Friday, October 3, 2014

Swipe it, Tap It, Ride It: A Tale of Three Transit Systems

M and I are in California right now, soaking up the sun and having a rollicking good time eating fish tacos, drinking cocktails, and attending raucous podcasts with problematic showrunners. It's been a riot, and it's all been made possible by California's public transit system.

We are emphatically not drivers. We both ride our bikes as early and often as we can, and most of our friends and favourite destinations are within a ten kilometer-radius of our house. And besides, Toronto has done a good job of building up, not out. We're not the sprawliest of cities. Not like, say, Chicago. Or New York. Or, hell, let's just say it: Los Angeles.

Good goddamn, LA is huge. It's mind boggling. At five hundred square miles, it's more than double the size of Toronto. It stretches from Compton to Beverly Hills, from Santa Monica to Topanga. I found it totally bewildering: there were Ethiopian restaurants next to nail salons next to valet parking lots next to microgalleries next to gourmet dog food stores. In the four days we were here, I could see no discernible rhythm to the neighbourhoods: Jewish bakeries shared a storefront with Korean bistros, which were across the street from gorgeous vintage movie theatres. Homeless people and hustlers seemed to be everywhere. It's a surprisingly low-slung city, with a relatively small downtown surrounded by many, many square miles of bungalows and mansions, all of which are hemmed in by the hills.

I wasn't surprised that San Francisco was easy to get around. We spend a fair amount of time on the bus, sure, but SF is much tidier, and it's famous for the BART, the Bay Area's version of Toronto's GO trains. They also have buses, both rapid and locals, and cable cars, all of which form a transit network through the city. But moreover, metro San Francisco is less than 50 square miles. Despite the fact that its topography resembles a EKG (hills! So many hills!), it's fairly walkable and dense. The transit system is the cherry on top of an already-accessible city.

But LA's transit system caught me off-guard. I was nervous about going to the notorious car-centric city without a driver's license, but navigating the Metro and its buses and subways was shockingly easy. We could get from the train station to the airport on a dedicated bus line. We rode the subway to Universal Studios. We took a bus to Venice Beach. I'm not going to lie: it was kind of amazing.

But it wasn't just the size of the system. There were unexpected kindnesses shown to its riders. It cost $1.75 to ride, and transfers were fifty cents. Each bus had an info pamphlet about its route, clearly showing connecting lines. The stops were simply the names of the intersection: Hollywood/Vine, Hawthorne/Lennox, etc. The rapid transit stops had countdown timers and large, easy-to-read information signs about the routes. The TAP cards worked on buses and the Metro, but you could also use cash. The Metro stations are beautifully designed.

There has been a long-running argument in Toronto about what our next steps should be as a transit city. Build a downtown relief line! Give a line to Scarborough, who somehow "deserve" it, as if public transit is a reward to be doled out to a particularly high-achieving cohort of riders! Light rail! Heavy rail! Subways! Dig! Elevate! Talk about it forever!

We've somehow lost the ability to have an coherent conversation about transit. To the detriment of the people who actually ride it, the system is bogged down in bureaucracy, funding reversals, bad PR, lagging wait times, and upgrades that polish the same turd over and over again. While the shiny new Spadina streetcars are lovely to look at, they don't help serve a larger area. The crush of passengers on the rush-hour lines is already at a fever pitch - add in a few delays or jam a couple stations and the whole thing freezes.

Toronto bills itself as a world-class city, but our transit system is a backwater experience. It's expensive, it's slow, it's small. Our leaders have flaunted competing transit packages, designed to upgrade the experience and move the people; unfortunately, these promises aren't always backed up by solid funding schemes, and the current political landscape is one that fractures the transit question into dozens of small-scale conversations - the suburbs, the downtown, the subways, the LRTs - and forgets that public transit is best when it's a visionary, large-scale project designed to serve the public.

We deserve better, as a city. We need a transit system that is reliable in Toronto's murky winters and blazing summers. We need a system that can grow, connecting more and more people as it does. We need regional transit that's fast, reliable, and decongested (and while I have mostly kind words for GO transit, anyone's who's sweated out one of their interminable lineups at Union Station at rush hour knows the stomach-churning run down to your just-announced platform - not to mention the fact that the lines are often confusingly named and the final destination audio-confirmed only once the train has left the station).

I'm not asking for a whole new system. The one we have is flawed, not broken; it's possible to make it better. Start with better HR, which leads to better PR: the drivers and station agents are often visibly irritated by the customers they serve. Make transfers time-based, so that we can hop on and off the system without having to pay again. Extend the service hours, making it possible to take the bus home from the bar after last call. Offer three-day passes. When you commit to fixing up a station, have it take less than, say, a year to complete the project. Invest in automated payment systems, so that riders pay full fares or don't ride at all. (All the transit systems we used on our honeymoon had reloadable cards, which were tapped or swiped to pay the fare.) But it takes more than little fixes: we keep drawing fantasy maps, and we keep getting bupkis. Shovels need to actually go in the ground. Lines need to open on time.

I really hope that whoever replaces Rob Ford as mayor has enough gumption to begin the process of transforming the system that moves hundreds of thousands of people every single day. We all need reliable transit with a plan for the future: anything else is simply not good enough. Until then, residents and visitors to our world class city will be making do with a second-tier ride.

Los Angeles Metro map via MyMaps