Some of the best transit experts in the city are those who ride it everyday. They know which routes are reliable and which are not, when they’re likely to get a seat on a streetcar, and when they’ll be auditioning for the role of a sardine in a can while riding the subway. Just as skilled drivers know when to avoid certain roads, experienced transit riders know their system intimately.
Living in the Dufferin corridor since spring I’ve come to know why people along this route call the Dufferin 29 bus the “Sufferin’ Bus.” Even with the recently added “express buses,” the wait times for this trunk route are widely variable.
When the bus does come it’ll often be crush-loaded. Unlike subways and streetcars, which run relatively smoothly, a crush-loaded bus lurching along Toronto’s rough streets means being tossed into fellow riders, another intimate but unpleasant experience. It’s a routine and historic state for which comprehensive solutions seem elusive. Riders of other routes tell similar tales.
I’ve thought many times while riding or waiting that the mayor should take the Dufferin bus for a week. I think things would change. Could the mayor do all his business taking transit everyday? Could city councillors? Some could, surely, but for others it would be a challenge or impossible.
A private citizen can choose whatever mode of transportation is best for them given the choices they’re offered and what they can afford, but elected officials have the power to change policy and make transit better for everyone. It’s their duty to know the system inside and out.
Last week, ahead of their first meeting of this council term, the Star asked TTC board members what their top priority is. “We have to make sure we have a board who fundamentally understands our existing transit system,” said Councillor Shelley Carroll (Ward 17, Don Valley North). “This means taking deep dives into the workings of our system, such as assigning every member of the board 10 routes to ride, from start to finish, and reporting back to the board.”
Riding a route once is different than doing so regularly and by necessity, but it would be a good start and sometimes this kind of thing can really demonstrate a problem to a politician. During the long hot summer of 2016, a number of cars on the Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) subway were experiencing mass air conditioning failures. For many weeks the conditions on crowded trains were unbearable. One commuter, Bianca Spence, challenged Mayor John Tory to ride the subway with her.
To his credit he took up the challenge and rode the length of the subway between Kennedy and Kipling stations, even getting delayed in the subway tunnels a few times. He seemed genuinely moved by the experience, saying, in part, “we will do better next year and going forward,” though his statement conflicted with his call for the TTC to cut its operating budget by 2.6 per cent the following year.
In an ideal world, TTC board members would also be regular TTC users, not simply occasional ones who ride on fact-finding missions. With honesty that should be commended, Carroll also said, when asked if she’s a regular rider, “No, and I won’t lie about it. My husband, daughter and I are a typical suburban family who use a combination of transit and driving to get around the city.”
That mix of modes is representative of a considerable amount of people living in the GTA, where sometimes transit makes sense, and at other times driving does because we don’t yet have enough adequate transit to meet everyone’s needs. These are gaps that need to be filled.
Having “skin in the game” is an interesting notion for officials, elected or not, of various public agencies. For some it’s just a job and part of a political career. Consider cabinet ministers at provincial and federal levels of government who are often given portfolios they have little experience with or training for.
Ontario’s current minister of transportation is Jeff Yurek, a pharmacist from St. Thomas. If his government uploads control of the subway to the province, which it has signalled it wants to do, the system’s day-to-day operations would fall under his watch.
St. Thomas is a city with a great railway history, the nexus of a number of Canadian and America railway companies and it has a grand old railway bridge that has been turned into a park. A life-sized statue of Jumbo the Elephant even stands there, as it was the city where the famous circus animal was killed by a locomotive in 1885. But there’s little there that compares with big city transit troubles today.
While getting TTC board members to know the system they govern is critical, how will a remote cabinet minister know the prescription needed to cure Toronto’s subway sufferin’ if the upload goes through?
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef