By Jay Ménard,
How do we solve London’s current rapid transit debacle? The debate is so polarized that the process has been poisoned. So perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board and start where we should have — listening to people’s needs.
All people, not just selected voices.
I’ve been content to discuss this matter behind the scenes, reaching out to councillors and sharing my thoughts. But I really can’t hold my tongue as the on-line and print discussion has turned to the hypocrisy of allegdly rich Londoners posting DownShift signs on their lawn.
People of privilege arguing about which people of privilege are allowed to speak about transit would be funny if it wasn’t sad.
The whole “engagement process” has been exclusionary by nature, prioritizing listening to those active on-line and those who have the luxury of attending mid-day meetings downtown on a work day. This process has been rife with hypocrisy and the very idea that shaming someone for sharing their opinion is ludicrous. The true hyprocrisy is the lack of self-realization that this whole process has been elitist and the argument has been made divisive because of it.
If we listened to people in the first place, things would be different. If we actually communicated with people, instead of at people, things would be different. There are no winners. But we’re in danger of creating a scenario where Londoners, as a whole, are the biggest losers.
Instead, we inflate numbers to make it sound like there was widespread engagement (inflate = every time you attended a meeting, you were counted. So my opinions counted for at least five people — that doesn’t seem fair. But I also know others who attended far more.)
I went to many of those so-called engagements at festivals and events around town. A couple of volunteers talking to each other in front of a poster, waiting for someone to approach during an event, is not the same as the targetted downtown information sessions. We’ve needed to listen from the beginning. We haven’t.
And now we’re suffering because of it.
Before I go any further, let me state my opinion on London’s rapid transit. I am pro transit improvement, but I am increasingly against the proposal as it stands. I’ve been fairly consistent from day one that I feel this whole process is more about shiny toys and doing something — anything, rather than reasoned and measured approaches to fixing transit problems.
I’m not arrogant enough to dismiss the thoughts of downtown merchants; I’m not callous enough to consider them collateral damage, or sacrifices to the altar of “progress;” and I’m not certain downtown transit is what’s wrong when so much of the system is broken.
Despite how simple people want to make this, it’s not a black-and-white issue. Like everything, there are many shades and several “right” answers. However, it’s incredibly easy to frame an argument as a vision for the future — that eliminates the need for actual proof. But when that vision obscures seeing who is being hurt and who actually needs the service, that’s not city building. That’s akin to dogma — building a city in one’s own image and to hell with anyone who disagrees.
I’ve been taking transit for years. As a youth, I took it to school and after-school activities. My friends would ride it from Glen Cairn and Pond Mills to downtown on the weekends. When I returned to London in my 30s, I drove to one of my jobs simply because the transit options were ludicrous (a seven-minute drive or one-hour walk took 1.5 hours by bus). When I started working downtown and before I moved downtown, I would take the bus because it made sense. When I lived in Montreal, I didn’t drive to work — 20 minutes on the train saved me over an hour in the car. Again, it made sense.
But sense is what’s missing from the debate.
A rapid transit corridor isn’t going to fix transit’s main problems. It’s a shiny distraction from the real issues. The system as a whole needs to be revamped. It’s inefficient by design — and we’ve seen improvements through common sense applications such as the Express routes and the dedicated Western-to-downtown lines. Instead of starting with a pricy and destructive downtown project, why not invest in a drawing board?
And then let’s go back to it.
For example, maybe start with a grid system, with frequent trips on north-south and east-west routes. Make them run at regular intervals (say, 15 minutes). Then have feeder systems through the communities and neighbourhoods. It’s ludicrous to me that the Kipps Lane-Thompson Rd. route is pretty much the same as when I took it in the 1980s. Times have changed; we haven’t.
We need to talk to the actual users of transit — not the self-appointed voices. And, more importantly, we need to talk to those who don’t use transit, but could. People who currently work outside of the boundaries of transit in the industrial parks of London. The people who would actually benefit from improved transit.
But this isn’t about transit really. It’s about city-building. I’m just worried that our vision is clouded by focusing on who we aren’t, instead of who we are.
We are not Waterloo; we are not Toronto. We are London. We are a city that has plenty of advantages — halfway between the U.S. border and Toronto; a good mix of young and old; a city with two elite post-secondary institutions. We are a city where you can still afford to buy a home and have a yard if you want. We are a city with a woefully underappreciated arts scene.
But we don’t talk about that. We talk about who we aren’t.
I have heard speak that this council was elected with a mandate to implement transit (actually, whether it’s ranked ballots, transit, the flex street, or the London Plan, there are those who will say the last election proved a mandate for whatever flavour-of-the-month they support). That’s a dangerous belief to hold.
Remember Fontana? The electors did. The last election was less about who people were and more about who they weren’t. The mandate was to be better, more transparent, and less divisive. But I guess that got lost in translation.
What’s holding London back is elitism. It’s a process that ensures the only voices that are heard are those who can get to the microphone.
If people aren’t currently engaged, it isn’t about a lack of interest — it’s about a lack of opportunity. Yes, you can say, “Well, we’ve had X number of public consultations.” And that may be true: downtown, during working hours. Or on-line, through Twitter or on a website.
But what about those who don’t have the luxury of taking time off work to come down and speak? What about shift workers? If I’m in a retail job — and I could benefit from better transit — chances are I can’t just leave my shift to talk. And it’s equally likely that I haven’t heard about the meetings because it doesn’t penetrate my social circle. We’ve seen that with the downtown “engagement” that would have forced sole proprietorships to close down to attend — businesses that don’t have the margin or luxury to attend. What about seniors (who are less likely to be on-line or downtown)? What about economically disadvantaged? Cultural barriers? Mobility restrictions?
Communications isn’t about expecting people to come to you, but rather ensuring that you go to them, in the format that works best for the intended recipient — not you. It’s about equality of message — not just a display in a park, but rather a meaningful format for conversations, be it in a community centre, at a retirement home, in a school, or in a mall.
Then we can hear what people really want.
As I said, I’m all for improvements in transit. But I’m against doing something just for the sake of saying it’s done. I also wasn’t a fan of Field of Dreams — I don’t want to go on faith and say, “If we build it, they will come.” I’m a fan of optimizing what we have, maximizing the return on our resources by using our transit assets in a more efficient way, and then seeing if the ridership demand creates the need to sustain.
And if we’re really worried about those in need having access to better transit, perhaps the focus should instead be on our woeful paratransit system, which forces people to spend hours on the phone, booking days in advance, for a limited number of rides. Imagine a compassionate city where all have equal access to transit — and, in turn, equal inclusion in the community around them.
But right now I can’t believe in the process. Both sides are so polarized that every missive drips with antipathy. I take personal offense to the idea that if I’m against BRT as it’s currently proposed, I’m not progressive (the opposite of which is regressive). I love this city and want to see it grow and succeed. But I also know that it’s far easier to chase after shiny toys and call it progress than to actually roll up the sleeves and do the little things — the things that don’t get one’s name in the newspaper — that actually makes a difference.
In the end, I feel the decision has been made and it’s just a matter of a council trying to assuage the feelings of disenchanted future voters. But I hope I’m wrong.
And I hope someone out there is shopping for a drawing board.