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The TTC's brand new streetcars are bigger, more comfortable - and for some Torontonians, no doubt just as easy to dislike.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

No matter their ideological stripe, mayoral candidates in Toronto's election can't ignore public transit.

Frustration with commuting has vaulted to the top of the political agenda. People are looking for answers and, with calls to build more roads pushed to the fringes of the debate, transit is the best answer. The front-runners are happy to oblige, rolling out multibillion-dollar transit plans and offering claims about being able to solve congestion.

This week, as a poll showed that voters are preoccupied with transit and gridlock, Rob Ford was the last of the major candidates to unveil his transportation platform. He promised 32 kilometres of underground transit, seemingly at no cost to the public purse.

The situation is gratifying for those who argued for years that more transit is long overdue. With such a shift in public opinion – more than twice as many people say gridlock is the top election issue as did in 2010 – the momentum for better transit finally seems to be growing.

But how did something so banal as getting around take on this importance? While there's no simple answer, the issue has been fanned by a pro-car mayor who wants transit taken off the road, regional alienation, advocacy campaigns and a ramping up of roadwork. There's also been an influx of residents into the city, with the most dramatic population growth happening in the core. These downtowners are most likely to take the transit system, which is already groaning as it carries about 10 million passengers each week.

"I think there is at least a general mindset that this is a bigger problem than it was in 2010," said Nik Nanos, chair of Nanos Research, which conducted the poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV News.

Mr. Nanos said that he rarely sees any issue receive the kind of numbers that transit and gridlock scored in the poll. Roughly half of people cited it, without being given a list of options, as the election's top issue, up 30 points from similar poll in 2010. That can't just be the result of candidates choosing to highlight the issue, the pollster said.

"The politicians can be talking about something, but if it's not a problem, then people aren't going to say it's a problem," he said. "But the thing is … if politicians start focusing on something that people inherently believe is a problem, it basically amps up the issue in terms of importance."

Andy Byford, head of the TTC, has worked in Sydney and London, where public transit is also a big issue. Still, he was a bit surprised by the "passionate" way people care about transit here.

"Certainly, while I would have expected transit to feature in the debate, I think it's probably surpassed my expectations," he said. "It really is the topic."

Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki said that the quotidian task of moving through the city is a natural issue in a mayoral election. In a very populous and highly diverse municipality, candidates hustling for votes know that this is one activity that touches almost everyone.

"Whether you rely on bicycling, whether you rely on transit, whether you rely on the automobile, your experience of getting around town is probably a challenge," he said. "And so it's an issue that in a sense speaks to the public."

Transportation is also a highly personal issue. People can feel wronged when their travel is disrupted. If traffic is perceived to be getting worse, a sense of aggravation may grow. There's also a strange dissociation that leads some drivers to think problems are being caused not by them but by all the other people on the road. The effect is established enough that a German public-service advisory once reminded people that "you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic."

In Toronto, add regional alienation to the grievances people feel on this issue.

As a general principle, Mr. Ford has vowed not to allow transit that would disrupt traffic and his plan promises nothing above ground. He would spend billions to build subways under Sheppard and Finch avenues – where studies have projected ridership far too low to justify such an expensive transit option – rather than ask suburban motorists to share the road with light rail vehicles.

The mayor has also been quick to tell car-reliant Scarborough residents that they have been badly treated and deserve better transit. Other municipal politicians have played the same card, arguing that downtown, where there is the highest density and transit has the highest mode share, was getting preferential treatment.

Raising the prominence of the transportation debate was a protracted campaign to convince the public that it would need to pay more for transit.

Politicians, civic leaders and lobby groups argued that the traffic situation was so bad that the only solution was to bring in taxes or fees to build new transit. At the top of the list were increased gas taxes and a small rise in the sales tax. The discussion of new revenue is largely off the table, but the sense that something needed to be done clearly struck a nerve.

The upside of the focus on transit is that it is getting some long-overdue attention. Mr. Byford said that this allows the transit agency to make a pitch for funding without seeming self-serving. He says it consciously sought to leverage the issue's prominence by releasing in recent weeks a list of possible service improvements.

"It was a deliberate strategy on our part … that we would put up this paper that we knew would cause a stir," Mr. Byford said. It was a way of saying to city council, "in a world of finite funding and conflicting choices, do you want [the improvements]? Over to you."

Raising the stakes, transit is a key issue not just for commuters but for the future of the city.

"It's impossible to have this conversation about our growth without talking about public transit, because public transit is going to be the … linchpin to ensuring that our growth is tied to a high quality of life," said Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.

But with everyone looking for a solution, there's also the risk that politics will trump proper planning.

"You have this strange dynamic where campaign teams are kind of scratching transit plans on the back of a napkin," she said. "I'm not sure that's the best way to create a transit plan. It might be effective in campaigning but it's not based necessarily – it could be, but not necessarily – on data and evidence."

Mr. Siemiatycki was more blunt, arguing that the various campaigns seem happy to put out "snazzy" maps rather than solid transit policies.

"A lot of what of we're seeing smacks of a product that just came out of the marketing department of some politician," the Ryerson political scientist said.

"Unless the proponents are clearly identifying … why [their plans] are better than other alternatives, in terms of costs, in terms of meeting ridership needs and where the funding is going to come from – unless the candidates can justify their plan on at least those three grounds, I would say beware."