Gordon Chong’s Fantasy Transit Land

The Toronto Star published an editorial submission today from former chair of GO Transit and vice-chair of the TTC, Gordon Chong. You should also know to start that he was a prominent member of newly-minted mayor Rob Ford’s transition team.

In this editorial, Mr Chong attempts to outline how Mr Ford’s vision for transit in Toronto can and should be accomplished. He, like the mayor, declares that Transit City needs to be altered and that Toronto should aim higher (not those congestion-causing “streetcars”, but subways). For someone most would consider an expert on these sorts of issues, he makes some glaring logical leaps and avoids current political and fiscal realities.

One glaring logical error is the much-ballyhooed “one-seat ride” for Scarberians. This has been a common salvo of critics of Transit City, who like to call it “Transfer City” because of the switch a rider may have to make from LRT to subway and vice versa. However, while it’s not clear how a Sheppard subway would work for Scarborough (because it’s not been planned), it is reasonable to assume that the Sheppard line would function separately from the Yonge line and the Bloor-Danforth line (and the SRT, assuming it either remains something other than subway). Hence, unless a rider is going from Scarborough Town Centre to North York Centre or somewhere right along Sheppard, they will not have a one-seat ride. A ride from Scarborough Town Centre to Yonge and Finch, for example, will still require two seats.

Without presenting the numbers, Mr Chong also tells us that before the Yonge Subway was built, the ridership numbers were not there to support it, and yet here we are today. Perhaps Mr Chong is not as experienced in the field of urban planning as he is transportation, because Sheppard Avenue of 2011 is not Yonge Street of the 1950s. Yonge street was an is an urban street, full of shopping, residents and entertainment venues. The majority of Sheppard Avenue’s

Much of Sheppard Ave. looks like this

surroundings are low-density residential subdivisions, zoned as such, and protected from development by the City’s Official Plan. This is why the LRT was such a pragmatic choice for Toronto’s suburban streets: only some of Sheppard is available for more intense population growth. To project that Sheppard would equal Yonge would more than likely mean a paradigm shift in north Scarborough’s planning landscape.

“But what about the money” you say? Mr Chong has a solution for that too:

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Financial constraints have been cited ad nauseam by various levels of government… However, funding then miraculously appears for some other vote-getting initiative.

Worse still, an auditor general reports on the enormous sums that are wasted or mismanaged annually, leaving the mendacious politicians with egg on their collective faces.

We should “steal” from those latent pots of money identified by the auditor general to build the Sheppard subway to the future.

Mr Chong has come up with an idea so brilliant that no one has ever thought of it before. Take all that money being wasted at all levels of government, throw it into one pot, et voila, a Sheppard Subway with no pain to you! This is such a problematic proposal, it’s almost impossible to know where to start with it. If this money is so easily attainable, why hasn’t this method been used to build all sorts of other goodies for us? For one thing, I would be willing to bet that Mayor Ford will give a tax cut with those savings before he builds anything. It is also very interesting to see a key member of Mr Ford’s transition team declare that the City should increase its debt level in order to build a Sheppard subway (remember that thing about “stopping the gravy train”?)

Don’t fret, disadvantaged people at Jane and Finch, Mr Chong has a solution for you too. Instead of a quick, reliable LRT line along Finch, Mr Chong proposes that we “settle for second best” (Mr Chong’s own slanderous words) in a big way by building a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line through the Finch hydro corridor. It’ll be like a three-seat ride to get downtown, and it will be isolated from the street, but it will be dirt cheap and you get to ride on comfortable highway coach buses! (Now I’m getting snarky.)

While I can agree with some of Mr Chong’s sentiments (visionary subway building, helping captive riders, practical transit systems, and more for Scarborough), it is when his philosophies meet up with cold, hard reality that he loses me. One cannot simply ignore the fact that governments have chosen not to spend money on these types of projects. We all like to dream, but one also cannot flippantly make plans for transit without conducting studies to back it up (Mr Ford likes to do this, too). While Transit City has been studied to death, a Sheppard subway has been deemed unworkable before, and BRT lines have been built selectively due to the public’s distaste for buses of any kind.

Instead of dreaming up unrealistic financial schemes and dictating transit planning from the mayor’s office, Mr Ford and his team should be committing to the long-term vision that was (and is) Metrolinx’s Big Move. It is the only vision that has been put through its public paces and has met with political and fiscal realities.

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.
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    • Desmond Cole
    • January 7th, 2011

    Well done. Thanks so much for sharing this. Especially love your thoughts on density. When Mayor Ford remarked that “I think it is more important to take care of people now,” he was said to be uttering a wise truth. We can build LRTs right now and take care of our people. Or we can keep stalling.

    I heard councillor Karen Stintz talking about LRTs today. She seems to believe that people voted against Light Rail by voting for Rob Ford. Someone should really ask the people who ride buses on Finch if they voted to keep riding buses. There could be some funny answers.

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