Russ Ford's Blog

Transit Policy is About Equity

The American think tank, The Brookings Institute, has just come out with a new study on poverty in the United states.

It concluded that poverty is growing everywhere but the area of fastest growth are in the suburbs of the big American cities.  While such a finding is consistent with  the research done in Toronto, it certainly challenges our historic notion that American inner cities are rotting and the suburbs are dominated by white picket fences.

Brookings concludes that the significant gentrification of the downtown areas in some large cities has pushed the poor out of downtown.  In other words, American cities are morphing into Toronto.

The Institute cites many reasons for this shift, many which do not apply to Toronto. So let me say the geographic  placement  of poverty in Toronto is based on the geographic placement of transit services.

Transit policy has largely defined  where the poor in torotno live.

He is why.

The original settlement pattern of Toronto and most other cities was based on the notion which we now call "Live, work and play."  The idea was not to travel.  The idea was to work in the same community as where you lived.

That pattern was true of the original suburbs.  The lakeshore in Toronto's west end was the industrial heartland of the region.  Large plants were built and the housing that was needed for the workers was also built.  If you look at the housing pattern in the Lakeshore  most of the streets are lined with bungalows, for the workers,  but a few  streets are lined  with two story dwelling.  Those were for management and of course mingling had to be reduced to a minimum.

Workers at these plants were unionized and earned  industrial wages.   They eventually  and went to the land  of urban sprawl also known as Mississauga. 
The concept of " live work and play " was over.

So with the industrial worker fleeing the suburbs and the costs of living downtown prohibitive, the suburbs became the home of many of the city's poor.  This was exacerbated by the large amounts of public housing also built in the suburbs because of cheap land costs.

But a key factor in any economy is he viability of its transportation services. So we built expressways and established GO transit.  We also expanded subways but not  in the suburbs where the poor were moving and those are the people are most dependent on public transit.

That all ended in 1972 when Premier Davis stopped the Spadina expressway  as well as plans to expand the Gardiner east through Scarborough and eventually hook up with the 401.

So with expressways off the table, the solution was public transit but as we all know, we still lived in a very car centric culture and the  investment requirements were never made in public transit creating the problem we have today.

If you now placed a transit map over a map of poverty in Toronto you would see they  match up.  Where TTC service is bad,  there is high amount of poverty even though the poor have a greater reliance on public transit.

Interestingly enough, I was at a meeting this week of the Toronto Environmental Alliance and they produced a map of where the air quality in the city is the worst and it also matches up with the poverty map.  That is because clean transit like subways goes through wealthy areas and dirty transportation like expressways goes  through lower income areas.

Isn't it time we saw the transit issue in Toronto as an issue of equity? That of course makes the idea that the priority is building a downtown relief subway  line  very questionable.  Yes, we know the subway is congested, but at least there is service.  Ask anyone is Etobicoke or Scarborough  that the greatest need is for another downtown subway line and they likely stare at you in complete disbelief.

Despite what the mayor and others may say, we cannot afford to build subways to the areas of the city that are currently most underserved.  They are the farthest away from the current subway lines and they do not have the population density to financially sustain the costs of operating a subway.  Adding a couple of more subway stops  to the ends of the current lines will do nothing to reduce transit inequity because the current lines are not generally in low income communities.

So what to do?

Well I acknowledge that I am not an engineer,  but considering our austerity agenda which has robbed government of the money it needs to maintain services like public transit and the huge need to get services to the low income parts of the city, we need to try to get something going that is both cheap and quick to implement.

Let's start with what exists and what could be used. CN has track all over the city and many of its tracks currently operate a GO transit line. If it can operate a intercity service like GO, why can't it operate a similar LRT service within the city?

Let's take the Lakeshore as an example.  We currently have a TTC service that I would at best describe as "pathetic".  Not as bad as Rexdale however, but that is only because the service in Rexdale does not even qualify as being "pathetic".

We have two GO stations, one at Long Branch and the other at Royal York.
Eliminate them as GO stations and convert them to LRT stations and build  other  LRT stations at Kipling, Islington and Park lawn.  Basically put the Lakeshore LRT stations on the same north-south streets that currently have subway stations on the Bloor line.  Surface vehicles would of course funnel  transit users to  either the new LRT or the existing subway stations.  GO service would go from Port Credit directly to Union station making it more appealing for  residents of Mississauga not to drive into Toronto.

The same could be done in other areas where there are rail lines like Rexdale and North Scarborough.

It seems so simple, I do not see why it would not work.  We don't have to rip up any streets or wait till another generation is born. The infrastructure is there now to put adequate transit services in the areas of the city that are most deficient.

Of course it would require all three levels of government to come together to sort this out and likely that is the only reason it won't work.

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