Ready or not, it’s Cho time in the Sheppard LRT-subway debate

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s desperate for brilliance on the transit file.

And if we get more than a flash of it for Sheppard Avenue in coming years, we may be indebted to an immigration officer who visited Seoul in 1965. Such are the wonderful chains of events available when looking back over longer lives – not that we’re calling Raymond Cho old.

Without that bureaucrat, Cho wouldn’t have been talked into coming to Canada. And, without Cho, the next phase of this interminable and painful Sheppard debate would almost certainly be more of the same. But after more than 20 years on council, Cho’s suddenly a rookie TTC commissioner. His background is in social work. He has a master’s, a PhD and a sense of humour.

He also has a big problem.

Cho represents Ward 42, Toronto’s northeast corner, and it’s the likely plight of his constituents that best highlights a gaping hole in the discussion.

Even with a new light-rail line — the recommendation of an “expert” panel that reviewed a narrow menu of options for council — transit will be messy for voters in Cho’s ward.

Consider a Ward 42 resident attending York University or Humber College, or working on Finch West or at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The trek might start with a walk to a stop and a wait for the Neilson, Morningside or Progress bus to get to the new line.

LRT would provide service to Don Mills station and another transfer point, this time for a five-stop subway ride to Yonge. From there, it could be two more stations on a northbound train to pick up the Finch West bus for a ride over to another LRT starting at Keele. Or it might make sense at Sheppard-Yonge station to grab a bus to Downsview, before transferring to a northbound Spadina train to York or Vaughan or the Finch LRT.

Round-trip, that’s up to 12 transfers, and studies have found transit riders’ wait-time perceptions are often out by a factor of three.

Apparently, since the March 5 council meeting, we’re back heeding transit experts, and experts say minimizing transfers is a key to public transit’s competitiveness with private cars.

Respected transit people — including David Gunn, Richard Soberman and Ed Levy — made this point at a 2008 symposium put on by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. None of those who spoke is anti-LRT or pro-subway, but all felt Transit City, which council seems eager to re-embrace, had big flaws, starting with Sheppard-Finch corridor disconnects. They indicated that if we put LRT lines on Sheppard east and Finch west, we better find a way to make them one, even if it means converting the Sheppard subway to light-rail.

TTC planners may have listened because, for a brief period, Transit City was augmented to link the lines via Don Mills Road and Finch East, though that solution isolates the Sheppard stub, wasting a billion sunk-cost dollars.

Cho didn’t ask for this mess, but then it wasn’t his idea to move to Canada. His brother was the would-be immigrant, but brought Raymond along as an interpreter. That’s when the Canadian official persuaded Cho to apply, setting in motion the events that have landed him on the Sheppard hot seat.

Cho offers a thoughtful “hmmm,” when it’s pointed out that, simultaneously, we talk of seamless Metrolinx-led transit across the GTA while preparing to lock into a series of time-wasting hurdles for east-west travel within the city. “The question is a very valid one,” Cho says when asked what he’ll tell constituents. “This is one area I’ll take a very close look at.”

Of course, at council, Cho must endure lobbying from pro-subway and pro-LRT zealots. It will test his claim to have risen above the left-right rift that has deprived Toronto of sanity since amalgamation. But Cho must know something about resolve, growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea, losing his dad in a cholera epidemic and, as a teen, keeping out of the line of fire in the Korean War. And though Canada wasn’t welcoming when he arrived, he became a great immigration success story.

“I remember asking, why did I come to this stupid country?” he says, recalling racial intolerance and long shifts as a dishwasher, waiter, miner and janitor. “At one point, I even picked worms. It was hard, but it was a great education, much more valuable than my doctoral degree. I learned to listen. I learned how to talk to anyone.”

He says by the early 1970s, once he’d brought his fiancé from South Korea and settled in Toronto, he fell in love with Canada.

“I knew this was my country.”

Now, at 75, does he have the energy for such a baptismal firefight in the unfamiliar transit portfolio?

“C’mon, compared to Hazel McCallion, I’m a teenager,” he says.

Councillor Cho has since announced he will support the panel’s LRT recommendation. No word yet on what he’s telling his constituents.

TTC forced to mop up when planners and architects fail

Even if Variety Village’s isolated design was painfully ironic, it can make an otherwise complex transit service and funding conundrum accessible to all

Variety Village was originally dumped between two four-lane highways, then rebuilt in the early 1980s with its impregnable backside largely hidden but facing the TTC's longstanding stop on Kingston Road. Now that most buses are diverting to serve the other side of the building, residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood have absorbed the headache.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

On the surface, Variety Village’s nearly 30-year push for a somewhat convenient bus stop was a no-brainer, but this is one case where blaming the Toronto Transit Commission is flat out unfair.

Sure, I had fun with tabloid journalism during a stint at the Toronto Sun in the 1990s, so I can understand the World War III-sized headlines and the crusading rhetoric the paper used last year to label TTC “drones” as “heartless” and the commission’s initial decision to merely study a route modification as “a kick in the teeth” for the disabled.

But there’s much more to the story and understanding the genesis of this battle matters to everyone in Greater Toronto. This is one of those rare examples that make a complex public policy problem reasonably comprehensible.

The Variety Village mess is rooted in the 1940s, when the province donated to the cause some land left over from construction of an interchange for Highways 2 and 5, better known these days as Kingston Rd. and Danforth Ave. Premier George Drew undoubtedly had good intentions, but when his people determined the original facility would be built on a steep slope between two four-lane highways, he may as well have been telling disabled kids to go play in traffic.

Although we didn’t start buying low-floor buses until the 1990s, there was a chance to address the accessibility disconnect in the late ’70s, when Variety Village shifted away from its role as a vocational training centre. The new focus on the physical, recreational and mobility needs of the disabled required a rebuilding program, which, with a little thought, could have created a connection with the surroundings.

Instead, when Premier Bill Davis opened the new facilities, media were told about wonders such as “adjustable disembarking ramps” for wheelchair vans. Nothing was said about those who would get there by TTC. “The building was designed so a person with any kind of disability can move and function without help or embarrassment,” officials boasted.

That’s likely still the case — once you’re safely on the island.

The new structures may be Toronto’s finest example of architectural irony. The “model of accessibility,” a place dedicated to helping the disabled fit seamlessly into our community, looks and functions more like a fortress on a hill. A walk from the long-standing Kingston Road bus stop to the entrance is a good four-minute climb over tough terrain — for a fully mobile adult, in good weather.

Variety Village may not have been able to hire the best architects, but shouldn’t those who okayed the plans have given primary consideration to an entrance close to and level with the Kingston Road bus, the only TTC route serving the property?

With hindsight, it’s obvious the new building should have gone atop or next to a subway stop, even if it cost more initially. It’s painful to think that Kennedy station, still surrounded by underused lands 30 years on, was built the same time as Variety Village.

It’s more painful to consider this is far from an isolated case and there’s no end of stupidity in sight. Post-secondary students often can’t afford cars, but since World War II we’ve marooned most new campuses where quality cost-effective transit is impossible. We put York University on farmland north of the city, then spent 50-plus years discussing an incredibly expensive subway extension to fix the mistake. We did it again recently with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which could have helped revitalize Oshawa’s downtown or gone atop the GO station and its acres of parking. Instead, UOIT is in the city’s car-dependent north.

A wave of boomers is about to retire and many will end up unable to drive, but living in places designed for cars. Our kids are victims of unnecessary inaccessibility, forcing us to spend fortunes in time and money ferrying them to school and other activities.

Variety Village is a world-renowned contributor to our community – an institution whose fund-raising has been killed in recent years by lotteries and casinos. Even if it has contributed to some of its own problems, it deserves good transit access and our support. It’s nice to see that the TTC has applied a Band-Aid — though transit-dependent residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood probably disagree.

But the larger lesson for all of us is, greenbelt or not, if governments allow or inadvertently promote office parks, big-box malls, colleges, subdivisions and condo towers where cars are essential, we guarantee taxpayers will get far less bang for the billions of bucks that may or may not eventually flow through the TTC and Metrolinx.