STEVE MUNRO: The mayor of Transit City

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 “World Class City” 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 “Take The Car” had real meaning.  Even serious transit advocates had to admit that transit just was not “The Better Way” 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 “subway in every borough” 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 “Avenues” 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 “historic” 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 “now”.

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 “federal” 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 “efficiencies” and “creative funding arrangements” 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 “pampered” 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 “Miller projects” 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.

17 comments

  1. Is the popularity of transit sustainable without rapid transit expansion? How is it possible to secure funding from higher levels of government for LRT projects with trivial improvements to travel times? And isn’t LRT in Toronto a top-down proposal created without consultation of the kind of transit expansion Torontonians would like to see?

    We’d probably see greater benefits from improved bus service and a cheaper elevated northern crosstown line subway line. But who knows? LRT was apparently chosen from the outset, while subway costs inflated with palatial stations and mandatory use of TBMs. One day the TTC’s priority was to extend

    It’s been almost seven years and not a single new subway station has been opened. Tomorrow, a new major could simply come in and reverse most of the minor progress made under Miller in frequency fairly quickly.

  2. I think reversing Transit City, though no doubt a temptation, will not be straightforward. First, there’s the matter of gaining a two-thirds vote in council to re-open a major decision — hardly a foregone conclusion, barring a complete turnover in council’s make-up after 2010. Then there’s the politically radioactive gesture of snubbing the billions allocated by both the feds and the province to Transit City ($10 billion in total has been committed to date). It’s one thing for an anti-transit mayoral candidate to beat the drum about Transit City, but quite another to refuse to accept that kind of cash. Lastly, the consultation and design process is well underway, with completed or in progress EAs in hand. Doesn’t sound like “minor progress” to me.

  3. When David Miller took over the city from Mel Lastman, I rode the buses on Jane, and the state of the buses on that route made me reflect on the hand-me-down buses I rode in Mexico. When San Diego buses wear out, San Diego sells them to Tijuana. When Tijuana can’t get any more use out of them, they sell them down the road to the transit services at Los Cabos. And when even the mechanics at Los Cabos can’t patch them up… the TTC buys them.

    I don’t think that way any more. Give David Miller his due: for all the things he’s got wrong, despite all the expenditures I can’t justify, from the fake beach and the wooden waves on Queen’s Quay to the council pay hikes, David Miller has kept the TTC afloat in difficult times. Not only that, he got us multi-modal (bus/bike) transport, which we badly need. Now, if we could get a paperless transfer system and a distance-based fare, a reloadable metrocard, peak-hour fare system going… we’d have something spectacular.

  4. To everyone out there who has the knee jerk reaction that a subway is needed under every road, street and avenue, I say “put your money where your mouth is”.

    Talk is cheap and it costs nothing to say LRTs are not the answer, give us a subway. So easy to say that subway costs are inflated, that LRTs are too “minor-league”.

    But, tell me this, who’s going to pay the tab for all these new subway lines (and remember … EVERY ONE wants a subway that is NEAR them, not on the far side of town) ? People grumbled about the new city taxes (property, license plate renewals) and the coming HST. What do you think building even ONE new subway is going to cost ?

    And, don’t even think for one minute that the rest of Ontario, never mind the rest of Canada, is going to jump in and show you the money.

    When any one advocating subways can finally show a VIABLE means of funding for more than one subway line (not subway stop), then I’ll listen. Until then, these guys are the ones dreaming and know nothing of what they speak.

    These are the guys who go out and buy/lease a BMW when they can only afford a Ford. You know where they’ll be shortly (in debt) and they would have you believe that is good for the city too.

  5. “Toronto’s new Official Plan took a fundamentally different view of suburban arterials from their actual built form, and looked forward to redevelopment into “Avenues” 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.”

    so basically, transit city anticipates the future uprooting and permanent displacement of thousands of people (many of very modest means) currently living on suburban main thoroughfares, in order to reshape the suburbs in conformance to some academic ideal of urban design? why not just work WITH the suburbs, instead of trying to force them into jane jacobs-compliance? frankly i am unimpressed with “sidewalk-level” retail in new condo developments downtown, and would hate to see the low-rent high-rise-and-strip mall landscape give way to a bunch of nail salons and dry cleaners. i’m not a traffic planner but i am a commuter and from where i sit (er, stand, frequently with an armpit in my face) “high density nodes at widely spaced subway stations,” properly integrated with the existing bus network, could better convey traffic downtown while preserving the low-cost suburban neighbourhoods that serve as springboards for immigrants and provide most of the remaining affordable housing in the city. it strikes me that with miller especially “transit” wasn’t so much about getting people where they need to go as it was a component of a larger vision of “urban” toronto that refused to acknowledge that post-war neighbourhoods have any value whatsoever. it’s weird because it’s exactly the same myopia that gave us those suburban neighbourhoods in the first place.

  6. John Spragge: How are the lower-capacity, breakdown-prone hybrid buses on Jane now much better than the old workhorse GMs that were there before?

    Where were you in 1994 when David Gunn took over? The state of vehicles at that time was very poor. Thanks to Gunn’s initiatives, the bus fleet was refurbished a couple of times over and the piles of dead buses lying around every garage disappeared. Things weren’t nearly so bad in 2003 as you’re painting them to be.

    What we need now is for the momentum of real growth in the system to continue.

  7. @funding fred: At the risk of going off topic, you could substitute “subways” with “electrification of the GO system” and “LRT” with “diesel train sets”, and have much the same argument.

  8. funding fred: bond issue? IPO? Why does it have to be government money? The money could come from anywhere.

  9. A bond issue is borrowed money, paid for by higher city taxes. An IPO would be a sale of a transit asset — not impossible given the voracious invstor appetite for infrastructure assets. But given the experience in the UK, and Toronto’s unpopular 407 privatization experiment, I don’t think it will ever happen.

    Subways could be paid for by doubling property taxes (back of the envelope calculation). I’m not sure Torontonians would be willing to pay.

  10. Funding fred: we will pay for infrastructure we can actually use. We complain about property tax hikes and license plate renewals because we see that we’re paying more without any substantial progress. Who likes that? And you’re attacking some phony argument for subways under every street no one made. One northern crosstown line would improve transit for hundreds of thousands of people who would be a short ride from rapid transit instead of a long one.

    Where does the money come from? Trivial gas tax hikes? Expressway tolls? Property tax hikes?

    Who knows? No one ever asked us what we’d like to see. People like Funding fred merely assume they know what we all think, that we want low taxes and substandard transit infrastructure. What happened to transit advocacy? When did the advocates start to think that voters are so illogical?

  11. Personally, I think Mayor Miller should be commended for his vision on transit, specifically with respect to Transit City. But the problem is that “vision” is only part of what’s needed. The other critical factor is effective “implementation”. Yes, the love affair with the subway runs deep in many quarters … but I think that much of resistance from many potential supporters of Transit City had to do with the ongoing mess that is the St. Clair ROW project. There are many people who want improved transit who nonetheless have the niggling suspicion that the City has learned nothing from this fiasco. Implementation is the big elephant in the room which the writer above seems to avoid mentioning (but which in all fairness, I think he’s mentioned at other times). Sure, praise the Mayor for his vision… but bottom line is that vision isn’t enough.

  12. I think his poor vision comes from the fact that he was elected to stop a bridge to the island airport and to clean up corruption at city hall. He isn’t the right man for the job, but it’ll take some “cooling off” before people come to understand the era better.

  13. it’s no phoney argument that “subway under every street”. it’s just observation that people want transit that affects them. people complain about transit city in the suburbs because it’s not benefiting the downtown – the DRL will be good for the downtown.
    others want a subway line across sheppard or eglinton. it may not be under “every street”, but it’s close enough when you talk about the money needed.

    fine … you can afford a property tax hike … can everyone else ?

    fine … you can pay more gas tax, but you’ll complain about it (and some won’t be able to afford it)

    expressway tolls ? what mayor/politician is going to risk their office on that even if it is a good idea ?

    my point – without a realistic means of funding, this is dreaming. dreaming isn’t going to get people where they want to be anytime soon. if a lrt gets me there in the near future, instead of a subway in the distant future, i’ll take the lrt now.

    i’ll say it again … i like subways, but in these times, i haven’t seen anyone propose a realistic/doable funding and until that happens, subways are not going to put shovels in the ground.

    btw, i don’t know what everyone thinks, but i know what the ones shouting SUBWAY, SUBWAY, SUBWAY think and they are the ones that are really telling us what we want.

    transit advocacy doesn’t mean subways only. don’t confuse transit advocacy with subway advocacy. the goal is to move people around efficiently and in some comfort (eg. no overcrowding, a seat occasionally), not a train underground for a few stops.

  14. Matt,

    We are getting a northern crosstown subway line. It’s on Eglinton. It just uses smaller vehicles and smaller stations, and it pops out of the ground when the road width permits it. It’s not a full-fledged heavy subway, but it will be a substantial improvement on what’s there now.

    Under David Miller, we’ve seen more movement on transit issues than we have seen in decades. Instead of a single mega project, we have piles of small but important improvements that are making everyone’s transit experience better. The TTC has a long way to go, but it’s finally heading in the right direction.

  15. On a transit basis, Miller was not the best there could ever be (too much sole sourcing, St Clair) but he was pretty good. But that qualifies him to be TTC Chair, not mayor. I look forward to future Spacing pieces of this kind on areas he did not do as well on in terms of public perception.

  16. In reply to torbufchester:

    Redevelopment of the suburbs, including all of those old strip malls and the built form you refer to, is going to happen one way or another. The land is simply too valuable, and developers will be queueing up to build on it.

    The question is what form that development should take, and that’s where both the Official Plan and Transit City come in.

    The concept of the Avenues as the form of suburban redevelopment was approved by Council including many members from suburban communities who are not part of Miller’s core group.

  17. Ouch!!! It hurts me so much whenever I hear people talking about money, like that is the only issue. The TTC has far more problems to deal with than its (mismanaged) finances, it has a complete lack of interest in the people it is supposed to serve.
    We need a transit system that people want and will use, a first-rate subway system and nothing less.

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