Why Canada has fallen so far behind on public transit

Inadequate public transit has become as Canadian as maple syrup, and cities are struggling to find affordable solutions. The problem? Too much political wrangling and an outdated approach to new infrastructure projects.

'Electoral alliances and political gains,' are driving new transit, not smart decision making

Toronto is an example of a Canadian city that has fallen way behind its global competitors on public transit. (CBC )

Inadequate public transit has become as Canadian as maple syrup, and cities are struggling to find affordable solutions.

Metro Vancouver took a novel crack at the problem last week with a plebiscite on a 0.5 per cent sale tax hike that would have covered the region's $7.5-billion share in a massive 10-year transit strategy.

Voters resoundingly rejected the plan, with nearly 62 per cent of the 759,696 ballots cast for the No side. It was a stunning defeat for the proposal's backers in an area in need of new transit infrastructure to serve a growing population but without any way of paying for it in the foreseeable future. 

Unfortunately, similar scenarios are playing out in cities across the country.

For critics, Canada's transit woes have been exacerbated by the politicization of infrastructure projects and a pervasive car-centric mentality engrained in our institutions. 

Federal and provincial funding for new public transit projects has long been sporadic and without any clear direction, leaving municipalities to shoulder most of the burden, says Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. 

As well, he says, much of the funding that has been made available supported infrastructure for drivers, a vestige of 20th century approaches to urban planning.

"There was this consensus that the majority of transportation planning and funding should be oriented toward accommodating more cars," Litman says, adding that there is clearly growing demand for alternatives, particularly public transit, and policy has largely failed to reflect that. 

"What it boils down to is that it's much easier for local governments to get funding for a highway improvement or new bridge than it is for a public transit project, even if public transit is the more rational investment."

Transit for political gain

There are some signs of hope on the horizon for cities, however. Beginning in 2017, there will be $1B annually earmarked in the federal budget for regional transit projects.

And it being an election year in Canada, the Conservatives have obliged some of the demands of big city mayors seeking support for transit initiatives. 

For example, in June it was announced that Ottawa will contribute $2.6B, about one third of the total cost, to Toronto Mayor John Tory's SmartTrack plan — welcome news in a city that is said to lose an estimated $11 billion in economic activity each year due to crippling congestion. ​

Amid growing pressure from big city leaders for new infrastructure cash, Stephen Harper's government has earmarked $1B annually for public transit projects starting in 2017. The NDP and Liberals are also promising new funding as well. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
But political wrangling has stifled smart transit planning in Canadian cities says Murtaza Haider, an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

"Just look at the Conservatives right now. There's an election on the horizon and if somebody proposed a transit system based on flying monkeys and it happened to serve a contested area, they'd help fund it," he says, only half-jokingly. 

"The result is that often we are not supporting the transit we need, but projects that advance electoral alliances and political gains."

Haider argues that Toronto's Sheppard subway line is an example of how politics can play too large a role in how we design and ultimately build transit projects. Completed in 2002 after years of delays and cost overruns, the 5.5 km stretch of track was largely championed by a small coalition of politicians hoping to curry favour from voters in an area that was, at the time, a relatively sparsely populated patch of suburbia.

Density has increased around the line since its unveiling, but ridership has not lived up to projections. Two of the city's major streetcar routes — the King and Spadina — have higher daily ridership but cost far less to operate.

It's a cautionary tale of what happens when politics trumps effective planning, Haider says, adding that "there are examples of these kinds of mistakes all across the country."

'The future is abstract'

Like most infrastructure, constructing new public transit comes with a hefty price tag and the benefits can take years to materialize. Consequently, even the best projects can be a tough sell to the public. 

"The future is abstract, it's way down the road. We have no idea what thirty years from now, for example, is going to look like," says David Moscrop, a lecturer in the department of political science at UBC whose research focuses on the intersection of cognitive science and democracy. 

"It just seems too far removed from our daily experience."

Moscrop argues that our inability to think on long time scales hampers decisions around public transit. These effects were likely on display during Metro Vancouver's transit plebiscite. 

The plan included a laundry list of projects, like a new east-west subway line, new light rail, a new ferry and a replacement bridge across the Fraser River, among others things, aimed at connecting people to job centres and reducing the area's infamous traffic congestion over at least ten years.

The Yes side was endorsed by most of the local mayors involved and student, labour and environmental organizations. But the No camp, headed by the B.C. branch of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation, mounted a fierce campaign that shifted the focus toward the region's much maligned transit authority, TransLink, and its alleged mishandling of taxpayer dollars. 

"Cognitively speaking, it's easier for people to focus on one smaller issue like TransLink than consider a huge question with far reaching, long-term consequences," Moscrop says.

"Unfortunately it's kind of a disaster for policy making."