Laggard on the lake: Toronto’s mayor tries to improve transport


FEW cities these days have the cachet of Toronto. It ranks high on lists of the world’s most “liveable” cities (the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, put it fourth last year). Drake, a popular rapper, is an enthusiast for his home town. Lovers of diversity are attracted to Canada’s biggest metropolis. Yet native Torontonians who have moved away are strangely resistant to returning home. John Tory, the city’s mayor, who tries to lure them back, says they give two main reasons for saying no. The first is that the jobs are better in places like London and Hong Kong. The second is that Toronto’s public transport is much worse.

Toronto’s subway system has changed little since 1966, the year an east-west line was added to a U-shaped north-south track. In a ranking of subway systems in 46 cities by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, Toronto placed 43rd, with just 19km (12 miles) of track per square km of territory in 2003. The situation has not improved since then, while the population has grown. The last big extension of the network of buses, streetcars and surface rail opened more than a decade ago.

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The city has been no more successful at building roads. Ambitious plans to build expressways into the city centre were cancelled or only partially realised, because they either went over budget or faced public opposition. Jane Jacobs, an urbanist, and Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist, led a protest against the Spadina Expressway, which was cancelled in 1971. The result is more traffic jams. According to the TomTom traffic index, Toronto was among the ten most congested cities in North America in 2015.

Mr Tory is the latest in a long line of mayors who has promised to get the city moving again. His plan, dubbed SmartTrack, calls for building a new light-rail line (modelled on London’s Crossrail) and adding six stations to existing commuter rail lines. He wants to help pay for that (and other transport projects) by charging tolls on two highways that funnel traffic downtown. That would raise C$200m ($152m) a year. The federal and provincial governments would put up most of the money.

The toll proposal is bold. Earlier mayors have refused to put forward plans to finance transport schemes. None has dared take on suburban car owners so directly. Rob Ford, a crack-smoking mayor who died in 2016, was a fierce foe of any measure that could be construed as waging “war on the car”. The city council backed Mr Tory’s toll scheme on December 13th. He now awaits approval from Ontario, Toronto’s province.

But history suggests that SmartTrack and the toll could falter. Earlier schemes failed when provinces refused to pay for them or newly elected city councils tossed them out. In 1995 a new provincial government abruptly stopped construction of a subway line and filled in the hole. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s premier, may be reluctant to approve a charge on drivers. She faces a tough re-election fight next year.

Transport infrastructure is plagued by three problems of governance. The first is that the municipality of Toronto does not have a party system. In the 45-member city council the mayor is merely first among equals. His proposals must muster a majority from his council colleagues, each fighting for the interests of his or her ward. Without party discipline, support for projects can expire with each election.

The second problem is that responsibility for transit is shared among the city, the province and a provincial agency called Metrolinx, which runs commuter trains. They do not co-ordinate enough with one another, says Matti Siemiatycki of the University of Toronto. Finally, there is the role of the federal government, whose offers of money tempt cities to embark on silly projects. Critics point to federal backing for a proposed 6km subway extension that will cost C$3.2bn and have just one station.

Mr Tory cannot solve these problems himself. His ambition is more modest: a second term as mayor starting next year that would allow him to see through SmartTrack and his proposed road toll. That will not solve Toronto’s transport problems, but it might persuade ex-Torontonians to give their city a second chance.