Six billion dollars: it's what some studies suggest traffic gridlock is costing the GTA in lost productivity. Whatever the actual figure, there is little doubt that road congestion and a lack of transit investment is a huge economic drain on Toronto, which has always relied on transit to foster growth and mobility.

The city’s first public transportation appeared in 1849, when horse drawn stage coaches carried passengers along King and Yonge Streets. Some exasperated commuters currently complain that a horse would be quicker than today’s transportation options.

But it wasn’t always like this. The Toronto Transit Commission, which began operations in 1921, invested heavily in making the city more mobile. The north-south Yonge subway, the first in Canada, opened in 1954 to great acclaim, followed by the University line in 1963.

The Bloor-Danforth subway, which opened in 1966, had an almost immeasurable impact on the city, fuelling business and residential growth along its more than 20 kilometres through Toronto’s east-west corridor.

All eyes on Toronto

For decades, Toronto’s transit system was a global showcase of how to do public transit right. Since the mid-1990s, however, transit infrastructure development has not kept up with population and ridership growth. Political tussling over who should pay for what has stalled investment. With the PanAm Games this July, Toronto will be in the global spotlight. What will commentators say about our transit system now? While other large world cities have been building more transit, Toronto’s system has been on a downward spiral.

Marvin Alfred, a bus operator in Toronto for the past 14 years, has watched the deterioration of the system from the driver’s seat.

“I see it every day. There are schedules that have not been updated for decades, and yet we carry more people and traffic congestion is worse,” he says. “It’s frustrating to be working on the frontline and not being able to deliver the kind of service we’d like, because of a lack of investment in transit infrastructure.”

“Every day, about 1.8 million people ride the TTC. More people take transit in Toronto than any other city in North America, apart from New York and Mexico City.”

Alfred adds that many people need transit to survive—to get to work or to medical appointments—and they are hugely impacted when buses pass people by because they are full to beyond their prescribed capacity, something he says is common. 

Stronger communities

Bob Kinnear has been working at the TTC  for nearly 30 years and is currently President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113. He says transit is the number one issue facing the city, as evidenced by its prominence as a front-burner issue in every election at every level of government.

“Traffic congestion and gridlock have a negative impact on our economy. When businesses can’t move goods efficiently around the city, everything slows down” he says. “And a good transit system brings social and environmental benefits. It’s an issue that impacts everyone whether you think so or not. Even drivers will benefit if there are fewer cars on the road.”

Economic development follows in the wake of transit investment, Kinnear says. He cites the development of the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto and the Scarborough Town Centre to the East. “Those two places would not be nearly as successful without transit infrastructure. Go ask the businesses downtown if they see a decrease in business when the subway is closed for maintenance,” Kinnear says.

“Adequately funding the transportation system costs money, of course, but we know absolutely from history that there will be huge benefits for everyone in the long term.”

Among the nearly three million people in Toronto, the call for more transit investment is pretty well unanimous. Jessie Macaulay, 27, relies on the subway and bus as her primary means of transportation. “It takes me an hour to get to work in Scarborough, and the transit system there is terrible. I do a lot of volunteering in the community and it’s a challenge to get around,” she relates. “Taking transit can be stressful, and people don’t want to go home to their families frustrated and stressed. It’s great that people are talking more about transit as a public resource. It’s a quality of life issue”

Looking ahead

“There’s been no lack of talk about the need for more transit investment but not a lot of action,” says Jessica Bell, Executive Director of TTCriders, a growing citizen’s movement that presses politicians on transit issues.

“Every day, about 1.8 million people ride the TTC. More people take transit in Toronto than any other city in North America, apart from New York and Mexico City, yet we receive the least public subsidy of any urban transit system on the continent.”

This chronic underfunding is quite visible, she says. “The subway breaks down frequently, streetcars and buses are old, the communication system to passengers is antiquated. The service is not as good as it could be.”

There is widespread agreement that all levels of government need to get together and develop a coordinated plan to adequately fund our transit systems. Recently, public-private partnerships, or P3s, have been looked at as one option to fund new transit infrastructure, sparking much debate. Whatever the mechanism, the health and economy of our cities depends on getting more people out of their cars and into transit.

“Everyone agrees that we need to invest more in public transportation, we just need the political will,” says Kinnear. “Too many politicians have sold us on reduced taxes. It’s difficult for people to see beyond that message and understand how spending on transit infrastructure will benefit everyone. If we don’t do this, there will be a decline in overall investment in Toronto, leading to fewer jobs and less disposable income.”

Fortunately, if transit renewal and expansion is properly funded, we are equipped with the world class know-how to make it happen.