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Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford rides a bus in Toronto on Wednesday March 7, 2012. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford rides a bus in Toronto on Wednesday March 7, 2012. (Chris Young For The Globe and Mail)

ROBERT AUSTIN

Toronto’s transit debate is just theatrics. Nothing will get done Add to ...

The TTC’s CEO Andy Byford is one of the few people in a senior management position in Toronto who knows what he’s doing. Coming here in 2011 with experience in some “real” cities, Mr. Byford has tried to do what is essentially impossible – take the TTC from the 1970s to the 21st Century. The task was doable, with political support, but there are a few things that Mr. Byford needed to know before he took the job.

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Toronto is not what it used to be. It was world class. It was once “like New York but run by the Swiss.” These clichés no longer work. The TTC was once called “The Better Way” then it morphed into “The Kinder Way” and now it is something that is only slightly better than walking.

Basic travel times within the city are now longer than ever – year round. A friend from Europe once asked me if it was true that Toronto had really only two subway lines. I felt some shame and looked away. She is from Vienna and they have serious public transit and fewer people.

Take a look at the ads on the subway and the message is clear. Alcohol, books and countless new opportunities (some real, some dubious) for further education – be a VET, be a Doctor or make music. That message is the same as that of the TTC: your trip would be better if you were drunk, if you had a book maybe you would survive, if you got more education you could get paid more and buy a car! When I was a kid, the TTC was the great leveler in Toronto – like Coca-Cola in a sense – everyone was on it and it is the same for everyone. Now, it is a last resort.

Since Toronto is so filled with newcomers and enriched by that fact, I need to give them context. Living here for 50 years on and off, I know that the transit debate is mere theatrics. Nothing will happen. No doubt Mr. Byford came here thinking something could happen but he was misled.

The province, the federal government and the city have been in talks for decades. The City grows, ridership grows and the TTC remains the same. Imagine for just a second what the platform of either Eglinton or Bloor will look like in five years given the condo developments.

Mayor Rob Ford and his “subways subways” mantra cannot help us. He is too disgraced to play any role. Globe columnist Marcus Gee was right when he said that he is now our amiable city mascot – much like the Abominable Snow Man in the classic Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. We thought he was dangerous but Yukon Cornelius showed us that he can actually be trained to put the star on the tree.

The brother, Doug, is no help either, but in classic Canadian fashion, since he is so bad he will be booted upstairs. I would urge him to skip the provincial parliament and go federal to get him out of here. Ottawa is more his style. Toronto is becoming provincial, Ottawa already is.

That Mr. Ford remains the Mayor tells us much about the TTC, too. As one of my students explained, Canada is somehow unique in having an immensely educated population but extremely low levels of civic engagement. If we were engaged, the Mayor would have been run out of town after his antics and the TTC would be the way Mr. Byford envisioned it could be.

Mr. Byford cannot get a major transformation but he has tried to make our commute more bearable as it will take you longer and longer to get where you want.

He has fixed the bathrooms, offered FREE wifi at some stations, remodeled here and there. He also gave us that crazy corralling system at Yonge and Bloor where you are shouted at and berated to get in line, stay to the right, keep your head down and use your shoulders.

We also have new boards that actually tell us when the next bus is due! There is nextbus.com too. The trains are better on the Yonge-University line and that have those nice nifty lite-brite map of routes. The stations are tidier and the staff less hostile.

These are major accomplishments given the lack of resources and serious support from anywhere. I admire Mr. Byford for not leaving and taking his very real skills to a city that really wants to change. Instead of doing nothing, he did his best to do make the classic silk purse out of sow’s ear. Our elected leaders need to do a whole lot better and Torontonians need to be mindful that we are being scammed.

Robert C. Austin teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

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