While visiting Case Western Reserve University in 1974, I learned about Cleveland’s proposed new high-speed public transit system. I asked a politically incorrect question: “Why aren’t there any Regional Transit Authority (RTA) transit stops being proposed in the poor black areas of East Cleveland, such as Hough?” In 1966 there had been terrible race riots in Hough. My hosts explained the challenge was to get commuters from affluent Shaker Heights and other suburban areas off the roads and into the city’s core. The system had to be functional, attract riders and be financially viable; so that’s how the location of routes and stations was decided. My host’s response was in part code for: ‘racial intolerance is also a factor.’ The Greater Cleveland RTA’s Bus Rapid Transit ‘Health Line’ has now made public transit access in East Cleveland better.
While there have been some changes in US cities’ demographics since then due to gentrification, much has stayed the same. Today, poor, mainly black Americans, live in American cities’ core urban areas, such as Hough and East Cleveland, while the middle class and wealthy live in suburbs, such as Shaker Heights.
While it’s important to make new high-speed public transit systems functional and financially viable, Cleveland’s political decision-makers’ public transit choices had negative socio-economic and sociocultural implications for the less fortunate living in Hough. Poor inner city residents had a narrow transit choice: bus or private auto. In the city, travel time is a cost for everyone. Like everyone, Hough and East Cleveland residents had to get to work, school, health care appointments or shopping on a regular basis. So, access to high-speed public transit is a social justice issue. In spite of this, it was something Hough and East Cleveland residents did not receive.
Let’s look at public transit decision-making in Toronto, where the socio-economics and demographics are the opposite of Cleveland and US cities. Here, multi-cultural communities and the working poor are located in Scarborough and the other suburbs, while affluent, articulate, well-educated and politically powerful people live in Toronto’s core area communities.
On October 8th, 2013, Toronto City Council voted to replace the Scarborough RT line by extending the Bloor-Danforth subway, rather than adding light rail.
So when a December 11, 2013 Toronto Star article reported that Ward 22 Councillor Josh Matlow proposed delaying the decision to provide subway service or essentially no new public transit service to Scarborough’s working poor and multicultural neighbourhoods, it got my attention. It’s not coincidental that Ward 22 includes: Forest Hill, one of Canada’s wealthiest communities; many homes worth more than $2 million dollars; and prestigious private schools, such as Upper Canada College and Bishop Strachan. The Ward’s 66,000 residents are also within walking distance of five TTC Subway stops and will soon to have six more underground stops through the new Eglinton Light Rapid Transit (LRT) Crosstown line.
Scarborough has 593,000 residents. It currently has three subway stops. Just reaching two of the subway stops from Scarborough’s outer limits involves a road trip of more than 25 kilometres (Steeles Ave East / Beare Road to Warden Subway station). If Scarborough were a city, it would have a larger population than Halifax, Saskatoon or Victoria. It would be larger than the Kitchener-Waterloo Cambridge Tri-City area, Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island.
What seemed to prompt Councillor Matlow’s comment was a report commissioned by the Neptis Foundation, a Toronto-based nonpartisan think tank on urban and rural planning policy matters. This report analyzed the Toronto transit plan proposed by Metrolinx, the Provincial Agency overseeing transit planning in Southern Ontario. The Neptis report stated that a subway transit extension to Scarborough would not be financially viable or efficient. That also got my attention.
This report was prepared by consultant Michael Schabas, who stated, “We have not considered social benefits (such as safety or equity) or environmental benefits (such as reduced air pollution or increased energy conservation), which often go unpriced in transportation forecasts. While these are important considerations, they are seldom the deciding factors in scheme selection.”
Our planners and socio-economic impact specialists at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) have worked on transit master plans. In evaluating transit options, we know that social equity is rarely assessed. And, social benefits and costs are typically not assessed by transit engineers and economists. But, whether or not they are the deciding factors, social benefits and costs analysis should be part of the decision-making process.
As consultants, we arrive at conclusions based on what we are asked to study. Tossing out social benefits analysis as deciding factors created a significant gap in the Neptis Foundation study and its subsequent analysis.
Socio-economic research produces data that can be an important consideration for transit, all urban and rural planning and policy decision-making. This analysis can illuminate the issues through facts, particularly when social justice issues are involved, in places like Hough, Cleveland and Toronto’s outer suburbs.
So our firm asks: If the Neptis Foundation had commissioned Michael Schabas to look at the social costs and benefits of transit modes (bus, bus rapid transit, LRT or subway) and routes in Scarborough, would it have reached different conclusions? Schabas knew about these issues but was not asked or decided not to study them.
In the Toronto Star article, Councillor Matlow says he wants to delay the Scarborough transit decision because: “We don’t have all the answers.”
When interviewed, he said: “If I’m asked whether I can support increasing the city’s debt by $1 billion and raising property taxes to pay for a project that was based on politics rather than evidence, I can’t in good conscience support that, and I have a responsibility to fight it to the end of the earth. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Councillor Matlow cites the Neptis report as “evidence.” I think the evidence is incomplete and tightly adheres to narrow terms of reference. I’d like to know, why didn’t the Neptis Foundation ask its consultant to look at social costs and benefits? Would a socio-economic impact assessment (SEIA) study comparing LRT versus subway provide different evaluation results? Would Councillor Matlow look differently at providing: subway transit versus light rail, versus putting off discussing any new transit for Scarborough’s working poor, multicultural community until after the 2015 election, if he had evidence about social benefits and costs?
HSAL has not done a SEIA on Toronto’s current transit dilemma. If we had, our basic premise would be: having access to excellent transit provides socio-economic advantages to residents along the route. It significantly reduces their trip to work or school; gives them wider access to the city’s beneficial amenities, such as healthcare, cultural organizations and shopping options. A transit stop can also increase property values and attract new housing developments. This growth generates development charges and boosts discretionary funds, which local councillors can apply to local community improvement projects.
We would ask: Would excellent public transit via building a subway, enhance Scarborough residents’ socio-economic circumstances? Would a LRT or a subway best achieve excellence? How should Neptis have scoped its study to provide a complete analysis?
Looking at the social costs and benefits of a Scarborough transit decision would require a formal SEIA. At its core, such an analysis considers four questions:
- Who wins?
- Who loses?
- Who pays?
- Who benefits?
It involves social science research that should withstand a rigorous peer review. The methodology is based on values or an evidence-based, systematic methodology. I prefer the latter systematic methodology, which involves six steps:
In “scoping” the SEIA, we can ask: What might the Neptis Foundation have asked its consultant to study? What if they expanded the study to look at the socio-economic impact of the choice of transit mode (subway, light rapid transit, bus), as well as its routes on Scarborough’s working poor and vulnerable children?
Scarborough’s Ward 44 is at the City’s eastern edge. It includes Danzig Street, where Toronto’s worst mass shooting occurred on July 15, 2012. Perhaps the socio-economic circumstances of Danzig Street families could indicate what can happen when higher order public transit is absent and how excellent public transit could provide social benefits.
We might consider that:
- It takes working poor parents and students on Danzig Street up to 40 minutes just to reach the nearest subway stop by bus (also involving a transfer to another bus). In comparison, children in Ward 22 can walk or take a bus ride of less than five minutes to get to a subway stop.
- To reach the city core, Ward 44’s Danzig Street residents travel 33 kilometres by road. The trip is well over an hour by bus. Ward 22 residents need only travel five kilometres by subway.
- Ward 44’s working poor don’t ride bikes to work. A one-way bike trip to the core (or Councillor Matlow’s Office) would take the better part of a morning. In winter, it is almost impossible. And Scarborough’s working poor don’t telecommute.
- Danzig Street students walk to Sir Robert L. Borden Business and Technical Institute, a priority school that provides an educational alternative for those who have an aptitude for hands-on learning or experience academic challenges, or take a short bus ride to West Hill Collegiate. Many expect to start full-time work after high school. Some will make it to college. Ward 22 children can walk to some of the best private schools in North America or North Toronto Collegiate, an excellent public high school. They can expect to go to university and most will.
- Scarborough has no museums, concert halls or independent art galleries. For Scarborough residents and students, academic and cultural enrichment means travelling downtown to core area facilities, via a long trip by bus and then subway or private auto. Scarborough has two excellent symphony orchestras but there are no concert halls for them to play in. (The Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra plays at the Salvation Army Citadel and the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra plays at the Chinese Cultural Centre.) Ward 22’s children can easily access many cultural facilities, institutions and enrichment opportunities by walking to a transit stop or taking a short drive.
In summary, would it be politically incorrect to ask Toronto councillors making these choices and the core area’s chattering elites influencing them to become more informed about the socio-economic implications of transit and other decisions? Shouldn’t the social benefits and costs of various transit modes matter? I think they should and do.
David Hardy is a Principal of Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL). He is a Registered Professional Planner. Dave has participated in more than 125 socio-economic impact assessments.