Friday, March 23, 2012

Toronto tempest entertains, but is troubling

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"Temper, temper, Toronto," was my first reaction. Far be it for a Jersey boy to throw stones at Toronto for manners. I'm not Emily Post, and my governor isn't above verbally hailing (or verbally mauling) a military veteran as an "idiot." Still, this week's political fireworks in Toronto City Council chambers, while a victory for passenger rail reason, was pretty tempestuous by anyone's standards, let alone a blow to the U.S.-cherished (and lovingly mocking) idea of Canadian civility.

Toronto Bombardier LRTCourtesy of 21st century Web technology, I followed the two-day debate March 21 and 22 even as deadline pressures had all of us at Railway Age on overdrive. I originally projected the debate as one passenger rail would win no matter what. Mayor Rob Ford and his allies want to expand Toronto's small but excellent subway system. Others sought to reinvigorate Toronto's veteran streetcar system, one of North America's very best, growing it with grafts more like light rail transit (such as shown above left). For rail advocates—indeed, for rail suppliers and the rail industry as a whole—where's the downside?

For the past several months, I've talked to rail suppliers about the Toronto situation (now spectacle), and while those suppliers expressed interest in the political landscape, they weren't too concerned; like me, they tended to see it as win or win.

Silly Doug; no need for "The Hunger Games" to demonstrate how quickly rational discourse can turn into "reality" viewing. I'm not talking the standard measure of weary political posturing, with a few factoids, distorted or straight up, thrown in for flavoring, that causes many to shrug in despair or disgust these days. No, I'm talking insults scraping the bottom.

Mayor Ford, irate at being defied by City Council throughout the month of March, sat quietly the first day, in retrospect more like a ticking time bomb than a shrewd tactician. On March 22, he let loose, chanting "subways, subways, subways" as if he had ruby slippers, then calling the alternative "damn streetcars" as if sounding out titles for a Broadway play. Not done with that, he muttered how nothing could get done due to the "monkeys" present.

Whoa. "Idiot" is one thing; "monkey" is so un-PC even Jerseyans (of any stripe) think three times before employing it. It's possible Canadian ramifications of such use are less ethnically, racially, or politically charged than here in the States, but I doubt it. Addressing the opposition as subhuman* is a time-honored insult; a British officer under Gen. John Burgoyne in 1777 lamented the defeat of the world's finest army to nearly subhuman colonials at the Battle of Saratoga, and since my ancestors were among those supposed subhumans, I take such insults perhaps too personally.

And so I did in the Toronto melee—I took it personally. The streetcar/light rail partisans came armed with facts and figures and studies and some tapping of public opinion. The subway forces came with ... LRT accident stats and scary photos, one-word rally cries ("subways, subways, subways"), promises of vengeance and no-build if the other guys won, and, finally, insults not even withdrawn after a cool-down period. In shorthand, only "monkeys" supported such a thing as "damn streetcars."

The mayor was targeting his political opponents. He managed to offend me, too. I believe in streetcars (I want one for my hometown). I believe in subways as well, and you can find me on one pretty regularly. But as an outsider I think the Toronto LRT folks have the better, deeper, more nuanced case. For believing that, I'm now a monkey (not even a higher primate, like a bonobo or orangutan—the humiliation!).

From a rail perspective, I'm also now vaguely worried. Toronto, for me, has always been a touchstone, one of the few cities in North America that never gave up on passenger rail, one of the few that employs more than one urban rail mode, that streamlines bus/rail intermodalism with grace, that cares about bikes and pedestrians and a livable urban environment. Now it's a battleground for rail mode vs. rail mode—an ugly one.

*[Author's addendum: I originally attributed the word "Neanderthal" to the British officer, per a public television documentary. But since Neanderthal (or Neandertal) evidence was first unearthed in 1829, this exact wording appears to be highly unlikely. My apologies for misleading any readers, however unintentionally, and thanks to reader Joseph M. Calisi for assisting me with this.]

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.