Toronto's City Council recently approved a plan to construct a subway extension in Scarborough, in the eastern region of the city.  The decision riles many urban planners because it provides only one stop at a cost likely well in excess of $3 billion.

An alternative plan calling for construction of light rail transit (LRT) through the same section of the city would provide more stops, serve more people, and cost significantly less.  

Chris Bateman's article nicely summarizes how the issue "became" a political football.  On his account, former Mayor Rob Ford turned a straightforward urban planning problem into a political football, just for his own benefit.  Ford erroneously labelled the LRT a "streetcar" and argued that a subway was the only facility equal to the dignity of the citizens of Scarborough.  

Although Bateman has the sequence of events right (to my knowledge), a couple of things should be clarified.  First, transit does not at some point become a political football, it is a political football, always.  How people get around—and, by implication, where they end up—in a city is a political issue and has been throughout the history of mass transit.  Toronto's latest travails are just a recent manifestation of this fact.

Second, the political leverage that Rob Ford found to campaign on the subway ticket has been developing for many decades.  Scarborough has been looked down on by Torontonians for many years, due, in no small part, to its origins as a working-class settlement (or settlements).  Labelled "Scarberia", it has been stereotyped as cheap and second-class.  This perspective has never sat well with its residents, to my knowledge.  The lack of subway coverage in Scarborough relative to Toronto has been viewed as another manifestation of this disregard.  

Only recently have residents of Scarborough and other Toronto suburbs found that they had the votes to do anything about the situation.

If the Council's recent decision proves regrettable, and I don't deny that it may well, it testifies not so much to the lamentable interference of politics in transit planning but to the naivety of believing that transit planning is not an inherently political activity.

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