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Transit ridership in Toronto has dropped during the pandemic and stands at less than half of pre-pandemic levels, even with the economy recovering and the city coming back to life.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

I have a confession: I love to ride the TTC. I love gliding along in those big red-and-white streetcars, gazing out the picture windows at the passing scene. I love climbing onto a double-carriage bus on Dufferin Street, watching a galaxy of human types come through the doors. I even love the big-city feeling of riding the subway at rush hour.

I say confession because this is a far-from-universal sentiment in Toronto. The Toronto Transit Commission, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, is the city’s favourite punching bag. The complaints about it are legion. It’s too slow, too unreliable, too crowded. The subway is always being shut down for repairs and track fires. The buses drive like stock cars; they come in packs, then not at all. The drivers are cranky. Those big new streetcars block up the roads. And on and on.

Some of those knocks are richly deserved. The service has many faults, as any rider can tell you. But it has some virtues, too – quite a few, in fact. Now is a good time to remember them.

The TTC is in deep trouble. Ridership has fallen off the cliff during the pandemic. Even now, with the economy recovering and the city coming back to life, it stands at less than half its former level. The agency needs hundreds of millions in government support just to keep going. Worried transit lovers talk about a death spiral in which low ridership leads to reduced service, leading to still lower ridership and even less service, and so on.

What a calamity that would be. Transit systems are a vital part of the circulatory system of modern cities. If people abandon the TTC and take to their cars en masse, we risk a heart attack. More gridlock would mean more pollution, more stress, more wasted time. The city and its hinterland are preparing to absorb hundreds of thousands of new residents in the coming years. We can’t possibly hope to move them all by private motor vehicle – not without turning Toronto into Houston.

The TTC really is ‘the better way,” as an old slogan puts it. The third busiest system in North America after New York’s and Mexico City’s, it’s a comprehensive, citywide grid. You only have to travel to just about any American city to see how good we have it.

You can “TTC it” anywhere, from the glass canyons of Bay Street to the strip malls of the suburbs. Before the pandemic hit, it had 163 bus routes and 11 streetcar routes, plus the three subway lines and one rapid-transit line. To travel even further afield, riders can connect with the ever-expanding GO Transit network of trains and buses or hop a bus on the growing sister systems in the city’s exurbs.

The city’s transit web is getting more extensive year by year. After decades in which authorities vastly underinvested in the TTC and changed their minds time after time about which new lines to build, governments of all stripes have got religion about transit. Both federal and provincial governments are investing billions. The result is a series of huge projects, from the Finch West LRT and the Eglinton Crosstown to the Scarborough subway extension and the Ontario Line, a whole new subway route for central Toronto.

The TTC is working to improve its current network, too. It’s buying 60 more of those sleek new streetcars, replacing old diesel buses with cleaner diesel-electric hybrids and trying out a battery-powered model. It’s speeding up subway service by getting new trains, expanding the busy Bloor-Yonge station and replacing the old signalling system with automatic train control. It’s spending many millions making stations more accessible.

Some will say too little, too late. Others will call it a big waste of money. With more people expected to work from home even when the pandemic ends, it’s foolish to build out transit capacity now.

That is the wrong way to look at things. Toronto will bounce back – it already is, as even a glance at traffic and street life will tell you. The smart approach is not to retrench, but to lure customers back by providing more and better service. In the meantime, we should leave off our griping for a moment and appreciate what we’ve got.

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