When people ask me why I ride my bike, I always think of an episode of the British TV show Top Gear. The challenge was to get from one side of London to the other, and the guys were using a bicycle, an SUV, public transit, and a speedboat along the Thames. Through some serious huffing and puffing, the bike arrived first, followed by then speedboat, then transit, trailed by the SUV. The car was a distant fourth, an embarrassment of stops and starts and wrong turns and congestion, but a recent article in Harper's suggests that London's transit system needs a serious look as well: patrons have been forced to walk along the tracks between stations in some instances, and they estimated that transit delays added an extra three days to the constant battle of getting to and from work.
On Saturday, it took me an hour and a half to travel the 7 kilometers from Queen and Broadview to Dupont and Spadina in Toronto. Google suggests I could have walked there in the same amout of time, but, since it was late and I was tired and didn't want to walk through the crowds of last-call hooligans infesting the entertainment district on a Saturday night, I chose transit.
It was a mess from beginning to end. The streetcar was on a short turn, which meant that they weren't coming to the stop I was waiting at - they were picking folks up on the other side of the intersection. Two streetcars had gone by before I twigged to the fact that a location change might solve the problem, but by then it was too late: I had missed the last subway. I walked over to the nearest north-south route at Spadina, going alone through the gangs of young men who were coming north from the club district, only to find a sizable crowd waiting for the streetcar. I started walking north, making almost all the way home before a streetcar came up behind me and carried me to the station. Of course, it was another 15 minute walk home after that, and by that time, I was both exhausted and enraged.
There's a game that people play that goes something like, "Well, who will pay for it?" and "Why do we need it in the first place?" when we start talking about Toronto transit. Let's do the second question first, mkay?
We need a transit system that works because people need to get around. Some folks choose to drive or bike or walk, and these are all fine options. On the other hand, biking and walking, which are totally feasible in June, become less attractive in January. Or during a summer monsoon. Or at four in the morning. There are risks involved based on season and time of day, and as a young woman with experience in the matter, I can tell you that walking home through Parkdale is very different at 5:15 PM after a day at the office, than it is at 3:45 AM when I've just shut down the bar.
There's also a part of me that wants a world-class transit system because I believe that Canada is a world-class country and Toronto is a world-class city. Great cities and countries give their citizens choices on how best to move through them, and our corner of the world lacks some very basic infrastructure. We do some things right: Greyhound and the GO system are remarkably good at getting people to places, often for relatively cheap. On the other hand, ViaRail is expensive, frequently late, and tends to seize altogether in inclement weather. And the TTC, along with myriad other local transit systems, is a disaster any time other than rush our. Canadians and Torontonians accept that we aren't going to see improvement, because we've gotten so used to the decline. What is that?
I look at countries like the Netherlands and wish that we could have their bike lanes, and places like Bogota, where the buses work. Toronto, as much as I love it, suffers from a real lack of vision when we plan our urban spaces, and we voters haven't bullied the transit providers into providing workable solutions to ongoing problems. We deal with congestion? Make people pay if they want to drive downtown. We need better transit? Accept the provincial and federal funding, make the system fair to users by installing peak-hour fares, and run it on time. Put a cap on cab fare. Install transit to the most populous areas: Brampton, Aurora and Vaughan are only going to get bigger. Make it easier to get from Hamilton to Montreal by getting a high-speed rail corridor. Reduced the airport levies at Pearson, currently the highest in the world. And so on.
Nothing I'm saying is brand-new stuff, but for some reason, our discussion around transit is never about what we need, but what we can afford. I would challenge the people who make these decisions on a daily basis to use Toronto's systems to get home one night. There are thousands of people who work and play in the post-1:56 hours of the day, and the TTC needs to step up their game. Get 'em home safe. For god's sake, at least don't embarrass yourselves by making walking a faster alternative.