Toronto’s aggressive new mayor ignites a transit fight

Rob Ford, a coarse and controversial advocate for motorists, wants to scrap plans for light-rail lines that would serve much of his city.

Author: Philip Langdon

Last October, Toronto elected a new mayor of breathtaking crudeness: Rob Ford, a corpulent councillor from Etobicoke who can be seen on You Tube calling his opponents in government “weasels” and “snakes” and pursuing an exasperated reporter who may or may not have called him a bad name.

At a Council session on whether to reduce the number of traffic lanes on a downtown thoroughfare, Ford took the side of drivers, declaring that “cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.” In a 2007 debate, he said, “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

During the mayoral campaign, Ford, who hails from the least dense of the municipalities that were merged into an amalgamated Toronto, pledged to get rid of a $60 vehicle registration fee. “There’s no secret about it, there’s a war on cars in the city,” he insisted.

With that as prologue, it was to be expected that the 41-year-old businessman and councillor turned mayor would be at odds with many transit advocates. On his first day in office in December, Ford pronounced Transit City — a rapid light-rail network planned to extend throughout the city — dead.

Now the battle over whether and how to reshape Transit City is heating up. Behind the closed doors of Ford and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, a proposed compromise transit plan has recently been developed. It has prompted strong protests from the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Well before Ford became mayor, the province had committed $8.7 billion to build a light-rail network across Toronto. The original Transit City plan would install 32.3 miles of light rail at a cost of $269 million per mile, according to the Alliance. “It would reach almost all corners of the city,” Jamie Kirkpatrick, transit campaigner for the Alliance, told New Urban Network.

By contrast, the new compromise plan would create just 15.5 miles of light rail, because light rail would be placed underground, which costs about twice as much per mile. The original plan would have served 460,000 Torontonians, whereas the new plan would serve 217,000 people, according to the Alliance’s analysis.

Joe Mihevc, former vice chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, told the Toronto Sun there is a “tragedy unfolding” as the city blows a good transit opportunity. The Alliance charges that the new plan “leaves those who live in the suburbs stranded,” harming some of the outlying residents who form Ford’s base of support.

Why the aversion to placing the four light-rail lines above ground? “The mayor has decided that rail on roads is not something he wants in his city,” Kirkpatrick says. The mayor wants to build a subway instead of one of the previously proposed light-rail lines, Kirkpatrick notes. That subway would be dependent upon attracting private investment. “When would that happen?” Kirkpatrick asks.

And would there be enough density to support a subway? The part of the Shepard Avenue subway that already operates “has less ridership than some bus routes,” and loses $7 million a year,” he says.

During the campaign, Ford also argued for phasing out streetcars in favor of low-emission buses. Kirkpatrick acknowledges that the existing streetcars are near the end of their life, and need to be replaced. But the Alliance favors replacing them with a modern light-rail type of car, which is longer and lower and can carry more passengers.

A prototype of a new car built by Bombardier has been ordered and is scheduled to arrive late this year. The car would have four points of entry rather than just one door for getting on board. The idea of establishing a pay-before-boarding system is being looked at, Kirkpatrick notes. That could accelerate boarding and thus speed trips. Light rail would generally run in a dedicated right-of-way in the middle of the road, separate from other vehicles.

Kirkpatrick argues that Toronto’s transit planning requires greater transparency, including a vote by Council. He worries that with provincial elections coming in the fall and “with transit becoming a political hot potato,” the whole proposal could end up delayed, making the transit package vulnerable to a political change of heart.

Whatever happens to the transit plans, the outlook for Toronto government in the immediate future is dismaying, especially for those who care about urban planning and placemaking.

George Dark, a partner in Urban Strategies, a leading Toronto urban planning firm, describes Mayor Ford this way: “He is like what you would get if Ronald Reagan and Dick Cheney got married and had children who finished grade 6 and then went to work; i.e., he announced ‘the war on the car is over’ — you know, 1950s stuff.”

This is hardly what citizens of the US had come to expect from Canada. Whatever flaws that country may have, Canada is a land whose large cities have routinely operated more safely, smoothly, and humanely than most cities in the US. Toronto, it’s worth remembering, is where Jane Jacobs and her family settled when they departed New York.

Toronto’s enviable reputation is threatened, at least for the time being.