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A public bus has 14th Street, a major Manhattan thoroughfare, all to itself on Oct. 7, 2019, after New York City largely banned cars from the roadway.

KIRSTEN LUCE/The New York Times News Service

Politicians love the future. It’s always bright. They’re like the acquaintance who never stops talking about all the fun they’ll have and the great deeds they will do but who never gets around to actually doing them. This devotion to the future holds doubly true for transit. The best is yet to come. It’s shiny, sexy and – most of all – expensive.

Case in point: the Ontario Line, a 15.5-kilometre rapid-transit line Doug Ford’s government has decided will replace Toronto’s proposed Relief Line. The Ontario Line will cost upwards of $10-billion to build. It will be completed by 2027 at the earliest, just far enough in the future to guarantee that the government which succeeds Ford’s conservatives will replace it with their own Frankensteined version – perhaps the “Ontario Relief Line.”

Meanwhile, Canadians suffer in the present. It was just reported that 80 per cent of Vancouver bus routes are slower than they were five years ago due to congestion. Toronto is so maddeningly congested and unworkable that the city will soon have to pay a royalty to Franz Kafka’s estate.

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“What can we do?” the experts and politicians tell us. These problems are just too tough to solve.

Unless you’re a New Yorker. That city is fixing problems in the present tense. New York City has begun experimenting with “busways.”

Busways? You’re wondering: Is that an app? A ride-sharing system? A five-lane highway with a dedicated bus lane?

Nope.

It’s a street – in this case 14th Street, one of New York’s most congested routes – where, since Oct. 2, cars have been banned between Third and Ninth Avenues. Along with the M14 bus, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., only delivery vehicles and residents are allowed to drive on 14th Street.

Amazing.

Let’s break down this revolutionary thinking:

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  • Cars cause congestion.
  • If we remove the cars the congestion will go away.
  • Let’s remove the cars.

According to data from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, ridership on the M14 bus route has increased 17 per cent; that’s an increase in ridership from 26,350 in the same period in 2018 to 31,031. Commuters are calling it the “Miracle on 14th Street.” Who’s in charge of this bold move? Why, Andy Byford, a Brit who was the CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission between 2011 and 2017.

It’s hard to believe that the concept just popped up in Andy Byford’s head. I’m sure Andy Byford would have liked to try something like this in Toronto. He was, after all, behind the King Street pilot. Byford wanted to have all personal vehicles banned but, in the end, had to back down. All cars are allowed (not just deliveries and residents) but must exit after a short distance. The city caved.

That’s the nice thing about New York City. It doesn’t cave. When residents filed a lawsuit to stop the 14th Street busway, arguing that the diverted traffic would be dangerous, the city fought it and won. The result is a groundbreaking leap forward. More busways are planned. The success proves that you don’t always need to spend a ton of money on flashy fixes – sometimes all you need are guts and a willingness to be innovative.

That is what Canadians politicians and transit experts seem to lack – the courage, or dare I say, the integrity, to do what’s necessary. In mid-October, when the threat of service cuts to subways and buses loomed as a result of financial issues, Andy Byford threatened to resign. He would not oversee them. That’s guts.

One of the least admirable aspects of the Canadian character is the predilection to look smugly south. True, America has its share of issues, but a lack of innovation is not one of them. When Americans see something needs doing they go about doing it. When Canadians see something that needs doing, they sit on their hands and wait for the government to do it. When it comes to traffic and transit, the result is gridlock, both physical and philosophical.

I’m tired of hearing about the future of transit.

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It’s nice to hear politicians declare that our transit woes will be over by 2060. The problem, however, is that by then I will either a) be in hell or b) simply not exist. In only one of those scenarios am I likely to be using public transit.

Come on Canada. Do something tangible now. Busways could be a start.

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