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Governments at all levels boast long history of letting Toronto transit broil

Image: Flickr/Alex Guibord

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A backstory: But days ago, as a disabled 71-year old susceptible to infections from overheating, with considerable consternation, I peeled myself out of a sweltering hot subway car at Bathurst station (hot because the air conditioning was malfunctioning) only to come across a relatively young man far healthier than me flaked out on the floor about a quarter way down the platform.

Concerned that he barely looked conscious, I quickly approached. "Are you okay?" inquired. "I got on at Castle Frank, and I'd still 11 stations more till Royal York," he responded, "and I had to get out -- cause, frankly, I can't take that fucking heat a second longer."

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Nor is it remotely all that is wrong.

Historically, Toronto Transit has called itself "the better way." Now, while there surely are things to celebrate about TTC, including that we have a subway system, this descriptor rings more than a tad hollow these days. The point is, while once upon a time, Toronto could indeed brag of an exceptional transit system, those glory days seem a distant memory.

TTC management claims that what it offers is "convenient." Exactly how convenient is it to have large sections of the subway shut down weekend after weekend for track repair, forcing passengers to soldier on in badly overcrowded (and often stifling hot) shuttle buses, moreover, ones that cause traffic congestion and in the process multiply travel time exponentially. TTC management touts safety as a "cornerstone" of its "business." How safe are trains with no functioning air conditioning?

There are major problems with the TTC. The current, widespread, and ongoing breakdown of the air conditioning systems in cars and stations along the Bloor line which has been going on for well over a month now is but the tip of the iceberg but it is a good a place as any to focus on for it is of pressing concern.

Why pressing? In part because of the weather. With temperatures hitting 35 degrees Celsius, passengers on the Bloor line find themselves stuck in sweltering hot cars with basically no air circulation. This constitutes a health hazard to everyone having to endure it. It poses a particular danger for those most vulnerable (seniors, infants, the disabled, the sick, and the pregnant). What if a pregnant woman miscarried? If a senior passed out from the heat?

How extensive is this particular failure? TTC estimates that "20-25 per cent of the air conditioning on the trains are affected." Let me suggest that as a user/investigator who has conducted several mini-experiments, this is greatly "lowballing" the problem with the figure at various points well over half. Even taking the conservative estimate of 20-25 per cent as gospel, though, what that means is "the better way" currently involves exposing thousands of people a day to a very real health hazard -- a problem compounded by the fact the air conditioning on the subway platforms themselves frequently does not work!

More generally, for the last several years, TTC passengers have experienced ongoing disruptions of what was once thought of as "normal service" (e.g., breakdowns of air conditioning, tracks and equipment so worn that they are in constant need of repair, and so one keeps being forced into badly overcrowded shuttle buses, eerie stops between stations, telltale slowdowns during which the train creeps at a snail's pace between different stations).

How did the abundance of substandard conditions that currently exist materialize? On a simple level, because we have cars on the Bloor line that are ancient and should have been replaced (and no, not just repaired) decades ago. By the same token, we have compromised tracks and other equipment on both the Bloor and Yonge lines.

And how did slippage of such dimensions come about?

The problem to an appreciable degree may be laid at the door of the Harris Tories, who, in an unprecedented move in 1998, totally cancelled provincial subsidies for the TTC. To a lesser but nonetheless fair degree, it may also be placed at the door of subsequent provincial and federal governments. Note, in this regard, from 2009 to 2011, no provincial or federal subsidies whatever went to the TTC.

This contrasts sharply, for example, with what happened with respect to Ottawa Transport, which received nine per cent of its budget from the province of Ontario, also with what happened with STM Montreal, which received 10 per cent of its funding from Quebec.

That itself calls into the question the fairness of our system.

Now for the longest while, Toronto City Council was closer to one of the victims of, as opposed to one of the contributors to, this mess -- since the province had to a significant degree left them saddled with an untenable situation.  And to their credit, in 2007 Toronto City Council introduced new municipal taxes, which, among other things, enabled several of the pressing TTC problems to be addressed (e.g., elevators not working and leaking pipes) -- not that the improvements thereby enabled came close to sufficing.

Enter the Trudeau government's infrastructure spending: TTC, thankfully, has emerged as one of the priorities. In the long run this could go a fair way to addressing some of the fundamental difficulties -- but what if a substantial portion of the money were diverted to the highly suspect Scarborough extension? Which bring us to the Scarborough extension and the Toronto City Council's choice of it.

For some time, Toronto City Council waffled between two different ways of improving service to Scarborough -- an extension to the Bloor line, which would involve one additional stop only and would be extremely expensive -- and a LRT which would involve multiple stops (seven in all) and at a fraction of the cost. In the end, Council opted for the former.

In the very act of opting for the highly expensive subway extension (which would serve far fewer people) over the LRT (which would have linked in way more parts of Scarborough and at a fraction of the cost), Toronto City Council has joined the other levels of government in seriously letting the city of Toronto down, including the residents of Scarborough -- not to mention others. This would have been true irrespective of current circumstances, but the dimension of the folly is particularly apparent when you factor in the extent of the current crisis.

Some questions in light of the various aspects of the foregoing: How can we rationalize the disparity between the treatment of Toronto and the treatment of other major Canadian cities? Why did subsequent Ontario politicians not leap into action with the fall of the Harris Tories? How is it that current Toronto City Council members have prioritized so badly, moreover, have become more or less blasé about squandering the public purse? Why have Toronto doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals been silent on the heat problem? How is it that the average passenger has become so docile that they accept substandard conditions as if these were "normal"? 

Finally, a question to which I will hazard a response: What is needed if we are to seriously address this crisis and prevent future ones from developing?   

Let me suggest, a combination of long term, medium term, and short term measures—together with "blitz actions" including:

  • A commitment to ongoing TTC funding from all levels of government
  • setting a high standard of safety as a bottom line
  • choosing the Scarborough LRT over the transparently wasteful Scarborough extension
  • devoting most of Ontario's portion of the Trudeau Liberals' infrastructure money to doing the replacement work that direly needs to be done
  • enacting emergency measures to protect everyone right now who is riding the Bloor line, with special attention paid to the needs of infants, pregnant women, people who disabled, people who are ill, and the homeless population (significantly, disproportionately Aboriginal), many of whom have long made the nooks and crannies of the transit system their home
  • having the political will not to restrict oneself to band-aide remedies
  • replacing every single one of the ancient cars on the Bloor line
  • replacing all tracks and all other parts of the infrastructure that show signs of trouble
  • declaring the current air conditioning failure on the Bloor line a public health hazard and acting with the alacrity warranted
  • establishing regular checks and ways of assessing when updating is called for
  • creating protocols with tight time lines for the handling of different types of emergencies.

To end with a tip for those unfortunate enough to have to rely on the Bloor line in these sizzling days of summer: If facing a long trip and you've the time and the capacity to do so, proceed to the very end of the platform (where the first car stops), for the lead car in every single train invariably has working air conditioning.

A "treat," note, courtesy of Canada's labour standards. 

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Image: Flickr/Alex Guibord

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