Rob Ford says Toronto is booming. His challengers for mayor say, hold on, Toronto has big problems. Both are correct.
Toronto has big problems in part because it is booming. Many of its problems, from an overcrowded TTC to traffic congestion, are the problems of success.
The signs of that success are everywhere. Just look around. Those thickets of towering cranes, those thundering jackhammers, those traffic lanes blocked by construction – all are signs of a building boom that is transforming the city, bringing tens of thousands of new residents and office workers to a thriving downtown.
Companies that might once have fled to the cheaper 905 are clamouring to locate in the heart of the city.
Those crowded subways, streetcars and buses? It may be hard to see it while standing in the cold for the 505 car, but this is another sign of a growing, robust city. Annual TTC ridership broke through the half-billion mark in 2011 and is expected to reach 540 million this year, up 45 per cent since it sagged in the recession of the early 1990s.
More ridership means that sometimes the system strains to keep up, even with some new buses, new, roomier subway trains and (soon) new streetcars. But this is true in any big city. Try squeezing on the subway in London, Tokyo or Beijing at rush hour. Full vehicles at peak times mean that the transit system is working. Empty or quarter-full vehicles are a sign of failure.
Or consider the island airport. A proposal by Porter Airlines to fly jets out of Billy Bishop has thrown a spotlight on the explosive growth of the one-runway airport. Critics worry about noise from the planes and the congestion from land traffic as passengers come and go. This is yet another problem of success. A local airline headed by a Toronto businessman flying Canadian planes has become a big hit with travelers. Toronto finds itself with a thriving airport minutes from the central business district, an asset for the whole city.
Of course, just because problems stem from success doesn't mean we can shrug them off. Problems of success are still problems.
The downtown building boom is putting a strain on the transit network. Crowding on transit can make the rush-hour ride a misery and could end up discouraging commuters from taking transit at all. Too much growth at the island airport could clog waterfront roads unless authorities invest in better infrastructure.
If it is to get over its growing pains, Toronto will have to tackle its problems with more seriousness and better leadership than it has been able to muster till now. That is what makes the current election so important. The city's future is at risk unless it can find the wherewithal to cope with the strains imposed by the problems of success.
But seeing them as problems of success, rather than symbols of failure, is useful all the same. It's a reminder that, for all its challenges, Toronto is a thriving city with plenty to celebrate and that its problems, while serious, are solvable with determination and creativity. Many places would kill to have worries like ours.
Next time you are tempted to say, "Ugh, another condo," think of all the cities that only dream of this kind of building boom. Think of all that comes with it, from livelier streets to a bigger tax take that pays for other things like parks and pools. Think of the cities where the streets go dead at night and downtown is peppered with vacant corners and parking lots.
Next time you complain about the TTC, think of all the cities where the transit network is so thin and service so spotty that you don't get on if you can avoid it. Despite all its faults, the TTC is a true network that can take you just about anywhere. Toronto badly needs to build out rapid transit to cope with growth – and its leadership has been muffing the job – but that it faces this challenge in the first place is good news, not bad.
That can be said for all of Toronto's problems of success.