It’s official. I will not be the next mayor of Toronto. There are many reasons for this, the chief of which being my failure to file an official nomination paper with the city clerk. That and not running a campaign. But, if Toronto’s history proves anything, it’s that not doing anything never stopped anyone from being in charge.
It is with this spirit in mind that, days before an election where there is a clear frontrunner in the polls, I am announcing my platform – the Tokyo Platform.
If elected mayor, my first act would be to resign and then pay Tokyo Metro chief executive officer Akiyoshi Yamamura $100-million to become mayor of Toronto. With this one simple act, I may solve the city’s transit woes.
This was the epiphany I had while waiting in Shibuya station on a rainy night in March. I was in awe of the Tokyo subway, which is on par with the great wonders of the world. It is an inspiring live, breathing mixture of machines and human beings. Imagine being painted into the Sistine Chapel – that’s what it is for a transit nerd to ride the Tokyo subway.
On an average day, 2.4 million people move through Shibuya station. There are two primary subway networks that are part of Tokyo Subway - Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway. Together, they have 13 lines and 285 stations. In 2018, combined average daily ridership was almost 11 million.
Trains are almost never delayed. On an average day, ridership for the entire TTC is about 2.1 million, on a system plagued by delays, breakdowns and sporadic violence.
Fresh from a “Ramen tour” of the best noodle joints around Shibuya, my thinking was clear – the Tokyo Platform. We should just hire whoever runs either the Tokyo Metro or Toei Subway to be mayor of Toronto.
My clear thinking, however, is not always “clear” nor what many would consider “thinking.” So, I contacted Andre Sorensen, a professor in the Department of Human Geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Sorensen has a deep understanding of Japanese transit, as well as the development of the Toronto region over the last six decades.
He outlined Japan’s transport history. In the mid-nineteenth century Japan was afraid of western colonization and determined to modernize. Most travel was by foot or boat. Tokyo was laced with canals. Trains and streetcars were the answer and the country quickly established networks. As Japan emerged as an empire, trains were needed to move the military and service industry, and more lines were built. From the 1920s to 1950s, there were few private cars on the road. Ownership was actively discouraged. Tight controls over the banks meant that lower-income buyers would not be given loans to purchase cars. It was only in the late 1960s that private car ownership began to be more common.
All levels of Japanese government (city, regional and national) were determined that public transit be the nation’s primary mode of transportation. Since the 1950s, there has been continual large-scale investment by both private and public transportation sectors. High ridership has led to profit which has led to investment. Overcrowding also led to innovation and efficient designs for transfers and capacity increases. Intercity services – such as the high-speed Shinkansen (bullet train) make urban public transit far superior (both in speed and comfort) to car travel.
Toronto, in contrast, has gone the other route. The TTC was a leading public transit provider in the 1960s and 70s. In 1985, the city had “Network 2011″ a 30-year plan for development. Thanks, however, to bureaucratic incompetence, political abuse, public ambivalence and federal neglect, it now suffers its present state.
Sorensen describes our planning as “Balkanized and underfunded.” Though Toronto prioritizes transit, the “province of Ontario goes hot and cold and the federal government has been mostly uninvolved.”
He says bad decisions by successive provincial governments have led to a lack of infrastructure. “We took several decade-long holidays from investment in public transit. Planned and in-construction transit lines were repeatedly cancelled by incoming governments.” He points to the decision by the Bob Rae NDP government, which after being elected in 1990, decided not to continue with the Liberal government’s Let’s Move program, which would have invested $6.2-billion in transportation. Instead, the NDP unveiled their own Rapid Transit Expansion Program in 1993.
The subsequent Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government killed operating funding for the TTC, cutting off all subsidies. The Harris government also killed the Eglinton Line, which was already under construction. “It’s a sad day for transit in Toronto,” Metro councillor Howard Moscoe told the Toronto Star in 1995. “It’s not a short-term budget cut. The future of Metropolitan Toronto is in those subway lines.”
Had Harris not killed the Eglinton Line, the much-maligned Eglinton LRT – the one that is over-budget and plagued by delays - would not be necessary.
One small misstep for man, one giant misstep for Toronto. The last twenty years have been more of the same. Instead of concentrating on public transit, the provincial government is building more highways. And now, after continual political bungling, we have the Greater Toronto Area – a population of around seven million people essentially trying to get around by car.
“Tokyo hit seven million in the mid-1970s,” says Sorensen. “They realized that past two million people, if most of the trips are being made by car, then you are in big trouble. Once you get past that point it stops working.”
In Tokyo, overcrowding was remedied by having both subway and intercity trains running on the same type of track. This allows riders on intercity trains to access multiple subway stations. Compare this to Toronto. Here, the GO Transit system has no direct connection to the TTC at stations such as Dundas West or Main Street (tracks are close, but riders must exit then enter a different station to switch trains).
There is no fare integration between GO and the TTC, although the Ford government says this will happen by the end of 2023.
There is hope for Toronto. Madrid embarked on 20 years of building and brought its public transit to life. Sorensen says doing so requires constant and continuous investment and construction. There are economic advantages to this approach. Constant work means that you have experienced crews working, which are more efficient and productive. That means fewer delays and better work. In the short-term, the city could declare more roads car-free so that streetcars can move more quickly. Queen Street East barely moves. Why not get rid of the cars so the streetcars can get downtown faster?
As our conversation closed, I pitched my idea: What if we simply paid the CEO of Tokyo Metro to be mayor of Toronto? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?
“Uh, no,” replied Sorensen.
I knew he was right.
It won’t be easy for the next mayor to undo decades of neglect. Here’s hoping that rather than watch Toronto’s transit collapse gradually then suddenly, the new mayor and provincial government will make the constant and continuous investment in transit the city needs to get it moving.
If not, there’s always the Tokyo Platform.