The other day, the deputy premier of Ontario, Deb Matthews, appeared on CBC’s Metro Morning to talk about the latest explosion in the perennially incendiary Scarborough transit debate. Last week, her government’s minister of transportation, Glen Murray, held a press conference to make yet another announcement about yet another different, and inferior, subway plan. In so doing, he surprised both Mayor Rob Ford and TTC chair Karen Stintz, and laid his own torch to the bonfire of discussion, which threatens to consume not only his government’s existing agreement to replace the aging Scarborough rapid transit line with a new LRT, but also the expensive alternative subway plan city council had recently endorsed. Murray’s contribution fuelled the debate, threatening to incinerate any real hope of transit construction on that route for more than a decade.
Anyway, Matthews was on the radio, doing damage control and trying to turn the mess into a winning issue for her government in the preamble to a possible election campaign. What it boils down to, she told host Matt Galloway, is that the people of Scarborough “deserve a subway.” With that statement, she joined a vast political hall of shame filled with utterances of the same phrase. Olivia Chow, Rob Ford, Glenn De Baeremaeker, Karen Stintz, Mitzie Hunter—people from every party and every level of government have repeated this well-worn bit of crap about what kind of transit vehicle the people “deserve.”
And every time I hear it, I think of a line from the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
There are a lot of factors that go into intelligent transit planning: population density and projected ridership; the capacity, speed, and convenience of various types of vehicles; the effects on the transportation network as a whole; construction and operating costs; fare-box revenues and government budgets; and even—for better or worse—the popularity of the options among potential riders. But the concept of who is deserving and who is not—which citizens work hard enough or contribute enough in taxes or are pure enough of heart—is not just irrelevant but nonsensical.
The people of Scarborough, and all of Toronto, need fast, reliable public transit that can get them to work and play and everywhere else they care to go—and that can provide an alternative to car travel. The whole city needs these options to be available in Scarborough and North York and Etobicoke because the existing roads and transit networks are pretty much full. We want that transit to be as comfortable and convenient as possible, so more people will choose to ride it, even if they have other options. In some places, it makes sense to provide that transit by subway; in other places, heavy commuter rail or LRT or streetcars or buses are perfectly fine. Things we need. Things we want. Things that make sense. These are good concepts for debate. Deserve has nothing to do with it.
Or maybe it does, kind of. Because the people of Scarborough—and the rest of Toronto—deserve better political leadership than this from all three levels of government, and from all parties. We deserve leaders who will have an intelligent discussion about our transit needs and wants, about what makes sense and what we can afford. We deserve a federal government that will make a significant contribution to vital local infrastructure. We deserve provincial and municipal governments that will come up with a reasonable plan, commit to paying for it, and then stick with the plan, rather than redrawing the transit map every time there’s another election. We deserve better than the endless clown show that the mayor, the TTC chair, the premier, and their cronies and opponents have put on while Prime Minister Harper has sat in the audience chuckling to himself.
We deserve that—maybe more so, we need it—but we have no clear chance of getting it, even with elections on the horizon. Because none of these politicians is willing to stand up and give us an intelligent alternative to transit chaos.
We’re stuck with these guys and gals, and stuck with the feeling that hope is starting to slip away for decent transit in Scarborough being built in this generation. We don’t deserve that. Like the gunslinger says: Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.