Transit for the Rich

Subway construction is finally coming to the fore in Toronto civic politics, after decades of being unmentionable in polite company. Mayoral candidates have finally come round to the obvious – that they are indispensible for a city of this size and that the Miller-Metrolinx light rail plan is not up to scratch. What has yet to seep into public awareness is how we got here in the first place. In a nutshell, this is because transit is basically social assistance on wheels, whereas the key to successful transit is catering to the well-to-do.

In a recent column the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman mentioned taking the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin on his last visit to China: 75 miles in 25 minutes. Yes, China does have traffic issues (and democracy issues for that matter). But they are on to something here and that is that transit ought to hit a high standard: clean, efficient and above all fast. Something that appeals to everyone – including busy people whose time is expensive.

The North American model for public transit, on the other hand, is a kind of consolation service for people who can’t afford a car. The resulting vicious cycle is as predictable as it is hard to get out of: slow, crappy buses, with surly drivers make for a service nobody wants to use, except people who don’t have any alternative; this makes for a small and ineffective constituency for transit, which makes raising funding politically hopeless, which makes it impossible to do anything more than do anything more than tinker with bus routes and sucky light rail.

The slowly dawning realization that Toronto is going to choke on its own surface vehicle congestion is at least a start. But the problem won’t be comprehensively addressed until its politics are fully understood: Public transit has to reach a standard which appeals to everybody. In particular to people who need to be somewhere fast. When it reaches this standard it will win the constituency which allows the funding it needs. Otherwise it will remain a welfare service with welfare standards and welfare funding.