Scarborough Subway: A Ride to Nowhere

sidewalk-300x183The triumph of Scarborough subway advocates is demoralizing.  I felt the same way at the height of the Toronto casino debate, but this is worse.  Much worse.

The casino debate was like a gold rush.  Everyone was afraid of missing out.  Otherwise decent public servants and politicians turned into lobbyists for a plan that would have impoverished the city.  Not only was it economically and ethically unsound, it was damaging to our political system because of the blurry lines of accountability and private interest following the money out of taxpayers’ pockets, into the slot machines, and out to government and corporations.

At a time when skepticism about public institutions is rising, it is doubly damaging to implement the wrong measures in the wrong way.  The casino proposition failed the public on both counts – a bad process that would have led to a bad outcome if the politicians and lobbyists had their way.

The experience reminds me of a rule that constantly comes up in my professional and private life:  You can’t do the right thing in the wrong way.  Process matters.  You simply cannot achieve a desired result if you go about it in a way that discredits the whole enterprise.  If you create enemies and opposition along the way, your “success” is set up for failure before you’ve had long to enjoy it.

It’s the reverse of the commonplace saying, “the ends justify the means.”  In public life, where this Machiavellian wisdom prevails, the opposite is true.  If you want a fair, wise, and enduring outcome, the means must justify the ends.  And in the 21st century, when secrets are harder to keep, bright lights are being shone through the corridors of power where shady deals were once struck in secret.

If as a society we didn’t care deeply about the process of decision making, rather than merely results, we wouldn’t prefer democracy to everything else.  Democracy is nothing but a process.  It’s the way we like to delegate authority, exercise power, and make decisions because everyone who really wants a hand in the process is welcome to it.  It’s the best way human kind has found to securely chain the desires of a society to the decisions of its government.

Kings, dictators, tribal lords, and anarchists each have their own charms, but they all suffer from the tendency to stray from their constituents’ desires.  Individual and collective aspirations risk being thwarted and rights tend to be sacrificed when the ordinary people have little or no influence over the decisions of their chiefs.

There is also the inconvenience of revolution to consider when tolerably bad decision-making produces intolerably bad decisions.  At that moment, principled social unrest turns unpleasantly practical, and the would-be leaders of the next regime are heard to whisper things like, “the ends justify the means.”

No one reading this needs a lesson in civics, I realize.  My point is that received wisdom is wrong about the way people in power should make decisions.  When government finds itself on a road paved with good intentions, it must listen for the two bells heralding its arrival in Hell.  The first alarm is the failure of process.  The last warning is the failure of result.  After that, it’s too late.

The Scarborough subway gong show has gleefully clanged these bells and has arrived, more reliably than a Toronto transit vehicle, at its destination.  Only this time, Premier Wynne isn’t diverting traffic from the fiery gates as she did on the casino file last spring.  She’s reluctantly on board.

To be fair, the provincial Liberal premier leads a fragile minority government has been overwhelmed by the alliance of federal Conservatives and municipal conservatives (Toronto City Council does not tolerate partisanship).  She and her Minister of Transportation, Glen Murray tried to revive the fully planned and funded scheme of light rail transit approved by the previous Toronto City Council.  They tried offering a fully funded and eminently practical hybrid plan.  They negotiated, they threatened, they cajoled, but ultimately conceded to what had become a political force majeure.

I do not recite this news happily.  It’s intended to illustrate the ways in which the debate decayed from a democratically endorsed plan for a coherent transit solution into a stitched together patchwork of political interests designed for the electoral aspirations of C(c)onservatives in 2014 and 2015.

If the objective is a wise, fair, and enduring decision, then the Council-approved LRT plan filled the bill.  It connected deep into Scarborough where the distance from education and employment was felt most acutely, with stops to serve many locations along the way, moving on dedicated surface track lanes at comparable speeds to subways.  More importantly, it could accomplish all of this at a fraction of what it would cost for a subway to go as far and stop as often as is necessary to serve these communities in need.

borrowed from Internet! mashed up by us!

borrowed from Internet! mashed up by us!

This is not conjecture, it is empirically true, agreed to by all parties who have seen the evidence.  This plan was approved by City Council in 2010, and preconstruction work had already started before Mayor Ford blew the plan up and delayed any new service to Scarborough by three years (so far).  Millions and millions of dollars have been wasted, and worse, the time and productivity of taxpayers in Scarborough has been wasted.  For years longer than anyone can justify, thousands of people have no choice but to spend hours on creaky buses trying to reach their jobs in the early morning, and return home late at night to look after their families.

Well, I guess someone can justify it.  Rob Ford wants to reserve all surface lanes for cars.

The economics are terrible.  Lost productivity due to time wasted in transit is a constant refrain from the Board of Trade.  Wasted investment in preconstruction costs, owed now to Metrolinx, is a small part of the bill.  How many more years before the slower, costlier, and shorter subway tunneling opens its spur line to the public, with its two or three pitiful stops in areas too thinly populated to support them?  It will take four or five years at a minimum, ASSUMING the constellation of municipal, provincial, and federal players remain in the firmament past the next election.

If this gerrymandering of transit doesn’t work, and election results don’t turn out the way party strategists hope, then all bets are off.  The people of Scarborough get screwed again.  After all, it took years to come up with the eminently sensible LRT plan.  It took years to screw it up with an anti-transit Mayor and his cynical cabinet pals in Ottawa.  It will take years to return the plan to sanity again.  But, as the reformers will undoubtedly argue, the costs and benefits of this huge infrastructure investment will be suffered, but above all, enjoyed by the citizens of Toronto for a hundred years (the original subway line to Davisville is already pushing 60 years of age), so what’s another couple of years on top of the decade that’s already been spent getting it right, and then wrong?

Transit Supportive Guidelines, Ministry of Transportation. 1 hectare = 1/100th of 1km sq. So, multiply each by requirement by 100. A “unit” = a household.  Scarborough’s average density is 3,160 ppl/km sq (Wikipedia).  A minimum of 20,000 ppl are required by this guideline.  LRTs require 10,000 to 16,000, which the map above shows is more feasible in some areas, barely in others.

Transit Supportive Guidelines, Ministry of Transportation. 1 hectare = 1/100th of 1km sq. So, multiply each by requirement by 100. A “unit” = a household. Scarborough’s average density is 3,160 ppl/km sq (Wikipedia). A minimum of 20,000 ppl are required by this guideline. LRTs require 10,000 to 16,000, which the map above shows is more feasible in some areas, barely in others.

It’s all in a good cause, after all.  And what is that cause?  Election to public office.

And what is the point of being elected to public office?  To make sound decisions on behalf of citizens.

And what is the citizens’ interest in the subway decision?  To end decades of procrastination and give the people of Scarborough a fair chance to participate in the economic and cultural life of the city as a whole.


Let’s back track and put this whole thing in perspective.  Not so long ago, there were riots in the mostly immigrant and largely black suburbs of Paris.  The images of burning cars and truncheoned black youth were reminiscent of Detroit in the ‘70’s or LA after the Rodney King trial.

At the same time, Toronto was trying to come to terms with the social and economic isolation of what came to be called, “neighbourhoods at risk.”  Black kids were shooting each other in parts of the megacity where their lives offered them fewer options than were available to kids in more prosperous parts of the city.  Transit City was intended in part to connect those communities to the resources and opportunities that the rest of us enjoy.

It wasn’t an initiative that could wait.  It was urgent.  The challenge was to reach as far and as widely into the suburbs of the megacity as possible, given the constraints of time and money.  Light rail was by far the best solution.  There was no comparison in terms of cost, routing, reliability, and speed of construction.  Buses and subways didn’t come close.


2005 in the Paris suburbs: people got sick of the bus.

While this plan was taking shape, the good people of Paris sent a delegation over to see how Toronto, with its reputation as the most multicultural city in the world, was managing to accommodate immigrants and visible minorities.  They went home with some of Toronto’s good ideas, or should I say, good intentions.

Transit is a matter of economic and social justice, not just a debate for politicians in a Scarborough turf war.  The consequences of this political hostage-taking are being felt by Scarborough residents every day.  The shallow pretence of polling in favour of a Scarborough subway is an insult to an electorate who knows full well that laymen shouldn’t be engineering railways, bridges, and tunnels.  It’s all a sickening display of self-interest by people purporting to be servants of the public.  The good intentions lead one direction, the subway route leads another, and the people caught between it will eventually lose patience.

They won’t give up on one party or the other, one level of government or another, they will give up on government in general.  In a million seemingly inconsequential decisions over a period of years, ordinary people will give up on their democratically elected, but autocratically performing officials.  It will show up in behaviors like low voter turnouts, tax evasion, and insurance fraud.  Among intemperate youth, it will show up in expressions of frustration like worsening school dropout rates, gang activity, vandalism, and arson.  Then our politicians will tut-tut and send in the police.

That’s what happens when politicians fiddle.  Cities burn.

That’s what I hate about the Scarborough subway.

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