Transit in Toronto: Social Media and the Politics of Transit Funding

There’s been big news in the world of Toronto public transit since our successful Toronto TransitCamp on February 4th. First there was the funding announcement for the $2 billion subway expansion to York University and into York Region. Now plans are ready for a $6 billion network of suburban light-rail crisscrossing the under-served suburban communities in our mega-city. (See Steve Munro’s blog for more detailed comments.)

Show me the money.
TTC Tokens

So, where is the money to pay for this plan? And what can social-media-enabled citizens do about it? First you can sign the petition for Mayor Miller’s “one cent solution”: That was easy. But is that enough?

In order to continue investing at the level required to meet anticipated current and future needs, we need a more stable and sustainable source of funding than the fickle whims of senior levels of government. I am a proponent of a congestion charge for the downtown core, like the one used in London. It has been very successful there, with demonstrable results.

There have also been some protests and issues with implementing the congestion charge, as you might imagine. Thankfully we can learn from the London experience and do things better, using technology developed right in our own backyard.

Skymeter is a startup company that resides in the incubator at Mars and has the technology to efficiently implement pretty much any congestion charge pricing scheme a policy wonk might imagine. See Peter Evans’ post discussing Skymeter’s disruptive potential and its listing as one of Business 2.0’s top disruptive companies.

The model exists, the technology exists, the need exists. So what’s missing?

Political will.

“Tolls” have been the political 3rd rail in Toronto since 2003 when then-candidate Miller mused about their usefulness to meet the transportation challenges of the future. What can the Toronto blogging community do to make a congestion charge to fund transit a viable alternative on the policy and political agenda.

So, my fellow blogosphere citizens, let’s start a conversation:

Can a congestion charge for downtown Toronto reduce congestion in the core, improve travel times AND help fund transit expansion at the same time? If not, why not? If so, why is nobody talking about it?

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19 thoughts on “Transit in Toronto: Social Media and the Politics of Transit Funding”

  1. Forcing people into situations (i.e taxes, congestion charges etc etc) where they have no alternative but to use transit isn’t a solution, nor a good way to get people to feel positive about the transit system.

    I can get someone to do just about anything I want with a gun to their head – it doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problem that kept them from using it in the first place.

    TransitCamp was the right start – let the people tell the system what they want/expect from a transit system (and actually listen). Build a system I can rely on and actually ‘enjoying’ using and there won’t be a challenge getting people on it.

    On the days I drive vs. take transit “cost” is nowhere near the top of my considerations.

  2. Mark,
    I totally agree that the TTC needs consistent and major funding to provide the system that Toronto needs to move forwards.

    I don’t have enough knowledge to say if a congestion charge is the answer or not, though it seems to have a certain logic I have to admit.

    You ask ‘Can a congestion charge for downtown Toronto reduce congestion in the core, improve travel times AND help fund transit expansion at the same time?’

    I’d say that the answer to that is pretty definitely yes, but there are some aspects the questions doesn’t address. This relates to Ryan’s point I think, that perhaps part of that question needs to be ‘is a congestion charge a fair solution?’

    I live on a subway line downtown and don’t have a car, so I’m going to be pro-congestion charge. Not sure how I’d feel if I lived drove a car for my commute from home somewhere in the GTA, where the bus comes every half hour if you’re lucky.

    It’s a chicken and egg issue I guess. Good transit takes money, getting people out of their cars takes good transit. Good transit needs population density, population density follows good transit. Lets hope we’ve got some good chicken farmers around here, and that congestion charges and other solutions for proper TTC funding get serious the consideration and action they deserve.

  3. “This relates to Ryan’s point I think, that perhaps part of that question needs to be ‘is a congestion charge a fair solution?’”

    Agreed – a congestion tax essentially amounts to a (905) tax. Part of the transit problem in the GTA is the transit systems seem to operate in their own little regional silos.

    For me admittedly the TTC is a bit of a non-factor as I walk from Union to my office. The reality is though the ‘burbs aren’t remotely transit friendly (bad planning). For a family with two people working “no car” just isn’t an option (and buying in the city isn’t much of an option either at current prices).

    Once you’re already paying for a car getting the cost benefit in transit’s favor gets really difficult. Gas + parking vs. GO pass & TTC pass comes out to a pretty close dead heat in most cases so it comes down to convenience and comfort.

  4. I agree, and I support both congestion charges AND road tolls, as in the Capital. M25, anyone?

    Toronto is still a pole of attraction, meaning more people work here than live here, and reverse commuting isn’t going to skyrocket if more people are forced to use transit.

    The sky won’t fall. Srsly.

  5. Exactly: David Miller’s mention of the word “toll” was used as an excuse by his political opponents to attack him, labelling him anti-driver etc. Slimy politicians will do anything to get votes.

    I believe that what is needed is not political will, but political sophistication. Like Stephen Harper has, and David Miller doesn’t. For good commentary on Stephen Harper and transit, read Dave Till’s blog post on the subject.

  6. A very interesting model for transportation infrastructure management is Singapore. They almost never have traffic jams. Their subway system is extensive, quite affordable, and very well run (seems never to break down). To boot, its privately run and actually earns a decent profit. I’m quite a fan. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons it would never work here. But there may be some ideas we can perhaps borrow from them.

    Perhaps one (albeit admittedy rather extreme) is to change the way automobile infrastructure is paid for – i.e. charge it directly to car owners. In Singapore, they have very heavy taxes on private vehicles, all of which goes to funding road maintenance and construction. By reflecting the true cost of maintaining roads (and constructing roads to avoid congestion) in car ownership, it establishes a more sensible (and economically efficient) balance between private vehicles and public transit. It also more accurately reflects the cost/benefit decision that commuters make when deciding where to live.

    They also have both congestion charges and some tolls to manage traffic flows during the day, plus active management of the number of vehicles on the road through a certificate system – each year they estimate the number of vehicles that their infrastructure can reasonably deal with, then auction off a fixed number of “certificates of entitlement” which are basically licenses for you to operate your car for the year. Of course, the higher the demand, the higher the cost.

    Then there’s the transit system: 90% of purchases for fares and fare cards are automated. You use debit cards, cash, credit, anything to buy your fares. They even have these way cool stored fare cards that you just skim over a sensor at the turnstile – just a remarkable sense of efficiency to the whole thing.

    There’s more but alas this is getting long and I think I should do some more work…

    Anyway, something to look at.

  7. The difficulty in using a congestion charge to fund public transit is that the congestion charge will:

    a: discourage driving in the core, thereby encouraging transit usage. Unfortunately, our transit system is already past capacity at peak times.

    It doesn’t make much sense to encourage transit usage without the proper transit infrastructure to support that many new riders. That’s where London has the advantage over us in terms of a key element to making congestion charges work.

    One other note is that there is no guarantee that the money raised via congestion charges would be or should be totally allocated to fund transit when so many other facets of our infrastructure need $ as well…

    I think the idea is good… but the timing has to be right

  8. There is a debate on Torontoist about this. I posted a reply. This is what I have to say. I know it seems angry, please forgive me — pregnant women and the TTC just don’t mix.

    No one mentioned in this debate mentioned anything about people who live in Toronto who have to drive to work. Why? Because clearly no one on this list is pregnant and has had the displeasure of trying to get on a subway or streetcar every morning to go to work. No one has tried to take their kids to daycare via transit. Either you’re all self-righteous childless people trying to tell other people how to live your lives, or you’re the jerk who told me I was “selfish” to ask for your subway seat when I was eight months pregnant (but “not showing enough”) or you live so far downtown, you have no need or desire to own a car.

    Here’s the real truth: I took the TTC for many, many years and told people who owned cars that they were expensive pollution machines and a waste of money.

    Then I started a family. Guess what? Unless you live right on the TTC main grid, it’s nearly impossible for a busy double income middle-class family with kids to get around without a car. The penalty for picking your kid up late at daycare can be as high as $2 a minute. That’s nothing compared to a congestion charge. Walking to the subway and being jostled while standing for the entire 30 minute ride while pregnant means you’re possibly putting your health at risk if you suffer from dizzy spells or nausea. And don’t even get me started about trying to take a proper snow-competent stroller on a bus.

    The last time I took the TTC home from work, I was eight weeks pregnant, exhausted, and a snowstorm had crippled the streetcars along King. I walked 2 km to the subway in the snow, nearly passing out from exhaustion, only to be jostled for another 30 minutes on the subway to my stop, then walked about 20 minutes to get home. I had such bad cramps that night, I ended up at home in bed unable to move for a day. I was terrified I was miscarrying. I missed putting my baby to bed, and thank god my husband was home that day or we would have been screwed.

    So I’ll keep driving thanks, until the TTC pulls up its socks and starts treating us like human beings. The real congestion problem is on the subways, buses and streetcars downtown. What we *don’t* need is more people squishing through the doors at rush hour. Improve the system, and only then will I stop driving to work. Til then, I’ll take my quick, safe drive to work/daycare/wherever over risking my health and sanity on the TTC.

    And by the way? Those stickers that say “please give this seat to elderly/disabled riders” should also mention PREGNANT WOMEN. Sometimes there is the odd annoying woman who doesn’t get tired, dizzy or nauseous and thinks everyone should stand like her. But for the rest of us, we need to sit.


  9. Tree’s comment is a good one. The demonization of car users is ridiculous. I’m half expecting pregnant women to be told to ride bicycles.

    Instead of eco-fascism, let’s have transportation priced according to its full costs. Vehicles should be charged for road usage (with heavy vehicles charged much more because of the consequent road damage), emissions, etc. Technology such as the above-mentioned Skymeter can make such things practical. Then people can make intelligent decisions on their mode of transport according to their personal situations, and not according to what some holier-than-thou socialist says.

  10. I think Rohan’s intended model and mine are actually very similar. I wouldn’t cast the idea of a congestion charge as particularly socialist or not socialist. That’s not even a relevant lens.

    Sustainability thinking, however, would argue that the externalities of the marketplace (costs born by third-parties) can be re-internalized, preferably through some market-based mechanism.

    In the millions upon millions of transactions between all of us who drive cars and the auto and oil industries, what costs are third parties bearing? I can only begin to ponder the scale of such a number.

    So, how about a flexible system of hour-by-hour tarif pricing that is tied to real-time or near real-time user demands on the system? Surely somewhere in this city we have the wherewithall to come up with a pricing model for road useage that is based on strong transportation economics?

    As in London, Toronto could make a very large anticipatory investment in public transit capacity (and user experience!) to ease the transition. Such a large capital investment can be readily financed by revenues from the congestion charge.

    Currently, taxpayer dollars almost completely subsidize public streets and highways that are seen as a god-given right for every individual. Meanwhile, transit is seen as somehow as exotic, European and socialist.

    If we remain stuck in a false left-right dichotomy on this issue, I fear that recent progress on the transit file will be a short-term blip of optimism during a generation-long period of decline, neglect and stalemate.

    I am saddened by Tree’s comment, about what it says about our city that the transit system is seen as potentially dangerous by pregnant mothers. Of course, some people will always err on the side of caution and make the choice, if they can afford it, to go to the perceived safety of driving a car on congested Toronto streets rather than use transit. I think her story makes all too clear why the neglect of the past 20 years or more is unacceptable.

    Great cities require great transit, which requires serious long-term and stable investment. I would ask those that are against a congestion charge to come up with a politically and financially viable alternative.

  11. I don’t think a congestion charge is the answer.

    As Ryan pointed out earlier, people don’t drive because it’s less expensive, they drive because the user experience is better. In order to move to a more transit-based society, we have to improve the transit user experience to beyond that of driving, which in ideal circumstances would be a difficult task. Let’s face it: driving is nice.

    As many of us are starting to witness, driving in Toronto (especially at rush hour) is becoming more frustrating and expensive. Yet many people still prefer it to transit because they don’t see enough gain in switching. The cost / benefit ratio simply isn’t big enough.

    Increasing costs seems to have little effect on conversion from driving to transit – costs have been steadily rising for years, but the vast majority of those who can still afford to drive (no matter how barely) continue to do so. Besides, the cost of operating a vehicle is already vastly more than unlimited transit. The cost of insurance alone for most adults is comparable to a metropass! Clearly, cost is not the deciding factor.

    So what’s my alternative? Prioritize transit. Not just signal priority, but also spacial priority. Build light rail in central corridors (like Spadina) and give it signal priority to other traffic. What we should be aiming for is a system that reflects the interests of the population – if 1/3 of commuters in the city are using transit, let’s try to give them 1/3 of our limited roadway.

    I think it’s important to introduce as few artificial incentives as possible. If there’s enough transit and it’s a good enough user experience it will slowly win over many existing drivers.

    But I’m an optimist… 🙂

  12. Kieran – I agree that individual choices have everything to do with the user experience. The system overall has to shift the relative cost/benefit radically to improve the system overall.

    My point is: user experience and transit priority COSTS MONEY!

    As I describe above, the charge is part of an answer that includes LARGE investments into that transit capacity and user experience. See the London example. A congestion charge should not go into general revenues, it should finance that capital program.

    In Toronto, the gap is much greater, so we need lots more capital investment to make up for the years of neglect.

    Congestion charging may not be the first step, but it is an inevitable step in my opinion.

  13. Several things:

    1. Mark, my remark about socialists was not intended to refer to the congestion charge, but to the “I’ll tell you what’s best for you” attitude that is unfortunately found among many transit activists and is inherent in socialism. Sorry for the confusion.

    2. Kieran mentions the huge costs required to have a car. But lots of people want to have a car if only for schlepping groceries etc. (and not everyone lives near an AutoShare or ZipCar location!), and are open to transit for getting to and from work. For them, insurance is a sunk cost and we have to compare the incremental costs of driving/parking vs. “transitting” to work. Transit usually still wins, but not by as much. I do agree with Kieran’s point that “cost is not the deciding factor”, but wanted to mention this to help complete the picture.

    3. Further to Kieran’s point about “spacial priority” for transit, I heard my friend Jaime Watt point out to Mayor David Miller that one huge difference between a streetcar line that has its own right of way and one that doesn’t is that the former is so much more predictable because it’s not affected by the level of other traffic. In fact, it can be more predictable than driving. Jaime is much more likely to take a streetcar like the Spadina one because of, to use his phrase that the mayor liked, “certainty of journey time”. Without that, anyone who wants to be somewhere at a certain time, and doesn’t have oodles of spare time, is likely to avoid transit if possible.

  14. Don’t even think about charging me one red cent in congestion charges or road tolls until this city has an real alternative. Toronto public transit as it stands today is NOT an alternative – it’s an embarrassment of a transit system. Any politician who does not support the funding NOW of 100% of the plan presented by the TTC ( – Federal, Provicial, Municipal – NDP, Liberal or Conservative – WILL NOT get my vote.

  15. I think a number of things are now self evident such that the implementation of a congestion tax will and should happpen. They are (1) senior government hasn’t got its head around transit as national competitiveness strategy (2) Toronto hasn’t got its head around senior government isn’t going to pay for it (3) transit development requires the articulation of a concurrent strategic transportation (car)/transit vision (verse route placement discussions) (4) Toronto needs to take bold transit decisions via innovative expansion funding models, station as destination planning, capital equipment purchasing partnerships with other transit systems for economy of scale (long term), adpt a we can make it happen attitude instead of “where’s the money” all the time, etc. and above all (5) Toronto should have taken the lead in transit (vision wise) and partnering wise has because it has now lost that role to the Greater Toronto Transit Authority (GTTA).

  16. Mark – you speak like a bureaucrat. I’m just a simple, plain talking Torontonian. Senior government WILL get its head around Toronto when we all vote – and say “no thank you” to politicians who don’t care about this city.

  17. I’m with Diane: all that matters is votes. It really doesn’t matter whether a congestion charge is a good thing or not, in the same way that it didn’t matter whether the new subway routes (Sheppard and the Spadina extension) were a good thing or not. Unfortunately Torontonians are not inclined to vote federally or provincially according to their self-interest, and will continue to be taken advantage of.

    (Not to exempt our local politicians from blame. The horrible Front Street Extension is still alive because Councillor Joe Pantalone likes construction jobs, and because the mayor and some other councillors indulge him in this.)

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