While Christmas is a long way off, Mayor Rob Ford decided to dangle a shiny bauble in front the eyes of North York and Scarborough voters, pledging during his radio campaign commercial, uh, show, that privatizing garbage collection east of Yonge will be on his to-do list for the 2014 election.
This obvious diversion tactic must be considered in the light of a pair of new polls that offer some key insights into the changing complexion of voter attitudes towards the city’s most vexing problem, which, it must be said, is not garbage.
Last week, Stratcom (whose principals worked on George Smitherman’s mayoral campaign) released a poll showing that Ford’s approval ratings fell sharply in both Scarborough and North York since February. In North York, his numbers plunged from 56 to 40%, while Scarborough’s approval rating dropped from 48 to 41%. Just over a third of Toronto respondents overall felt he is doing a good job — a figure that nudges up against David Miller’s all-time low of 29%, during the garbage strike. (Stratcom’s poll of 954 voters is accurate within 3.2%, 19 times out of 20.)
Voters in those parts of the city, it would be reasonable to surmise, may be growing weary of Ford’s empty and undeliverable transit promises. Indeed, according to a new Environics survey of GTA residents, Ford looks to be on the wrong side of one of the region’s most top-o’-mind concerns: transportation.
The Focus GTA poll results, which Environics generously agreed to share with Spacing Toronto readers, reveal that the number of respondents who cited transportation as the GTA’s single most pressing issue jumped sharply, from 22% to 38% between last fall and this spring. Six in ten found commuting to be stressful or very stressful, although that figure is somewhat smaller (52%) within the 416. (Environics’ results are based on 1,436 responses to an online survey.)
The stressed-out commuter story isn’t new or surprising. But the Focus GTA survey also begins to add texture to the picture of how chronic gridlock — and the associated lack of investment in transit — affects health, commerce and travel habits.
For example, the poll showed that a growing number of Torontonians feel they are spending too much time commuting to maintain a healthy lifestyle. And almost 40% have changed their shopping patterns specifically to avoid traffic (a result that doesn’t necessarily favour downtown retailers).
Others still are altering their commuting habits, with a fifth of Toronto respondents choosing to walk or ride to work more frequently. Environics also found that 18% are driving less frequently because of traffic headaches.
These numbers strongly suggest that driver irritation is beginning to lead to demonstrable changes in travel behaviour — a crucial finding that builds on other well-documented trends, such as ever increasing rush-hour crowds on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line due to boardings at north-end stations. What’s more, the growth in condo starts, and the associated decline in housing starts, suggest that more people who move to Greater Toronto are willing to locate in more urbanized areas rather than in car-dependent subdivisions built on the periphery.
To my eye, these results indicate pent-up demand for better transit in those parts of the city-region that aren’t well served by the same.
The political architecture of the question of how to deliver more and better transit is well known: Metrolinx is investing heavily in LRTs (Toronto), BRTs (Mississauga and York Region) and an expansion of GO, while the TTC’s Spadina extension up to Vaughan is well underway. But tens of billions in new transit infrastructure is needed to accommodate future GTA population growth, and the province has yet to signal how it plans to raise the cash.
In April, Spacing reported that 74% of Environics respondents supported an Los Angeles-style regional sales tax to fund transit and road improvements. In the Focus GTA survey, Environics asked its respondents to rank various funding tools. In Toronto, 41% supported a parking tax, while 31% of all GTA residents backed a vehicle registration tax (that’s the levy that Ford jettisoned immediately upon taking office). While those numbers are still a long way from majority territory, fully 71% approved of one or more funding tools.
According to Environics analyst Darren Karasiuk, these numbers indicate a clear change in public opinion compared to last year, when most respondents said they felt governments had enough money and didn’t much care for new levies or taxes. But the March transit showdown between the Fords and the Stintz 26 was a gamechanger in every way, resulting in a discernible shift in public attitudes towards earmarked taxes (including tolls) for transit investment. “We’ve grown up as a city,” says Karasiuk. “Many cities have road pricing system in place. World class cities cost something to build. They don’t come free.”
What the Stratcom and Environics polls say to me is that a growing number of voters across the GTA are waking up from the magical-thinking politics of 2010 and 2011, and have begun to realize that the Ford solution is no solution at all.
Postscript: Speaking of congestion, news reports over the weekend of massive crowding at the Toronto ferry docks raises, yet again, a question I’ve posed previously in this space: why isn’t there a fixed pedestrian link to the Toronto Islands? The ferry service is an antiquated municipal monopoly that impedes access to one of the city’s pre-eminent public spaces.
Yes, the views from the ship are gorgeous. But if connectivity is the sine qua non of urban living, why can’t we come up with other ways to get to the island? A fixed link over the eastern gap? Or, perhaps, an extension to the passageway now being built to Toronto Billy Bishop Airport that would allow cyclists and pedestrians to safely reach the western end of the island? After all, we are paying for that tunnel.