Skip to main content

Crossrail workers work in the tunnel about 35 meters underground at Whitechapel, in London, Friday, April 4, 2014. The massive Crossrail project will link many parts of the London transport network. A London transit planner says Toronto needs to restructure its planning process so that it is not vulnerable to drastic changes with every election cycle.Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press

Lock politicians and experts in a room until they can agree on transit.

That's the advice – only half in jest – of a transportation expert speaking in Toronto Wednesday morning. But even more important is the next step: set up a legal structure to stop the plans changing with every political cycle.

"The strength lies behind the systems that are in law," said David Quarmby, one of the architects of Transport for London, the over-arching agency responsible for almost all forms of public transportation in the U.K. capital.

He spoke with The Globe and Mail in advance of his address Wednesday to the Toronto Region Board of Trade, co-hosted by the Neptis Foundation, which will go into depth about the situation in London.

"There's a certain amount of kind of … legal inertia there," Mr. Quarmby explained by phone, "that embeds the main elements of a transport strategy, which can be modified by the mayor and indeed some of the emphasis does get changed by the different mayors, but it's more difficult to bring about a complete change of direction."

It's a wildly different system than in Toronto, where the longevity of transit plans is always in doubt. This is a trend that goes back decades and has continued under the current mayor and provincial government.

After his 2010 election, Mayor Rob Ford insisted on tearing up the transit plan that existed when he took office. A series of plans were created or adapted and the goal may change yet again. Within the last year, the regional planning agency ended its support for an approved and funded light rail line when the political winds at the city and province leaned towards a subway extension instead.

How to prevent this sort of stop-and-start transit planning in Toronto is a source of great angst for residents and business owners, who worry that the city's congestion is getting out of control. But calls to "take the politics out of planning" ignore the fact that it is through politicians that citizens can be heard. Several decades ago, the Spadina Expressway was cancelled by politicians reacting to citizen opposition; had it been left to the experts, the expressway would likely have been built.

Mr. Quarmby argued said that politicians must remain involved to give the process legitimacy. But he acknowledged the risk of bowing to changing political currents.

"You need to have a decision-making system that is more consensual, that is based on a single governance [model], where all the parties are required by law to collaborate and arrive at plans, which are going to get delivered," he said. "That doesn't mean to say you'll never get any delays and there won't be funding difficulties and all that, but at least the issue of what you're trying to do and where you're trying to do it, and in particular how it should be best integrated with the system you've already got, if you have a single governance that's got the legitimacy, hopefully those issues do get addressed."

Although Mr. Quarmby stressed that he is not here to tell Torontonians how to manage their transportation, some of the results in London would be welcome to locals weary of the endless fighting.

Among the successes is a 75-per-cent rise in bus use over the last 15 years. The quick win of increased bus service has been identified by mayoral hopeful Oliva Chow as an early priority. Also key, Mr. Quarmby said, is the value of a single authority overseeing the various types of transportation, an idea proposed by mayoral candidate Karen Stintz.

Transport for London was formed in 2000, part of the Labour governance reforms of 1997 that also gave the city a directly elected mayor. That mayor chairs the agency and appoints all of its board members, but that doesn't mean each succeeding one has an entirely free hand. The mayor has to create land-use and transport plans that are written into law.

Follow me on Twitter: @moore_oliver