At the intersection of democracy, transit and Sidewalk Toronto

To solve Toronto transit cuts, we urgently require more democracy. Sidewalk Toronto is taking us in the opposite direction.

By Milan Gokhale

March 4, 2019 - For the last twenty years, the political class in Toronto has confronted the same, simple choice about their transit system: pay more for stable, productive long-term assets or pay less for short, quick, cheap wins. Each time, Toronto’s political and business leaders have chosen austerity. The resulting efficiency cuts manifest in the form of reduced transit investment in things that have little return today, but great costs tomorrow: a decayed signal system that leads to dangerous overcrowding, or a delayed subway car order that leads to subway car air conditioning failures. The highest costs of these political choices are often felt by those who have the least ability to protect themselves from danger, delay and discomfort.

Electing penny-pinching mayors in Toronto like Mel Lastman, Rob Ford and John Tory has been a tragedy for those of us who want investments in our transit system, starting with transit riders without other choices who disproportionately suffer when transit funding is cut. But if enough of us choose leaders that allow these problems to go unsolved, that is our collective, if imperfect, choice because our city is governed by the civic values of its people. As the saying goes, democracy is the worst form of governance, except for all the others.

Two weeks ago, the Toronto Star revealed that Google plans to expand along Toronto’s waterfront by funding the East Bayfront LRT, an oft-discussed waterfront transit expansion project that was last studied by the City of Toronto as part of Waterfront Transit Reset. The exact route is still to be determined, but the transit line would likely start at Union Station and run along Queens Quay East, right through the Quayside parcel of land. Google has floated the idea of acting as an investment banker that would ‘loan’ Toronto the required funds for a light rail line, and collect the money later as a share of tax revenue. It is somewhere between comical and ridiculous to give a private, unaccountable corporation this level of access to public treasure in the absence of public, socially accountable debate. If Google is allowed to proceed, every cash-rich global corporation should knock down the doors of Toronto City Hall until they can buy financing rights to the next transit line.

Some Sidewalk Toronto apologists have insisted that Toronto must proceed with a different approach to transit building because the current system of building public transit has failed us. Turned on its head, ‘the current system has failed us’ is actually the best argument for a more robust and informed democratic planning process. It was unaccountable backroom politics that expedited the cancellation of the Scarborough Centre LRT. It was well-connected academic and private sector interests who lent credibility to Mayor John Tory’s ill-fated and now defunct SmartTrack election scheme. It was powerful real estate developer First Gulf who quietly wrote a proposal to overbuild the Gardiner East highway, then successfully lobbied Tory and his allies to support the proposal, even after the City planning department recommended tearing down the highway. The root problem in all of these poor transportation decisions are structural power imbalances, between the political and business classes in Toronto and the majority of its residents, that prevent inclusive, democratic representation in our transit planning. To solve this problem, we urgently require more democracy in all public sector projects. The introduction of Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs to Toronto has not addressed the root problem — it has made the root problem worse.

Tell me what democracy looks like (this is NOT what democracy looks like)

The Sidewalk Labs musings to fund the East Bayfront LRT and profit from increased taxes is especially galling after months of a public consultation process on transit that was inaccessible, under-informed and exclusionary. These consultation sessions were advertised as “no tech background required”, but there was no public education on forward-thinking technologies, mobility and public transit. Having worked on several public transit advocacy campaigns in my high school neighbourhood in north Scarborough, I can say with confidence that it is an enormous challenge explaining the distinctions between various forms of light rail infrastructure (mixed-traffic streetcar, dedicated lane streetcar, dedicated lane light rapid transit), especially in neighbourhoods where English is not the first language. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that many Torontonians do not fully understand the nuanced implications of terms like “transit first”, “ride-hail”, “car-share” and “autonomous vehicles”. These were terms that were used repeatedly in slide decks, media releases, public documents and verbal presentations, with no context or background information.

Sidewalk Toronto spent very little time centring transit riders in a discussion about how new mobility plans would affect existing mobility services like the TTC and Wheel-Trans. Will the TTC get more day-to-day funding? Does new waterfront transit service compete for the same dollars as other transit services in other parts of the city? If current TTC riders are forced to wait longer for a bus in the suburbs or pay more to cover increasing operational costs along the waterfront, they are entitled to information about how existing transit dollars will be re-allocated, and how this re-allocation will affect their commute times and comforts. Instead of addressing these questions for transit riders in all corners of the city, the City of Toronto, and and its non-profit transportation agency, the Toronto Transit Commission, were ignored. Other public actors related to Toronto transit stakeholders were largely ignored too:

All of these entities have a legitimate interest in transit planning outcomes related to labour, community, climate, education, geography, justice, equity, accessibility and affordability in Toronto. These groups of people would likely have disparate, contradictory but important perspectives on the role of technology as it relates to transit. Their participation would have resulted in hectic, messy, inconsistent outcomes — but this is precisely where democracy works best to broker acceptable compromise. The majority of these groups were largely ignored until the time came for Sidewalk Labs to buy credibility and support for their light rail line plan.

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

There are many political and business leaders who point to the fact that after sixteen months of consultation, the project hasn’t yet reached the city planning process. Again, this is a perfect demonstration of a broken democratic process towards city building, where Sidewalk Toronto forced distracting ideas into the public sphere for sixteen months, with no tangible results to Toronto residents, while Sidewalk Labs hired a communications professional from the Mayor’s office, a crisis management firm whose principal has deep ties to the Mayor’s office, and a former city councillor who voted regularly with the Mayor. For its part, Google has been heavily lobbying the federal government as well. Without a well-informed, citizen-led resistance, the corrupting influence of money and power will continue to infect our transit systems.

If there is a flicker of hope in the darkness for the transit community in Toronto, it has come from a volunteer coalition of academics, writers, organizers, policymakers, neighbourhood residents and tech workers who have begun to chart a path towards a more democratic Sidewalk Toronto that hopefully moves in solidarity with social movements across Toronto. In the short-term, this looks like a complete reset of Sidewalk Toronto, with the goal of bringing the project back to basic city-building principles that include public funding, social inclusivity and democratic accountability. In the long term, the project still represents an incredible opportunity to integrate modern, equitable, informed technological progress within a city firmly anchored to civic values of justice, democracy, youth and hope.

At the grassroots activist level, we can begin to envision a collective resistance that finally connects the dots between Google and real-world, day-to-day, urban problems. That means linking the dangers of dystopian self-driving car futures to the hopes of progressive transit unions and anti-privatization movements. That means fighting a token supply of market-based, marginally-affordable housing with unapologetic demands from housing and anti-poverty activists for free, plentiful shelter and a return to housing for social good. That means challenging the Sidewalk Labs narrative of “thousands of jobs” and presenting an alternative that incorporates the demands of Fight for 15 and Fairness and the Decent Work and Health Network. That means connecting Sidewalk Labs’ corrupting academic influence to larger, student-led struggles for free, abundant, universal post-secondary education.

At the public policy level, there is a generation of younger, underrepresented urbanists who want to re-imagine the city less in the image of what New York or San Francisco has become, and more in the image of what a 21st century global city could be. It will be up to planners and policymakers to listen to their communities and transform these messages into solid policy that faithfully incorporates the same kind of civic ethos that residents demand. That will require a fight with mostly older, mostly white, mostly male urban professionals who have doubled down on decade-old Silicon Valley myths about how innovation can only be executed by the private sector, and anyone who stands in the way of inevitable progress is a luddite on the wrong side of history.

On an individual level, for people who work in the private sector, whether high-tech or other professional sectors, I’ll reiterate a powerful idea that I first heard several weeks ago from Nasma Ahmed, the Executive Director of the Digital Justice Lab: for those of us lucky enough to be gainfully employed, whether in a glass building on Bay Street or a brick-and-beam startup office on the waterfront, our work is inherently political. We cannot remain silent about the social and environmental damages imposed on our city, even in the face of repercussions at our workplace. It might mean embracing messy, hectic, conflicting ideas about who we are at our core — and embracing the idea that we can at once work in the flawed world we have, and work towards the better world we want.

During a recent public panel discussion at Ryerson’s Centre for Free ExpressionTech Reset Canada co-founder Bianca Wylie repeated what a friend had recently mentioned to her:

“What Sidewalk Labs is doing here isn’t consent. It’s surrender.”

It’s true that Toronto residents didn’t consent, but we don’t have to surrender. The decisions that most affect our city’s financial future are too important to be left to a handful of political and business leaders. A reset to the Sidewalk Toronto project, with a clear public, social, democratic mandate from Waterfront Toronto, is the only reasonable path to public consent — and a transit system for Toronto that is centred on the needs of those who use its transit system the most.

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