Before the Tories upload Toronto’s subway, they should take a ride on London’s tube

ANALYSIS: Doug Ford’s government could learn a lot from London about operating a transit system, writes John Lorinc
By John Lorinc - Published on October 18, 2018
entrance to London's Underground subway
Transport for London operates the London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway, London Buses, and other transit services. (iStock.com/mbbirdy)

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Premier Doug Ford believes that the province, not Toronto, should be responsible for operating, maintaining, and expanding the city’s subway system. As he put it in August, “We’re taking this off their shoulders. The reason we’re doing it, as I’ve said all along — for 12 years, we just can’t seem to get transit built in the city of Toronto.”

The Progressive Conservatives are clearly serious about uploading the subway and likely about delegating the operations to Metrolinx, the regional agency that runs GO Transit. Indeed, at the end of August, Ford named a veteran infrastructure official, Michael Lindsay, to head a panel tasked with investigating potential configurations and making recommendations. (The government hasn’t indicated when the review will be complete.)

Lindsay, a former vice-president at Infrastructure Ontario, will presumably look at international case studies. He’ll quickly discover that when transit experts scan the globe for cities that have figured out how to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is urban-transportation planning, most point to London, England, as state of the art. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely that the Ford government has any intention of emulating London’s model, despite its abundant success.

London’s story begins with the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which established Transport for London (TfL), a public umbrella organization that oversees the financing and delivery of a wide range of transit options.

TfL operates numerous subsidiaries: London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway Ltd., London Buses, a river service, the Crossrail, the intercity-bus station, and property-holding companies. Its funding comes from fares, advertising, congestion charges, government grants, and bonds. All the divisions have corporate boards — mostly made up of academic, business and labour types, with a few ex-pols — but the whole organization is formally overseen by one person: the mayor of London, who is elected at large and has a mandate to develop and manage urban transport. (Sadiq Khan is the current mayor.)

The unique structure works well because it aligns geography, funding, road-pricing incentives, operations, and accountability.

It wasn’t always thus. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher promoted ambitious new development in the former East End docklands. But the towering new office buildings on Canary Wharf weren’t accessible by transit. It was so difficult to find tenants that some developers, including Canada’s Reichmann family, buckled.

The moral of the story? Adam Smith’s hidden hand may work in free markets, but it won’t necessarily get you to the office on time.

Eventually, less doctrinaire, post-Thatcherite thinking prevailed. Tony Blair introduced dramatic municipal reforms, establishing both the new office of mayor and the TfL. The first mayor, “Red” Ken Livingstone, imposed a congestion charge, which levied steep fees on those who chose to drive into London’s gridlocked core. The revenues went to operating and building TfL’s vast network of trains, buses, and subways.

London’s transit revolution proves that governance structure matters as much as money — and that more integration, not less, is what matters most when large urban areas are looking to deal with their transit migraines.

The Ford government appears to be going in precisely the opposite direction. In fact, the premier’s promise to upload the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway network (presumably to Metrolinx) will create a deeply fractured structure — one even more vulnerable to the sort of political wrangling that has, for years, prevented good transit planning in Greater Toronto.

Consider the architecture. The province’s goals for subway expansion may conflict with the city’s. Uploading also raises thorny questions about how the TTC will manage its budget, coordinate operations and maintenance, and prioritize expansion. It’s highly likely that subway development in low-density suburban regions — Ford has talked about extensions to both York or Durham — could dump additional operating costs onto Toronto transit users. What’s more, Queen’s Park may not be receptive to funding requests for new TTC lines from the city if it’s already forking out billions for suburban subways.

As for accountability, who will be in charge? The premier? Metrolinx’s board? The mayor? Toronto council? The answer will almost certainly come down to brute force, rather than smart planning: he who pays the piper calls the tune. By uploading the subways, Ford is basically moving Toronto council out of the way.

London, incidentally, isn’t the only metropolis that has figured out how to get its transit ducks in a row. In Paris, the state-owned urban-transit company — formed in 1949 through the merger of the city’s bus company and the Métro — runs the subway, the airport shuttles, trams, buses, and even those parts of the national regional rail service that operate in the Paris region.

Berlin and Copenhagen are similarly configured. The Danish capital’s system —  a public company, DSB, which is owned by the national transportation ministry — has additional built-in accountability: the firms that operate the various divisions receive financial bonuses pegged to the punctuality of the service.

Canada’s two other big cities each use a different approach to establishing system governance at the regional level. One public agency, STM, operates all the transit on the island of Montreal and reports to a board dominated by municipal politicians. In Greater Vancouver, the province established a regional transportation agency, Translink, in the late 1990s, with authority to deliver integrated planning for a range of services, including the regional rail company (SkyTrain), the city’s bus operators, and even major roads and bridges. Translink was also given a mandate to develop a long-term strategy for the Lower Mainland — and provided with a range of revenue sources.

For years, Translink served as a kind of political punching bag. There were seemingly endless turf wars about who should run it and how much influence provincial officials in Victoria should wield. At the moment, Translink answers to a council of mayors from the Greater Vancouver area. Despite all the fighting, rapid transit is being built across the region — a new leg of the SkyTrain, for example, is scheduled to begin construction next year.

The most egregious example of what happens when political oversight and geography don’t line up may be New York City. There, the subway system has finally succumbed to decades of neglect and deferred maintenance. Though the subways worked well in the 1990s after being cleaned up and put in order by a Canadian train geek named David Gunn, New York’s network has become an urban nightmare in recent years: perennially late or broken trains produce so much frustration that Uber use on city streets has created a worrisome surge in traffic congestion.

The culprit in this municipal morality tale? New York State’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who, oddly enough, controls the system’s destiny — and capital funding allocation — from his upstate political redoubt in Albany, and has starved it for capital funding. New York City politicians and the mayor have little input into the funding and operations of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the result is that the infrastructure has been left to falter amidst the political gridlock.

Some observers, such as the Toronto Region Board of Trade, have argued that what Toronto needs is a super-transit agency to manage GO, the TTC, and all the municipal bus companies across the 905. In the mid-2000s, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals took a partial step in that direction by creating Metrolinx, which has a mandate to do long-term regional transit planning — although it lacks the clout to do so.

On paper, the notion of creating one overarching body has promise, and this approach — which recognizes that transit and transportation problems are just as pressing in the suburban hinterland as they are in the congested core — has been used elsewhere. But to get to the place where cities like London are, such a body would also need to be directly  accountable to the residents of the region, have access to predictable revenue sources that aren’t vulnerable to meddling, and receive a commitment from the provincial government that it will be allowed to carry out rational transit planning.

Because the TTC accounts for 90 per cent of all transit trips taken in Greater Toronto, this regional entity would also have to be set up in such a way that core-area commuters — who deal with overcrowding and capacity-related delays — don’t end up cross-subsidizing underused suburban services.

None of these principles seems to be on Ford’s radar. Until there’s clear evidence that Ford’s Tories are genuinely interested in setting up a rational, regional transit agency modelled on those in places like London, there’s a good chance that his plan to take over Toronto’s subways will produce only more political chaos, waste scarce resources, and overburden the existing network.

John Lorinc is an urban affairs journalist and senior editor at Spacing Magazine.

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