Steve Munro writes the public transit column for Spacing and is a contributing editor to the magazine. This column is cross-posted from Steve Munro’s personal blog
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Yesterday, David Miller announced that he would not seek a third term as Mayor of Toronto so that he can devote his attention to his family rather than to political battles. In his announcement speech, the Mayor spoke of his many accomplishments including those which improve public transit. Indeed, in today’s Globe, when asked to name one of his greatest accomplishments, Miller replied:
One of the things I passionately believe, and one of the reasons I ran for elected office to begin with, was about public transit.
Indeed, improving public transit to make Toronto a â€œWorld Class Cityâ€ was part of Miller’s first, unsuccessful, bid for a Council seat in 1991. The next election, in 1994, brought Miller to the old Metro Council.
I came to know then-Councillor David Miller in his role as a Commissioner on the TTC board after the city’s amalgamation in 1998. He had a good sense of issues and advanced his positions clearly and strongly, but without grandstanding.
After the mid-1990s funding and service cutbacks, the TTC needed strong advocacy to turn it around. Ridership dropped from a 1988 high of over 463-million to a low of 372-million in 1996, creeping back over 400-million by 2000. The TTC’s only plans for service expansion were a few new subway lines, but when these would be funded and built was anyone’s guess.
Operating subsidies fell over the years, and farebox cost recovery grew from about 70% in 1988 to almost 85% by 2000. Partly this was achieved through fare increases, and partly through service cuts. This placed a greater load on riders to fund the system while quality and quantity of service declined, particularly on the surface network.
The minutes for the April 10, 2002 Commission meeting contain a small item that would fundamentally change transit planning and advocacy:
CC-2 Commissioner Miller submitted his communication dated April 5, 2002 to Chair Ashton with respect to the development of a ridership growth strategy.
COMMISSIONER MILLER MOVED THAT STAFF BE REQUESTED TO BEGIN DEVELOPMENT, IN CONSULTATION WITH COMMISSIONERS, OF A REPORT ON A RIDERSHIP GROWTH STRATEGY.
THE COMMISSION APPROVED COMMISSIONER MILLER’S MOTION.
March 2003 brought the Ridership Growth Strategy. In its original form, it focussed on changes that could be achieved at minimal cost, quickly, to build the quality of transit and, through that, ridership across the system. (The plan was later amended to include an extension of the Spadina or Sheppard subways, but that was not its original intent.)
These changes included:
- Service improvements to increase capacity and to make off-peak service more attractive
- Surface transit rights-of-way
- Additional commuter parking
- Increased transit priority signalling
- Increased capacity on the Scarborough RT
- Metropass Volume Incentive Program for major business and institutions
- Reducing the cost of the Metropass relative to token fares
- Introduction of a Weekly Pass
- Reduction of fares in real terms in 2006/2007
Although many of these goals took longer to implement than originally expected, almost all of them are now in place or well underway. (Replacement and upgrading of the SRT is a separate issue about which I will write in another post.)
At the heart of the RGS is the premise that good transit must embrace the entire system, the entire city. A transit system, whose growth during boom times depended on almost effortlessly gathering new riders from subway extensions into developing suburbs, needed to attract and recapture riding with an existing route network and minimal capital investment.
Many argue that Toronto should have built miles of subways over the past decades, but the simple fact is that funding was not available at the level needed, and there was no real belief in transit as a city-wide alternative to motoring. Indeed, debates ran far longer on where the next mile of subway would go than on the need for overall improvement to the network.
Subways were considered as tools to spur development and to address peak road congestion. Meanwhile, surface transit starved, and the motto â€œTake The Carâ€ had real meaning. Even serious transit advocates had to admit that transit just was not â€œThe Better Wayâ€ for far too many potential riders.
By 2003, David Miller was a declared candidate for the Mayoral election, and to the surprise of many and the delight of his supporters, he won a come-from-behind campaign.
Transit funding, especially if it doesn’t involve spending billions of dollars from other levels of government, is unpopular at Council. Any moves to increase operating subsidies in support of better service or more attractive fares inevitably bring increases in transit subsidies well over the rate of inflation.
New services and lower fares are not break-even propositions. Councilllors may sound pro-transit, but when it affects the City budget, their love for new spending fades. Always they hope to wring pennies from existing budgets to pay for dollars worth of improvements. The math doesn’t work.
Changes flowing from the RGS required sustained political commitment. The turnaround of spending priorities and the support from Council would not have been possible without a strong, pro-transit Mayor even if this came slower than advocates wished.
In the 2006 campaign, Mayor Miller recognized the need for rapid transit to embrace the suburbs. Some may have thought this was a rehashed â€œsubway in every boroughâ€ plan from the 1980s, but another major change was in the works.
Toronto’s new Official Plan took a fundamentally different view of suburban arterials from their actual built form, and looked forward to redevelopment into â€œAvenuesâ€ of medium-rise housing with active sidewalk-level commercial development. An integral part of this plan was the need to see transit as serving linear development along the Avenues, not very high desnity nodes at widely spaced subway stations. Transit, as typified by the North Yonge or Sheppard Subways, simply did not fit with this new view of Toronto.
In March 2007, TTC Chair Adam Giambrone announced the Transit City Plan which completely changed thinking on how rapid transit would be provided across a wide part of the City of Toronto. The Spadina Subway extension, already a fait accompli and not worth the political capital to revisit or revise, remained, but all other thoughts of subways vanished. They were replaced by a network of Light Rapid Transit (LRT), a fancy name for streetcars running in substantially or completely reserved rights-of-way.
Again, selling this plan, both to the public, to Council and to other levels of government took strong support from the Mayor’s Office, and Transit City could not have happened without David Miller behind it. Indeed, Miller’s support was instrumental in convincing Queen’s Park that LRT was a viable option first for the Premier’s Move Ontario 2020 plan, and later for the Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan. LRT plans are now underway in other Ontario cities, and there’s hope we will all discover what the rest of the world has known for decades — LRT can work if it is implemented properly in suitable locations.
Mayor Miller continues to support a return to â€œhistoricâ€ levels of cost sharing between the farebox and subsidies. The revenue/cost ratio now sits close to 70%. Current economic limits may slow its further decline, and indeed riders may benefit more from spending on improved service rather than reduced fares. This debate will play out in coming months as the TTC and then the City wrestle with their 2010 budgets.
Recently, the TTC published the Transit City Bus Plan (TCBP). This continues the focus on surface operations and transit’s attractiveness by proposing a core network of routes where service would always be at least every 10 minutes. This complements the subway policy headway of 5 minutes at all hours. Like its predecessor RGS, the TCBP makes incremental changes to the system to keep the cost of each change modest and to allow selective implementation of each stage. Most importantly, the TCBP looks at transit service from a network viewpoint, not as a single project of little benefit to most riders.
Again, such a plan could not have emerged without support from the Mayor that will be vital in gaining acceptance through the City’s budget process.
The most contentious recent debate was the funding of the new streetcar purchase. Two major problems beset this process. First off, the TTC has delayed discussion of new streetcars for years seeking, with Council’s blessing, to continue operating its existing CLRV and ALRV fleets indefinitely, at least from a budgetary perspective. This, coupled with ongoing concerns about accessibility, placed the streetcar network in a precarious position of simply collapsing under declining reliability of its cars and pressure to make the system accessible â€œnowâ€.
Indeed, many cars are already out of service and the spare factor for the fleet is unacceptably high. Cars go through overhauls, but this barely keeps pace with fleet condition and little ability to add service. Substantial improvement awaits new cars that won’t be on the streets in significant numbers until 2013.
The bidding process for new cars was not a smooth one, and it was not until 2009 when a final proposal was selected. Funding was the next battle, and here I must say that I believe Mayor Miller’s attempt to get Ottawa money through the stimulus plan for the new cars was a poor choice. However, it was a choice that was endorsed by City Council unanimously. When this scheme came unravelled, the streetcar deal was kept alive by juggling TTC and City funding plans so that Toronto could pick up the â€œfederalâ€ third of the project.
Whether Toronto should seek federal help on a large scale for transit, or focus on local and provincial funding, will be a major question any new Mayor must face. Vague talk about â€œefficienciesâ€ and â€œcreative funding arrangementsâ€ are blather designed to deflect rather than answer the question. I will turn to the issue of a future Mayor’s transit platform in a separate article.
To David Miller’s great credit, he never tries to bamboozle electors about transit funding. Transit costs money. More transit costs more money. The real task is to find an overall philosophy about how transit serves the City and its neighbourhoods, and how various alternative schemes would fit into that philosophy.
Transit isn’t just an envelope in the budget to Mayor Miller, it is part of building the city, part of enabling everyone in every part of the City to get around without three and four car garages. Sadly, Queen’s Park, through Metrolinx, hasn’t got that message yet, and many battles past and future will be needed to bring transit funding to local transit operations, not just to big-ticket pet projects. That debate at least was started by David Miller, and his successor would do well to continue the fight.
What is David Miller’s legacy?
Transit is a vital, central part of City planning and building. No longer is the TTC trying to fit one more rider on the roof of every bus and streetcar, and despite many problems with fleet availability, plans are still in place to continue improving service. Transit is no longer something only downtown Councillors with their â€œpamperedâ€ constituents fight for, it’s a concern in wards right across the City. Showing people what can be done and encouraging them to ask for more is a vital part of advocacy and leadership.
I am deeply saddened that we won’t see a third term, that the changes now underway must be completed by others, indeed could even be threatened by the short-sighted who would trash â€œMiller projectsâ€ without regard for their intrinsic value.
I remember a meeting in the Mayor’s office early in his first term. A confident, happy Mayor, proud of his city, sat with his legs up on the couch while a group of us discussed what was needed for transit. We’ve come a long way since then.
When the first LRV rolls along Sheppard Avenue or into a redeveloped eastern waterfront, when Councillors demand even more routes as part of the 10-minute network, when cutting transit service becomes utterly unthinkable at budget time, David Miller should be there if only in spirit.