in Mississauga in the early 1980s. I have friends still in both locations and I hear what they’re saying. I understand that you disagree and I actually welcome a discussion since I think talking about this is a good thing. But please understand my perspective–I make no claim to being an expert. Saying that, I do not believe what you are saying about subways serving no new customers. Seriously. That seems incredibly naive.

  5. By the way, if Ford had kept his big fat mouth shut after being elected, Scarborough’s LRT would be up and running next year. The original plan, which Ford scuttled, had that transit line in place for the Pan Am Games. Instead, Scarborough has nothing – no LRT and no subway – and will have nothing for at least the next decade.So this idea that a subway line is going to get Scarberians moving “faster” is nothing but a cruel joke. And even if the 3-stop subway does get built most people will still need to take a bus to and from the subway stations anyway, so the actual time saving vs the longer LRT with more stops is minimal.

  6. But wait, there’s more! If Ford’s such a visionary where’s my casino?! There was a perfectly good plan in place for Woodbine to upgrade, expand and get gaming tables. But no, that was too reasonable for Mayor Ford so he blew up those plans and came up with his own crack-pipe dream about a huge MGM-Grand development on CNE grounds. And once again, Ford had to turn that into a WAR which became so polarizing. and so full of Fordian b.s. about jobs and tax revenue, that not only was the MGM idea stopped in its tracks, Ford made the casino issue so toxic no one in the current campaign will even say the word. And just like the mirage of a Scarborough subway, the city’s gamblers will have to wait, and wait, and wait for some time in the far future when we might see some action.

  7. If you’re not following what the Fords are saying, then I wonder how you can attribute visionary status.

    Some facts about transit:

    The proposed 3-stop subway will replace the 5-stop Scarborough SRT. It will serve the same people as the Scarborough SRT does today, with a possible extension to Sheppard East. The TTC estimate is about 24,000 people served. It will not be completed until 2023 at the earliest. The additional cost of (at least) $1 billion over the fed & provincial funding will put 1.6% on our property taxes for the next 30 years. It does nothing for thousands of people in south Scarborough, east Scarborough, Malvern, Morningside, etc etc.

    Unless the city (post-Ford) can agree on other revenue tools, or unless the city (post-Ford) scraps this wasteful plan, there will not be any $$ for other much-needed transit projects.

    The 7-stop proposed LRT would serve 47,000 residents including Centennial. That’s 23,000 new customers who’d get rapid transit, who now have only buses. It would have been almost ready, if Rob hadn’t scrapped it. It was also fully paid and a master agreement signed.

    You must understand that Rob Ford has no intention of improving transit anywhere in the city. His subway plan is simply a way to deflect building transit as long as possible. Far from being a visionary genius, he simply is a man without much of a clue and very little real interest in the people he claims to help.

    Irene, you might also want to know that the proposed subway will take a different route than the SRT corridor and will result in massive disruption during construction. If you believe the Rob Ford myth that subway construction doesn’t affect the above-ground world, then get your friends to explain why Front and Bay streets have been down to single lane traffic for the last two years. The proposed LRT would run in the current SRT corridor, which is not a roadway, and construction would not disrupt any road traffic.

    You can find more information from Code Red Toronto who have done excellent comparisons of cost and service for all the proposed new transit routes.

  8. Afraid to lose some money if you sell your car? How much are you paying for insurance if you rarely drive, or pay for gas and maintenance? If you truly need a car but only once in a while, what about those ones you can rent by the hour?

  9. As the former Chair of the TTC, Karen Stintz, and fellow members of the board, under the direction of Rob Ford, REDUCED bus service all across Toronto, to “save taxpayer” money. We got crowded buses, delays in new rapid transit lines, and penny-pinching of everything.

    Why? Because the Fords do not use pubic transit on a regular or even occasionally basis, except if it is a photo-op. As along as the unclean peasants are unseen and underground, and do not get in their way as he drives himself around town, the better it is for him.

  10. All of you should talk to ppl in Calgary and ask them how happy they are with their LRT system. Here’s what a friend of mine said: Thanks, Irene! Subways over LRTs, absolutely. I lived in Calgary for 10 years of LRT (dis)service….the best thing it to talk to ppl who are already dealing with an LRT system, don’t you think?

  11. If something was underground in Calgary it would have to be submarines, not subways. Or didn’t your friend notice when the city was flooded in 2013.

  12. There are certainly merits to building a subway in Scarborough, but the LRT plan was fully-funded, supported by urban and transit planners alike, and was ready for shovels in the ground. The cancellation of this plan was yet another example of transit projects becoming the victim of political forces. You claim that Ford inherited a mess, but he has done nothing but propagate it in this instance. No solution is perfect, both the LRT and subway plan have its pros and cons, but it is very questionable if the pros of a subway justify the inordinate costs. Not just the extra cost of building a subway, but cancelling the LRT plan cost the taxpayers almost a hundred million dollars in sunk costs–this is just money that was literally thrown down the drain–and all in an effort to build a much more costly, in both the long and short-term, project. Not only is the subway more expensive to build, but it also more expensive to maintain, and with low initial projected ridership this will place even more pressure, for decades, on already squeezed TTC operating budget. The net effect is:

    1] Nearly $100 million dollars has been burned.

    2] Budgetary pressures have increased tremendously due to increased costs, putting other desperately needed projects in financial jeopardy.

    3] Operating service will be pressured by this subway project, stifling the ability of the TTC to increase service levels.

    3] Relief for the SRT replacement has been delayed by almost a decade, pushing the timeline for relief back, and pushing the timeline for others projects back.

    There was a plan, ready to go, that was good. Maybe not ‘the best,’ but good and cost-effective. To me, this subway project is just more of the same old same old. This is exactly an example of politically driven special interest spending. In this case, the spending is on Ford’s base in Ford nation, and thus apparently because it is not a union it bypasses the radar. It should be patently obvious, because even by Ford’s admission, the people in Scarborough want a subway. The question is, is that the fiscal conservative thing to do? Many people want jobs forever, or raises forever, or free money, so the mere fact that some want it, does not automatically mean it should be supported. Did Ford act as a principled fiscal conservative, look at the numbers and say, “Well this subway would be nice, but we don’t ~need~ to spend the money to relieve the congestion in this area.” Or did he gleefully access ‘revenue-tools’ so that we can all pay more taxes to buy his votes from his base for him?

    I’m all for vision, but to me Ford’s vision for this city is foggy and unclear. On one hand he claims to be a staunch fiscal conservative, looking out for the taxpayers and making sure that spending is under control. On the other hand he recklessly cancelled the Scaborough LRT, literally wasting a huge amount of our tax dollars and put in place the most expensive alternative possible. Not only that, but he continues to spout the need for more underground transit and derides any other cost-effective means of transportation. In these hard economic times we see many other cities reaping the economic benefits of mixed transit infrastructure and stretching transit dollars by making smart decisions with funding. To me that is what a fiscal conservative ~should~ be pushing for.

    I think Ford has duped the mathematical illiterates amongst us into believing that we can pay for massive amount of costly transit infrastructure by cutting the ‘gravy’ train. The problem is that we patently can’t. There just isn’t enough gravy. Even this tiny stub could not be covered, and we’ve already taken away free lunches and zoo tickets. It’s like trying to buy a house by picking the change out from under the sofa cushions. If Ford ever wants to regain the support of rational fiscal conservatives, and not just continue pandering to the lowest common denominator, then he should start acting like one. The problem is that he doesn’t think he has too, and the reality is unfortunately that he doesn’t.

  13. I was in Amsterdam recently. They have LRTs. You know this whole business about them being efficient–no standing there while over-stuffed ones go by, no transit car ‘pile-ups’? Well, not true. And in that city, the only cars on the street, mostly, are cabs. Commuters there didn’t look particularly thrilled either. But when cities opt for this, they have to say it’s great, right?

  14. LRTs are far less cost-efficient compared to subways, or even buses, as proven by reports published by the American Public Transit Association (http://transto.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/apta-costs-revenue.pdf). It would be far less expensive and disruptive to provide frequent express bus service, on rush-hour dedicated transit lanes, for the same quality of service as street-LRTs.

    On the other hand, according to current TTC and Metrolinx contracts, it is possible to build subways in Toronto for $100 Mn/km, which is not too different from Vancouver or Montreal: “Toronto’s True Subway Costs” (http://transto.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/torontos-true-subway-costs/).

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