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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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.