If Not Now

Stuck in Toronto traffic? It’s as bad as you think it is – and likely to get worse, the headline in Lex Harvey’s Toronto Star article this morning, stating the absolute obvious to anyone who tries to get around this city by any mode these days.

The aggravating thing (along with the commute) is that little of this was unforeseen, unexpected, out of the blue or, despite the flux and instability created by Covid, beyond our control to manage. We weren’t blindsided. We were unprepared. Chronically, habitually unprepared.

Big construction projects don’t start overnight. Infrastructure upgrades are years in the making. Traffic isn’t some wild, obdurate beast we are at the mercy of. We are victims of circumstance of our own creation.

If anything, Covid offered up an opportunity to change how we go about our business. With the enforced pause in daily life brought on by a raging pandemic, careful, proactive planning might not only have mitigated the excesses and exuberance of the inevitable bounce back but also help favourably reshape how the city operated and functioned going forward. Two decades in, Toronto could’ve finally brought itself fully into the 21st-century.

Instead, we shrank back into a familiar inaction. In crisis-mode, always seemingly two steps behind except, credit where credit’s due, delivering vaccinations in a timely if uneven fashion. But shouldn’t a city this size with access to the resources available to us be able to multitask, work on more than one front?

The overall official response just felt mostly like a whole lot of finger-crossing and hoping for the best, hoping that when the storm passed, everything would be fine, we’d breath a collective sigh of relief and return to a ‘new’ normal without a hitch.

Problem being, we inherited an ‘old’ normal rife with hitches.

With any sort of foresight, city planning would’ve seen that to keep things moving in our ‘post-Covid’ return to business as usual, booming construction above, along, below streets, we’d need to minimize private vehicular use – the least efficient, most intrusive way to get people, a person really, from point A to B and back again. Streets emptied at the beginning and early heights of the pandemic should’ve been reclaimed and repurposed for non-driving. More pedestrian space, more protected bike lanes, increased transit-only corridors. A long overdue transformation in urban mobility.

Nothing of the sort happened, of course. Of course. ActiveTO, ‘a suite of programs – Major Road Closures, Cycling Network Expansion and Quiet Streets – that contribute to the health and wellbeing of Toronto residents by providing the space to be physically active’, according to the city’s website, was always reluctant and grudging. Mercilessly withered at the earliest possible moment, reduced to ineffectual remnants these days, the plan amounted to little more than a P.R. hashtag.

Public transit service was cut in response to the initially inevitable drop in use due to Covid. However, rather than increase service back to pre-pandemic levels in order to entice users to return, in other words, leading not following ridership numbers, the TTC (and the provincial GO system) chose to underserve demand, further undermining demand. An uncontrollable spiral if left unchecked.

Unsurprisingly, for those able to afford the expense, people decided to buy automobiles (guilty as charged although, in my defense, I do not drive in the city any more than I did pre-ownership), bringing more vehicles onto already congested streets. A vicious cycle got more vicious, further snarling all road users not just drivers and exacerbating what by any measure was an existing untenable, unworkable situation.

“It’s as bad as you think it is – and likely to get worse.”

Even the one glimmer of hope in the Star article is, I don’t know, chimerical? Subways, and subways alone, are not going to decongest our anti-social, harmful counter-productive street use, especially the politically fraught subways currently on the drawing board for Toronto. Besides, any sort of hoped for subway miracle remains a decade down the road, knock wood, best case scenario, avert your eyes from the ongoing Eglinton LRT debacle, by which time transportation use will be further entrenched and more difficult to dislodge whenever that golden age is upon us.

We have to get people out of their private vehicles long before that, now, ideally. Unfortunately, that would take political leadership at both the municipal and provincial levels. An extinct species in these parts for a decade+ now, as unsurprising and dispiriting as being stuck in traffic.

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