Good luck, Andy Byford. Your new job is laden with potential pitfalls

                                                                                                                                                                     Gary Webster, left, talks with interim successor Andy Byford before the special TTC meeting that led to the switch. Even if bad things happened under Webster, his dismissal without just cause was a mistake, damaging Toronto’s reputation as a place for good transit people to work.

Nearly everything about the way the TTC is structured and governed must change if good advice, wise planning and quality transit at a reasonable price are to be priorities. Otherwise, Andy Byford will go the way of his predecessors.

Good luck Andy Byford!

Next to crime and trauma scene cleanup specialist, leading the Toronto Transit Commission is the worst job in your new home city.

The fact that your three most recent predecessors were forced out by politicians barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this gig. If you are the man for the job and if you dig deep, you’re sure to conclude that starting points must be a new relationship with elected officials, a new corporate culture and a total restructuring, including a spun-off entity that fosters commercial integration of transit and land-use.

Customer service panels, town halls and the addition of citizen commissioners can only diddle with the symptoms of a decades-long decline.

Yes, it was petty and counterproductive for those five commissioners to axe Gary Webster, but you’re surely smart enough to see through the political posturing, even if many seemingly intelligent Torontonians swallowed whole. You must have seen similar backstabbing and disingenuousness while working in Australia and the U.K.

TTC managers have been pressured to tailor advice for political purposes going back at least to the 1970s, when we somehow chose to maroon stations of the Spadina subway in the median of an expressway.

Good but powerless experts foresaw woes of the Scarborough RT well before it was built. And those who felt in 1989 that we should cut our losses and scrap that line were effectively silenced.

Pressure to manufacture a case for the Sheppard subway and play down the urgency of a long-proposed line through the downtown core, beginning 30 years ago, will cast a shadow over many debates you’ll have to lead.

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that all pending plans for Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch or a northerly extension of the Yonge subway are trouble if the so-called Downtown Relief Line can’t jump the queue. (Little-known fact: tiny, cramped Yonge-Bloor station sees more daily passenger movements than Pearson airport and Union Station combined).

Of course, politics also played a big role in the rush to create the Transit City plan in March 2007, and to sell it to the public ever since. There are people still shaking their heads over a decision by one TTC manager to attend and appear prominently at the launch of Adam Giambrone’s brief run for the mayoralty.

The latest census shows Toronto has 2.615 million transportation experts. But, while many realize transit is a problem of organized complexity, most seem to prefer simplistic debate — black or white, left or right, subway or light rail. This suits our ideologically riven council members who want us to shut off our brains and pick sides. It’s also essential to mainstream media, which increasingly cater only to those with short attention spans.

But it doesn’t help anybody make wise decisions.

Compounding the mess, Andy, is that Toronto wasn’t big when the car became king. The pre-amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough have about half the density of old inner Toronto, and the gap isn’t closing. Those outer areas were designed for cars and drivers, but are now populated by people who need transit. Alas, the built form makes quality cost-efficient service delivery tough.

Our long-standing assumption that pushing subways into suburbs would automatically drive urbanization turned out to be bunk. However, attempts to get the TTC to seriously consider how to adapt and adopt creative funding models and aggressive value-capture tools, like those used in the Far East, have been met with disinterest at best (while still a city councillor in 2003, David Miller got the TTC to agree to report on transit development corporation models like the one in Hong Kong, but despite repeated requests over years, the TTC has been unable to produce evidence that it did any work on the project).

Even the mayor’s office, which purports to favour private-sector involvement, had the most interesting parts of Gordon Chong’s report on subway financing chopped before publication (make sure your copy is an early uncorrected proof containing Chapter 7, “Other Value Capture: Revenue Generation Options”).

If we truly believe transit spending is an investment, returns on the investment have to start becoming a priority. If we do that, it forces intelligent debate on the real relative costs of subways and light rail. We’re likely to still conclude LRT is the way to go in many cases, but the debate will have been honest.

Sorry if you probably know all this, but talk with your vice-chair, Peter Milczyn; he seems increasingly attuned to the possibilities and the shortcomings of our previous model.

Make sure you thank your predecessor for eventually standing up and opposing the loony idea of burying light rail under Eglinton East, but you might ask him where was he on the possibly-as-wasteful design and funding models for the ongoing Spadina-York subway extension. Deep-bore tunnels through low- and no-density areas and grandiose standalone stations make this project far more costly than it needed to be up front, while hindering the long-term development processes that can help it pay back.

Yes, some bad things happened under Webster, but overall he was just the latest fall guy for a dysfunctional organization.

For years, one of Toronto’s most revered and entertaining transit experts has been saying, off the record and only partly in gest: “The fastest way to find yourself unemployed in this town is to speak the truth.”

Some part of that wisdom will always be true.

You’ll have to choose your battles, even in your interim role. But unless you get extremely wise help to start radically altering the rules of the game, you’re guaranteed to lose – as is Toronto, again.

Where I’m coming from

I was drawing pictures at the kitchen table of 51 Woodlawn Avenue East when news broke that JFK had been shot. If I hadn’t been ill (and I doubt I was faking that day), I’d have been sitting in Sister Annette’s Grade 1 class at Our Lady of Perpetual Help school.

That much, I know.

I think my mum had been ironing and was upstairs getting hangers when the bulletin interrupted programming on radio station CFRB. By the time she was back in the room, music had resumed and she briefly didn’t believe me when I mentioned the news flash.

She became angry, thinking I must have conjured a spectacularly large little-boy lie. Then she was very apologetic.

I remember staring at a multicoloured push-button panel on the stove, trying to imagine the chaos in Dallas.

I mention this because it has long felt my real life began that Friday, even if I had nearly 79 months under my belt. I have clear memories going back to at least January 1960. Even a few favourite songs predated November 22, 1963, and the British Invasion that was just about to get started. Pre-Beatles favourites included Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers and Hey Baby by Bruce Channel.

I’m sure this sense of life starting well into my seventh year is linked to a personal discovery in the days right after the assassination: I could pretty well read the newspaper and it felt liberating. For better or worse, my life’s path might have been set.

Even as Kennedy-related stories subsided, other matters kept me hooked — Beatlemania, the Maple Leafs and construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway were the biggies in my world. We were a morning Globe and Mail household, but in following years, I encouraged my dad to look for an evening Telegram or Star on the streetcar after work.

The spring of 1964 saw my family — mum, dad and seven of the eight kids still living at home — move to the Beach/Beaches neighbourhood. I’ve lived in the East End most of my life since, and now reside nearer the Danforth, a strip that seemed exotic and dangerous in my youth. I went to Balmy Beach, Glen Ames, Malvern, but got a lot of my education from newspapers. I delivered papers, too.

Through the late 1960s and early ’70s, I found stories about unrest in American cities, the Vietnam war and Watergate gripping, but no more interesting than coverage of the Toronto Transit Commission, city hall and development battles here in Toronto — a booming, hopeful, exciting but insecure town that wasn’t yet Canada’s biggest. Subway construction was ongoing, skyscrapers were sprouting and nobody seemed to have any idea that the Maple Leafs would go decades without even reaching a Stanley Cup final.

I left high school and the family home at 17 and stumbled, luckily, into an office boy job at the Star. It was there that I would begin and — after tours at the Financial Post, Sun and The Globe and Mail — end a 35-plus year newspaper career, mostly as an editor. There was also a brief experiment with life in Peterborough, working at the Examiner, but it only made me realize I’m fully a Torontonian — something rather repulsive to many Canadians.

These days I’m freelance writing to pay the bills, while trying to relax, ride a bike, paddle a kayak, play guitar and make sense of this strange alliance — expertise and intransigent stupidity — that governs much of our lives.

I continue to follow transit matters closely via media, discussions with plugged-in people and official documents. I love reading old newspapers via the Toronto Public Library’s website, as well as books on planning and land use.

I have no time for binary left-right politics. It’s causing great damage at all levels.

I’m frivolous, too. I like music, beer and sunshine, and I’ve happily wasted a lot of my life in the vortex of spectator sports. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to cheer for the Leafs. I’m a baseball fan, and for years the Red Sox were my team, probably because their triple-A team was Toronto-based in my boyhood. I began cheering for the Blue Jays about the time Dave Stieb arrived (and his 37 should have been the franchise’s first retired number).

Obviously, WorldWideWickens.com is an absurd, grandiose name for my blog, but I hope I can bring enough irony and self-deprecation to the project to justify the choice.

What bubbles beneath our streets

Toronto greatest lost river may be buried, but it’s never been dead

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on October 29, 2005. The Garrison linkage group and its meetings died shortly thereafter. But Prof. Bernd Baldus hopes to revive things as part of a retirement project. There have been no reports of guerrilla archeology at the Harbord and Crawford bridges. 

Buried beneath Crawford Street, just south of Dundas, is this magnificent R.C. Harris bridge. It's encased in fill from the excavation of the Bloor-Danforth subway. City of Toronto Archives photo

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Barring a flood of near-biblical proportions, no one will ever again paddle from Fort York to Christie Pits. And the fishing won’t be good any century soon at the Grace Street dip, where London Stream might still empty into Garrison Creek, south of Bloor Street and 10 or so metres underground.

But in certain circles, there’s serious talk of “guerrilla archeology” — digs under cover of darkness to expose parts of the Harbord Street and Crawford Street bridges, the last of at least 20 that once spanned Toronto’s largest buried river.

“It’s to be expected, and it might be a good thing,” James Brown says about the prospect of insurgents armed with shovels roaming Bickford and Trinity Bellwoods parks at night. “People are frustrated.”

At issue is the lack of progress on a project — approved by city council in 1998 — to reconnect the parks and potential parkland of the largely invisible Garrison valley from north of St. Clair Avenue to the lake. It would include bike paths, walking trails and storm-water retention ponds that would be integral to Toronto’s drainage and irrigation.

Only the north wall of the Harbord St. bridge is still visible at the surface, but this structure, completed in 1910, remains for would-be guerrilla archeologists. City of Toronto Archives photo

“This isn’t about nostalgia or mere parkland,” says Mr. Brown of Brown + Storey Architects, who produced the plan with his wife and partner Kim Storey in 1994 — at their own expense — based on decades of research and years of input from scores of community volunteers. “This project is about creating something of real long-term use to the city. Water is an incredibly valuable resource and we have trees dying of thirst, but we still see rain as waste to be disposed of.”

Garrison Creek flows under parks, streets, houses, schools and supermarkets, just as the water does in more than a dozen other buried Toronto streams. It’s largely encased in tunnels we built from the 1860s on, to hide ravines that we had turned into open sewers and dumps for ash and trash.

Some have mused about recreating the early-1800s state of nature that allowed canoes to travel up the creek to Bloor Street. The Garrison project took a more realistic approach, but that might not be enough to save it.

A decade ago, it wasn’t unusual for 400 people to show up at Garrison Creek community meetings. Now, those who have been in for the long haul are drifting away, fearful the project is irretrievably lost in the city’s bureaucracy.

“You can only attend so many public meetings before the lack of tangible progress wears you down,” says committee member Bernd Baldus. “There are some really good and dedicated people at City Hall . . . but, overall, bureaucrats are sucking the life out of this.”

Mr. Brown and Prof. Baldus, a University of Toronto sociologist, say the city missed the point by emphasizing the words “Garrison Creek” through street signs and brass letters set in pavement, rather than the potential of real experience and historical connection.

Prof. Baldus suggests that the city wasted an opportunity last year, when Crawford Street was repaved. “They could have exposed part of the bridge, used some of the original cedar block-style paving, put up railings,” he says. “Until last year, there were clues that a bridge is there. Now, you can’t tell at all. No wonder people talk about guerrilla digs . . . and at Harbord, you need only dig about two feet to really start exposing the span.”

Prof. Baldus got hooked on the Garrison project after picking up a piece of litter on the street. It turned out to be a flyer that said a stream ran under his neighbourhood. He has now been involved for 11 years, but he says he won’t stick around for a 12th unless citizens can reclaim some control from the city, and unless an annual meeting with Councillors Joe Pantalone and Joe Mihevc can be held before each budget period.

“My office is always open to Mr. Baldus; he deserves an award for tenacity,” Mr. Pantalone said. “But on the Crawford Bridge, there was community consultation. There was no majority view that said, ‘Spend $6-million the city doesn’t have to restore the bridge.’ We did ensure the resurfacing was done in a way that, 50 or 100 years from now, should people have the money to unearth it, the bridge will be there. It’s an archeological element — you don’t destroy such things.”

As for public meetings, Mr. Mihevc says it’s likely they will be held.

“The key for this group’s success is to develop bite-sized projects that council, in tight budget years, can sink their teeth into.”

But for all the talk of frustration, there are signs of hope. We may have poisoned and buried our creeks alive, but we never killed Garrison, literally or figuratively.

Earlier this month, more than 200 people showed up dressed in blue for the Human River, a Garrison-tracing hike put on by the Toronto Public Space Committee, the North Toronto Green Community and the Toronto Field Naturalists. The latter two have held “lost river walks” around the city for a decade, teaching people to read the bends and subtle dips in our streets, listen for roars from sewer grates or look for indicator trees such as willows.

Garrison Creek has recently provided artistic inspiration. Stephen Marche’s short story of that title was nominated for an O. Henry Prize in 2002; Erín Moure’s translation of the epic poem Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, which features references to the buried river, made the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist; and Bluemouth Inc. mounted the critically acclaimed play Something About a River in 2003.

Globe and Mail columnist John Bentley Mays wrote in 1994 that “Garrison Creek can lay fair claim to being Toronto’s most famous waterway never seen,” except by an elderly man he had just interviewed.

But in the spring of 2004, running water appeared under a bridge on Bathurst Street, east of Fort York, where Garrison emptied into Lake Ontario from 10,000 years ago until the late 19th century. Fort York administrator David O’Hara, who was with the parks department when the discovery was made, still can’t confirm the water is Garrison Creek. “But we know it’s not coming from a broken water main,” he says, “and it’s not from the sewers — storm or sanitary.”

He says Toronto Community Housing, which plans to build nearby, has a hydrologist on the case. “It sure looks like it’s Garrison, and that’s exciting for us at the fort,” Mr. O’Hara says. “This creek is essential to our history.”

Erin Wood, a Toronto Public Space Committee volunteer who helped organize the Human River walk earlier this month, is among those who only recently became aware of the city’s underground streams and the plight of the Garrison. “It’s amazing to think there are a dozen of these streams in central Toronto alone,” she says. “We’re told Toronto is flat with a grid of streets, but now I see bends and dips — and I know why they’re there.”

And has she heard anything about guerrilla archeology?

“Let’s just say I was involved in some guerrilla gardening this spring. A dig at the Harbord Bridge might be really neat. Who knows?”