It might be more reasonable to compare transit in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as both are major cities in the same state and the same country. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close attention the last time I rode the BART under Market Street. In Canada, I was.
Expect this post to be editted edited, Wikipedia-style, if readers write to offer clarifications or correct mistakes.
First, a few statistics, to put comparisons in perspective.
|Musician at Montreal’s Berri-UQAM station|
Sadly, Los Angeles is a poorer place than either city. Per capita income here is about $27,000, versus $38,508 in Toronto and $35,343 in Montreal. This leads to an interesting takeaway: Los Angeles auto-based infrastructure almost forces residents to pay for personal automobiles, even though they are poorer than counterparts in Toronto and Montreal, who can reasonably expect to get around without them.
On to the observations:
Riders from all walks of life patronize trains and buses in Toronto and Montreal …
I don’t know that they are, of course. I don’t tap on their shoulders and ask probing questions about their finances. I am guessing.
|Ed Drass at Carlton and Yonge in Toronto|
… but politicians won’t.
That was the last time I saw an MTA board member on a bus or train, at least not when a camera wasn’t present. The mayor’s hypocrisy in this regard was so great that reporter Duke Helfand called him on it, in an 11/14/06 article in the Los Angeles Times. The mayor encouraged transit use for everyone else, but rarely or never rode it himself, even though he lives a block from a Rapid Bus stop. According to Helfand, he did his commuting in a police-chauffeured GMC Yukon.
|Steve Faguy at Montreal’s Berri-UQAM station|
Dana, Kymberleigh, Joe, Lois, John: I offer a bittersweet consolation. Canadian politicians don’t seem to be any different. The Montreal STM did set aside a board seat for a transit rider, but this did not inhibit Mayor Tremblay from simply ignoring the figurative reservation card, and naming politician Michel Labrecque to the seat instead. Steve Faguy wrote about this at length on his blog, but with such colorful language that I am squeamish about linking to the article here. (I do, after all, direct a children’s organization.)
Canadian and American politicians alike cultivate transit development where it will be politically beneficial, and not necessarily where it’s needed.
In contrast, transit on Crenshaw is now so light that MTA is able to serve the corridor with the every twenty minutes 210, and the every half hour 710. A light rail line is hardly needed on Crenshaw, but Crenshaw is going to get one.
|Sheppard subway car at Don Mills station in Toronto|
My impression from conversations with Ed Drass, Steve Munro, James Bow and Steve Faguy is that Canadian politicians also steer transit development to where it will be politically beneficial. The TTC’s one billion dollar Sheppard subway may exist entirely because of the efforts of former mayor Mel Lastman, who wanted his North York stomping grounds to have a subway line, whether it warranted one or not. In Montreal, Steve Faguy described political jousting between three territorial factions: the Anglophone west, which votes for the liberal party, the Francophone east, which votes for the separatist party, and the suburbs, which are up for grabs. Politicians carefully court the fickle suburbanites, and may offer them a new STM line, even if they don’t particularly need one.
Toronto has a farebox recovery ratio of over 70%.
“Farebox recovery ratio” refers to the percentage of expenses recouped from the farebox. If the Greater Barstow Transit Authority receives $600 from fares but needs $1,000 to do its business, then the farebox recovery ratio is sixty percent, and the agency is dependent on government revenue (or taxpayers) for the remaining 40%.
|Rob Mackenzie, left, and Steve Munro in Toronto|
This is true, but a monthly pass in Toronto and Montreal provide a lot more mobility than does a pass in Los Angeles.
|In-station kiosk in Toronto|
Canadian politicians also make expensive mistakes.
Apparently, it was a well-intended blunder. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis intended the RT as a technology showcase. Instead it became a technological orphan, and also devoured funds that could have been used elsewhere for a streetcar network. Today Scarborough-bound TTC riders must get off a subway at the Kennedy station and ascend several levels to board an entirely different train to continue in the same direction.
|Scarborough RT at Kennedy station|
The terrific farebox recovery ratio may indicate that GO Transit is well run, but, according to Steve Munro, this has not inhibited its leaders from serious discussion of offering five to ten minute all day headways on its network of commuter trains. This would make for a simply tremendous commuter rail network … but, according to Munro and Bow, few at GO seem to want to address some essential nuts-and-bolts details of this plan, such as how people will get to the frequent-running trains, and where drivers will park.
Torontonians complain about their transit system.
Toronto and Montreal include huge, underground shopping centers adjacent to rail stations.
The Toronto TTC has almost no graffiti.
I am so accustomed to being surrounded by graffiti on Los Angeles transit lines that I felt strangely uncomfortable to ride a train without it. I guessed that something was off, didn’t know what it was, and finally diagnosed the root of my unsettled state after an hour on the Toronto subway.
|Interior of a Toronto TTC car|
There are almost no homeless in Toronto, and no ghetto.
As for the ghetto: the closest Toronto seems to come is Regent Park. I might have walked the wrong streets (or the right ones), but my hour there left me with the impression of a rough, apples-to-oranges equivalency with the Washington-near-Arlington neighborhood in Los Angeles. I caught myself double-checking street signs to convince myself that I was in a neighborhood that anyone had described as ghetto-like.
|James Bow, left, and Rob Mackenzie in Toronto|
The under-the-105 Green Line stations excepted, Los Angeles train stations are more attractive than train stations in Toronto and Montreal.
Los Angeles rail platforms are between north-south and east-west bound trains.
Streetcars have tourist appeal.
I don’t think the streetcars in Toronto can do much that buses can’t. But they are colorful, quaint, picturesque, and appealing to tourists. Tourists bring money from out-of-town and spend it in town. The money stays after they leave. (Or can, if no one squanders it first.) Politicians and business people tend to appreciate the essential math at work here. The tastes of tourists deserve attending to.
A few takeaways:
• I will expect less from Los Angeles. I think auto lobbyists can argue credibly that a traveler is richer with a personal automobile than with almost any form of transit. The car goes when you want it to go, where you want it to, protects you from the elements and from foul-smelling or foul-behaving passengers. You decorate its interior as you please, and share its space with whom you choose, or not at all. If the personal automobile didn’t offer plenty of appeal, South Bostonians wouldn’t joust for parking spaces and Singapore drivers wouldn’t pay fantastic sums for a car permit.
I think the periphery of Toronto could go the way of Los Angeles, if it wishes, but can’t imagine that Los Angeles can go the way of Toronto. An auto infrastructure may be forever. Toronto and Montreal should feel more grateful than they know that their transit networks are already in place.
|Richmond Hill GO Transit line|
• Reluctantly, I will stop expecting politicians to ride buses and trains. If politicians won’t get out of their cabs, limos and SUVs in Toronto, a city famous for good government, I can hardly expect better in a city as notorious for bad government as L.A.
As for in-station kiosks: I presume that there are experts on these matters who count passers-by per hour, and can relate the number of passers-by per hour with the potential profitability of an in-station kiosk. Many Los Angeles rail stations may not be busy enough often enough to justify one. But some certainly are. It would be a humbling but valuable exercise to calculate how much money could have been earned from a kiosk in an appropriate location, and how much revenue has been lost from not having it there in years past.
In concluding, please let me thank all the transit buffs who met with me during my travels up north:
- Gentlemanly Toronto Metro contributor Ed Drass. Ed was especially helpful from the start, and offered some of the best quotes of my trip north of the border. (I haven’t been able to work in the line that Toronto is like New York run by the Swiss until now … but Ed, I did get it in at long last, as you can see.)
For more of Ed’s musings, please visit eddrass.com.
- Rob Mackenzie and James Bow of Transit Toronto. Rob provides regular news updates for this invaluable web site, and was kind enough to set up my meeting with James Bow and Steve Munro at Toronto’s Only Cafe (only a block from a subway station, like so many things in Toronto).
- the obviously expert long-term TTC observer Steve Munro of stevemunro.ca, who joined us at the Only Cafe.
- Steve Faguy of Montreal, who blogs at blog.fagstein.com, and was kind enough to meet with me on short notice at the Berri-UQAM station. Steve works at the Montreal Gazette. I think he deserves a forum there for his transit writing, but I guess that’s for the Gazette to judge.
- And lastly, I must offer one more thank you, to Toronto Councillor and TTC Chair Karen Stintz. I posed no transit related questions to her and spoke to her only of TransitPeople, but was still impressed by her courtesy and professionalism in meeting with an out-of-towner at City Hall.
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Finally, as this document will be read miles from Los Angeles: please don’t let the problems of our government reflect on the character of our people.
I have led hundreds of TransitPeople field trips all over Los Angeles, in South Los Angeles, the Pico-Union and other areas that tourists are warned to stay away from. Maybe those warnings to tourists should stand, but I have met wonderful, wonderful people in these places: bus drivers who go out of their way to accommodate our groups, passengers who beam at the kids as they stand to offer their seats. I have worked with scores of teachers and volunteers as dedicated as any to be found anywhere on earth. We Angelenos may not have made representative democracy work very well, but many of us are fine folks otherwise, if I say so myself.
— first posted February, 2011