The Essential Service


At the beginning of this month, I returned back home to Toronto after a short time away. I came home on a Saturday and on Monday I was immediately reacquainted with what has been a fixture of my life growing up in Toronto, that being the Toronto Transit Commission. Since returning home, I’ve been regularly making the commute to the University of Toronto campus, just as I did for four years as an undergraduate, to spend the day working on my Master’s thesis.

One of the great past-times of anyone living in Toronto is complaining about the poor quality of our public transit system. Most of the time, they’re not wrong in doing so. Transit workers may often be disgruntled and unhelpful, the underground subway system never seems to fail to produce delays that for many commuters are the difference between being punctual and tardy, and the costs that the rider must bear seem to be ever increasing. This is to say nothing of the cramped quarters on the train and the vast array of “colourful” characters that one encounters on a daily basis.

Commutes are usually excruciating. Nothing about them is really meant to be enjoyable, no matter what your chosen method of travel. They’re something like Limbo or Purgatory, or maybe even Hell – I’m not a theologian so I can’t quite nail the analogy. Nonetheless, commutes are time spent with people you really don’t care for and have no reason to be around, whether they be fellow public transit users or other drivers. Commuting is the time in between getting to work or school so that you can tend to what really matters or the time before you arrive at home, which is where you’d usually like to be as quickly as possible at the end of the day. Kevin Fanning, in his essay entitled “How the Dead Live,” describes what is likely the average state of mind for any commuter,

But, holy Jesus fuck, do I spend time wishing I were somewhere else now. Have you seen traffic? This commuting thing, are you familiar? Have you seen these assholes out on the road, going to their shitty jobs in their shitty cars their whole shitty lives? Have you seen us? It is wasted time, doing no one any good of any kind. We just sit there, burning hope and spitting out carbon monoxide.

Sometimes, on a rare night when there is no traffic, and I’m rushing down the highway at 65 mph, and I’m being passed on both sides by cars doing 85 or better, I think: I get it. When this is your life, you probably wouldn’t mind getting in a terrible car accident, just to break up the day a little. Just to have a memory of something happening during the time you were between other things.

Complaints about the Toronto Transit Commission are valid. The service is poor and seems to be getting worse each day with no sign of improvement. It’s a little extra salt in the wound of commuting, something no one really enjoys doing. In Toronto, we say that TTC stands for “Take the Car.” It’s not really, as it claims, “The Better Way.” For many, if public transit can be avoided, then one should do so and should be nothing more than a last resort.

This is typically the discourse that we find in discussions about public transit in this city. It is a system that is incredibly flawed when it should be serving us well and doesn’t deserve our support when it subjects those its customers to such poor service. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone such complaints and I myself am not immune from them. For many Toronto residents, public transit is indeed an option that they can avoid making, and if it is clearly an inferior choice, then Torontonians shouldn’t bother opting for it. This being the case, it is left to politicians to ensure that an effective and worthwhile system is in place so that consumers do make the decision to choose public transit. Efficacy should no doubt be at the center of any debate over the issue of public transit in Toronto.

My concern here, however, is something that is too often missing from these debates, namely why public transit is so vital to this city. We know that millions of riders rely on this service every day and that the city is always at risk of a shutdown should the TTC grind to a halt. Knowing who many of those riders are, however, brings to light the fact that a secure, reliable, and robust public transit system is a matter of the city’s very livability and quality of life in both the local and international context. For the latter, it is vital to Toronto’s attractiveness on the world stage, particularly as a potential home for investment. With regard to the local context, however, it is a matter of social justice that calls for the cooperation of all levels of government.

In a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Toronto was named the second best city in the world in terms of opportunity, trumped only by New York City. The Globe & Mail’s brief summary details Toronto’s strong and weak points according to the report:

The city ranked #1 in terms of quality of living, clean air, sports and leisure, as well as skyscraper construction – if you count that as a positive.

Where did T.O. fail? The cost of public transportation – three bucks a ride thanks partly to the strongly unionized TTC.

The article notes in an addendum that the ineffectiveness of the TTC is due to more than a strong union, but also a matter of a lack of cooperation between the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Cities in Canada are indeed difficult to manage, particularly those are large as Toronto, given their lack of “home rule” and access to revenues enjoyed by other levels of government and dependence on transfers from the province. As the provincial government withholds transfer payments, cities become more reliant on “own-source” revenues, such as the property tax, one of the few forms of revenue to which Canadian cities have access. Therefore, as the costs of such initiatives are downloaded on to cities with limited fiscal capacity, the city in turn downloads those costs on to consumers. One of the primary sources of revenue for one of the world’s largest public transit systems is merely the cash that riders drop in to the till as the board the bus or train.

The social justice issue emerges when we understand who these riders are. Any trip on the TTC not spent staring down at one’s smartphone or shoes – the latter is how I tend to spend my own commutes – reveals an incredible diversity of clientele. It simply isn’t the case that public transit is chosen as the last resort for those who cannot afford a vehicle. While some riders may be your average blue collar worker, the “suits” can always be seen sharing riding space with those workers, students, seniors, etc. Certainly, there are those who make the choice in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Many are on their way to work, many are on their way to class.

For many riders, public transit acts as a leveller in allowing access to the entire city whatever one’s class, income level, occupation, or ability. The TTC has an active and vital role in making this city livable for the incredibly diverse population about which it loves to boast. Caroline Andrew, Professor of Politics at the University of Ottawa, notes the potential of public transit to offset living costs for many residents of any city. Andrew writes,

Having to commute two hours a day because housing costs push people to the outskirts or because housing has moved to the suburbs and housing is too expensive in proximity to employment already imposes costs on certain groups in the population. Inadequate public transit would add another layer of inequality. Municipal government decisions about public transit are thus social justice questions, with clear implications for gender (women use public transit more than men), race and class (the use of public transportation by visible minorities is higher because of the interrelation of race and class), and physical ability (the disabled are highly dependent on public transportation).

Public transportation is not simply an alternative to the use of a private vehicle or a fallback service, but an essential part of a city being accessible to all its residents.

Lastly, the fact that Toronto scored so high in the previously mentioned report is further proof that it is become a “global city,” a term which remains a bit vague but has nonetheless gained serious traction in the study of urban government. The current accepted basic definition of such a city is perhaps best elucidated by Tom Courchene, who describes a global city as having dense concentrations of human capital, research and development that allow them to become key coordinating and integrating networks in their own regions as well as international networks.

This is quite a bit to digest, but suffice it to say that a city like Toronto is a centre of commerce and innovation and that to continue doing so must attract the world’s finest talent and investment. The finest talent, which Richard Florida calls “the Creative class” requires talent, technology, and tolerance, the last exemplified by a community welcoming of different lifestyles and choices. Toronto certainly boasts wildly diverse cultural and art scenes and a thriving LGBT community. Public transit and the offer of bicycle paths and lanes might certainly prove welcoming environmentally conscious young professionals and artists, but that tolerance, if a city is to treat its residents equally, ought to extend to those for whom public transit really might be the only way.

Cities like Toronto contribute significantly to not only local growth, but to the growth and prosperity of its region and Canada as a whole. The fact that public transportation was singled out by PriceWaterhouseCoopers goes to illustrate that this issue is the focus of attention on the international stage. A reliable and affordable public transportation is key to making a city truly modern and global as well as livable to its diverse population. With Toronto acting as a representative for both Ontario and Canada, both the federal and provincial levels of government must consider a more collaborative effort in addressing the issue of public transportation as both a matter of social justice and fostering Toronto’s status as a global city region.

***

References:

Caroline Andrew, “Municipal Restructuring, Urban Services, and the Potential for the Creation of Transformative Political Spaces / Caroline Andrew” in Changing Canada, Political economy as Transformation. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003)

Tom Courchene,  2004.  ‘Citistates and the State of Cities’.  Municipal-Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada.  ed. Young and Leuprecht.  Kingston and Montreal:  IIR, 83-119.

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2 Comments

  1. Sapan

     /  May 23, 2011

    I couldn’t have said it better Ravi. With respect to the union situation, it is questionable if the amount of savings from reduced overtimes, and wage correction could make a significant difference in the operating budget. That being said, there is definitely some changes to be made so that we don’t see that many bus drivers on the sunshine list. However, an independent report states that the TTC is one of the more cost effective transit systems in North America, serving more per dollar than many other transit authorities. Sadly, I do not see the transit situation improving that much. We are the only country among the industrialized world to not have a national transit strategy. Jim Flaherty has made it clear that the feds are not in the business of fixing potholes, or any urban issues for that matter. All this talk about the cost savings through privatization loses sight of the fact that transit systmes in most cities operate at a loss. Less crowded routes are subsidized by more crowded ones etc. While at face value this probably does not make economic sense, it is of tremendous importance in terms of the social justice issues you have outlined. Furthermore, a flexible and reliable transit translates into a flexible and reliable workforce. I know personally that many people doing night shifts have had to give up their hours because of the recent cuts to the evening bus service. Did the TTC save some money? Yes. But it has also made it that much harder for small businesses and wage earners to operate in the evenings and the weekends.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading as always. I think you’re spot on throughout and your last point is especially interesting. That flexible service is exactly what you’re going to need to attract Florida’s so-called “creative class.” And while the TTC is perhaps technically more cost-effective in terms of what it provides for the dollars we put in, I think the lack of collaboration between the different levels of government still results in the costs being downloaded on to the riders. I was a bit worried when I saw Kathleen Wynne on the Agenda the other night talking about how certain new lines were going to be taken on entirely by the city. It’s a bit of a quagmire this whole issue.

      Reply

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