Toronto’s transit system was once such a wonder that, even into the 1980s, people came from around the world to study how it planned infrastructure projects, how it executed them and how it operated.
That so-called “golden age” also produced transit experts so revered, they got to travel the globe in return. For some, their views have been valued well past retirement age – though not so much in their hometown.
Three of them – Richard Soberman, Ed Levy and David Crowley – recently gathered for lunch and a gab. The Scarborough subway, which is to be voted on again March 28, was not the focus, but it came up often.
“We have to be careful; this idea there was a golden age is a bit of myth,” says Dr. Soberman, former chair of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and lead author of many seminal transportation reports dating to the early 1960s. “We did very good things – on time, on budget – but we made big politically driven errors back then, too. Building a subway [Spadina] on an expressway median was a huge one. Putting the Queen subway on Bloor has turned out to be a mistake.”
“Precisely,” says Mr. Levy, jumping in. Mr. Levy, a planner, engineer and author of Rapid Transit in Toronto, A Century of Plans, Projects, Politics and Paralysis, says that great cities that have been able to sustainably expand subways kept building from the middle out (and they didn’t tunnel in low-density areas).
By not doing Queen right after Yonge, “we missed a crucial starting point for network-building. We’ve never been able to get back to a logical order,” Mr. Levy says. “Call it the Queen line, relief line, whatever, the whole GTA has needed this piece of infrastructure for decades, but politicians keep wasting scarce capital on frills and vote buying.”
“Toronto’s biggest transit problem,” says Mr. Crowley, who specializes in data analysis, travel market research and demand forecasting, “is we’ve overloaded core parts of the subway. We’d basically done that on lower Yonge 30 years ago, when I was still at the TTC. We have to relearn the importance of downtown to the whole region, the whole country. We’re in danger of killing the golden goose.”
Noting that trains from Scarborough and North York are often full before crossing into the old city, Mr. Crowley says that, “data and demand patterns are telling us the stupidest thing we could do is make any of our lines longer [before putting another subway through the core].”
“Much as I like the Eglinton Crosstown idea, and it’s overdue, too,” Mr. Levy says, “I fear what it will do to Yonge-line crowding. Again, the sequence is so wrong.”
Are bureaucrats shirking their responsibility to speak truth to power?
“We sure needed [TTC chief executive] Andy Byford to be blunt about this Scarborough subway plan,” Mr. Levy says. “He should have spoken up.”
Might the reticence be what some call “the Webster effect”? (Mr. Byford’s predecessor, Gary Webster, was fired for objecting to then-mayor Rob Ford’s insistence the entire Eglinton Crosstown go underground).
“Unwillingness to speak up isn’t new,” Dr. Soberman says, citing pressure from North York politicians in the early 1970s that spurred two well-regarded TTC executives to vote for the Spadina subway in the expressway corridor “even though they knew only idiots would think it was a good idea.”
The difference is, he says, “back then politicians listened, even if they didn’t always take our advice. They respected facts. Now they only want confirmation of their preconceived ideas, and too many people [bureaucrats and private-sector consultants], who should be providing objective professional advice are playing along with the game.”
“On Scarborough,” Mr. Levy says, “you won’t find a single independent transit professional who can support this, but they won’t say so publicly. The three of us can say this stuff without recrimination; we’re retired.”
“The minute the politicians speak,” Mr. Crowley says, “the civil service and the consulting community are happy to say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Yes, let’s study that.’ I started to see this trend in the 1980s at the TTC. I’d raised serious, fact-based concerns about Sheppard-subway ridership forecasts and the role of the project. It upset people. I was told, ‘You’re never supposed to do that – you have to play along.’ “That’s when I knew it was time to get out,” says Mr. Crowley, who went on to a career with international private-sector firms. “This Scarborough boondoggle, if we were talking about gas plants, it could bring down a government, but transit is ‘special’ for reasons I don’t understand.”
“We’ve also overestimated the potential of these sub-downtowns, especially on jobs,” Mr. Levy says. “It’s twisted our spending priorities.”
“Transportation planning has become a bullshit field,” says Dr. Soberman. “A civil engineer wouldn’t say a bridge is going to be safe if his calculations show it might fall down, but a transportation planner can say anything. There’s no downside other than you waste public funds.”
“And the more we waste public funds, the harder it is to raise tax revenue for transit needs,” Mr. Levy says. “We’ve badly underfunded transit, but people don’t trust politicians to spend money well. When was the last time we did anything good? The Kipling and Kennedy extensions? That’s nearly 40 years ago. Most people recognized Sheppard was a mistake, but people who learned from it are ignored. It’s often impossible to even get good ideas considered. Politicians have a role to play, but …”
“It’s always been political – always will be – but we need to get smarter about where politicians join the process,” Dr. Soberman says. “If you don’t generate good ideas, you’re guaranteed bad results. If you generate good ideas and they’re ignored, you won’t do any better. Current politicians are comfortable ignoring the people most likely to generate the best ideas. And the media, you guys, haven’t always helped. This subway-versus-LRT debate was simplistic and maddening. Scarborough deserves better transit, but the best options aren’t even being considered.” (Dr. Soberman would simply buy new rolling stock for the SRT and rebuild a bend to accommodate new vehicles.)
“Maybe we’re part of the problem,” Mr. Crowley says. “If the professionals had done a better job diagnosing problems, identifying prescriptions and educating politicians and the public on issues and options, politicians wouldn’t have moved into the vacuum.”
Getting in the last word, Mr. Soberman says, “too many people in positions of power don’t seem to know what they don’t know. Whether it’s at the province and Metrolinx or at the city and TTC, if we don’t figure out new governance models, we’ll never regain the public trust and Toronto will suffer for generations.”