By PAT WATSON
A funny thing happened at the St. Clair West subway station the other day: With a very long line of Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) ‘customers’ snaking through the bus level area, waiting ever so patiently for arrival of even one westbound streetcar, and a much shorter lineup of eastbound commuters already boarding one heading to Yonge Street, a route supervisor switched the nearly empty eastbound streetcar lined up behind the first one, to have it go west.
It was such a sensible, and at the same time unusually logical, decision that one person almost stepped out of her position in the line-up to go and thank the supervisor for using common sense. Of course, that would have meant losing the chance to get on the streetcar, so the note of approval was shared among others gratefully boarding the now redirected streetcar.
It truly says something that everyday, common sense decisions in consideration of the obvious needs of commuters happen so rarely that when they are made, they standout. There hasn’t been much airing of complaints by commuters these days about the tenor of service provided to the public by our lone public transit service, but a recent visit by David Quarmby, a transport planner with Transport for London, in England, was an eye-opener for how our ailing service is viewed by others with similar responsibilities in comparable modern metropolitan areas.
During his visit earlier this month, Quarmby reportedly told the press that when he visited Toronto 40 years ago to observe our public transit system it was because at that time it was a model many looked up to.
He now has some advise for us which is that the way to a successful transit system lies in putting passengers first in all considerations. That would seem obvious, but apparently the idea was so novel to the TTC that they would have had to do a study just to understand that concept.
It’s no use talking about how this system compares to others in other places, and how ours is better than, oh, maybe transportation services in developing countries. But that cannot be the measuring stick by which the TTC claims praise.
Of course, we can always go back in history to the moment when decline became inevitable. With cost saving as their goal, the Mike Harris Progressive Conservatives turned over the public transit file to the City of Toronto and left funding essentially in the lap of city council, which then turned almost one hundred per cent of funding over to transit users. It became, in effect, no longer a ‘public’ service, but rather a service with a user fee attached. Then to make it relatively affordable, fees – that is fares – had to be kept within reason. The stress that came with these changes were passed on down the line to the frontline workers and this is where we all find ourselves. A service that is vital to the lifeblood of this city has been so undernourished that it has made beggars of us all.
Here’s hoping that some of the observations and the London transit experiences Quarmby shared with TTC higher-ups can do some good.
The service is not abysmal, but it is not as good as it used to be, and that is a problem. In a coffee shop the other days a patron loudly observed that after this city’s ill-famed mayor, the public transit system is becoming known around the world for its inefficiency. Not yet ‘world class’.
A note on homelessness…
Maybe it’s because the temperature is (slowing) rising, but there are more women holding places on city sidewalks now, with their hands outstretched, begging for spare change or at least a show of caring. They have no place to live, no shelter. The other change, as more desperate lives present on the streets, is the increasing number of women of colour occupying those spaces. It used to be, especially in this community, that homelessness was hidden because those who had no fixed address could sleep on a friend’s couch someplace. Attempts to stay in women’s shelters can be horrendous, because the problems that come with many who seek a bed in those facilities make it very difficult to remain there. We have a serious problem regarding affordable housing in this city. Housing is a right. What do the mayoral candidates have on their to-do list regarding this important issue?
Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose