Anyone who visits the booming cities of East Asia can't fail to marvel at how fast they are progressing, and how stuck we seem to be. Come home from Shanghai or Singapore and everything looks shabby and out of date. It is like returning to a sleepy village where the elders suck on their pipes while the roads turn to mud.
Over there, smooth, beautifully engineered new highways stretch to the horizon. Here, the old highways that lead into the country's biggest city boast rusting guardrails and verges sprouting with weeds.
Over there, the subways are efficient, clean and high-tech. New lines are opening all the time, turning big-city subway maps into color-coded webs that get you almost anywhere. The subway in Toronto looks like an antique by comparison. The last major new line opened in 1966. The most recent extension is, of course, behind schedule and over budget.
Mayor John Tory joked that when he rode Hong Kong's extensive, super modern metro system on his recent Asian trip he felt liked having a little cry. How have we fallen so far behind?
Hong Kong has been using an electronic fare card for decades. The Presto card is just being rolled out in Toronto now, in 2016.
People in Toronto giggled when Doug Ford suggested building a monorail to reach the lands to the east of Toronto harbour. Chongqing simply built one. Mr. Tory rode it on his visit to China. His delegation learned that it has an on-time record of 99 per cent. Officials have plans for more lines and many more stations.
Of course, some will say, Asia has all sorts of unfair advantages. Cheap labour. Low environmental standards. Governments that can run roughshod over citizens who say, "not in my backyard." True in some cases, but those still feel like excuses. South Korea became democratic years ago and Seoul has a wonderful, ever-expanding subway system. Taiwan, another robust democracy, has rising environmental awareness. It has managed to build both an excellent subway system in Taipei and a high-speed rail line along the west coast. GDP per capita in Singapore is higher than in Canada. Its airport has a butterfly garden and a free movie theatre to entertain waiting travellers. Its highways are lined with lush, meticulously groomed gardens.
So there is more to the Asian edge than authoritarianism or low wages. Part of it is outlook. These are countries that are racing headlong into the future. They are always building for tomorrow – building, building, building. They have no patience for mediocrity or half measures. If they want to do something, they do it big and they do it right.
They are thinking not just years but decades ahead. Plans are laid and then executed. Line 6 will open in 2017, line 7 in 2018, line 8 in 2020 – and so on. Contrast that with Toronto's back-of-the-napkin, stop-and-start transit planning and it really is enough to make you weep.
Sometimes, in their rush to the future, Asian cities get it wrong, very wrong. Many Chinese cities have repeated North America's mistake and succumbed to the allure of the automobile, with all the sprawl and the pollution that comes with it. The streets often lack any kind of human scale. Still, when something genuinely needs to get built, well, it gets built.
When Hong Kong needed a new airport, it lopped the top off a mountain on an outlying island, quadrupled the size of the island and built two suspension bridges to carry travellers into town by train or motor vehicle. When Shanghai needed an airport shuttle, it chose a magnetic levitation train that goes 430 kilometres an hour and can make the 30-kilometre trip in seven minutes.
Mr. Tory calls what he saw in Asia a "get-things-done-because-we-have-to approach." He noticed not only the quantity of the construction but the high quality of the architecture and landscaping. China is building more than just subways and highways and high-speed rail lines. It is building hundreds of parks and museums and art galleries and performance halls.
Toronto is not Chongqing, some might say. We don't have the density or the sheer population. Our infrastructure is old. Fixing it is tougher than building from scratch as they do in China. These sound like more excuses. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America. It is growing by leaps as newcomers pour in from around the globe. It desperately needs a dose of Asian ambition and forward thinking.
It should take a page from Asian cities and get private companies to help build and run its highway and transit systems. It should streamline approvals for big projects. (Did Toronto really have to hold a lengthy consultation with residents on a new downtown subway line that everyone agrees was needed yesterday?) It should put the needs of tomorrow before the demands of today.
Toronto talks a lot about city building, a stock phrase around city hall. Asian cities get on with it. Let's learn from their example instead of trying to explain away their success.