This summer I was in an elevator in Saskatchewan. Not of the grain kind, those icons largely gone, but of the Best Western kind in the small city of Estevan. Making chit chat between floors, I mentioned to the person next to me that I was visiting from Toronto.
“Oh,” he said. “So you’re from ‘The Centre of the World.'”
Mindful of my place as a visitor and wanting not to perpetuate the impression held outside the 905 area code that Torontonians are rude, I thought it only polite to point out his misconception: “Actually, you mean ‘The Centre of the Universe.'”
Whether The Centre of the Universe, Hogtown, The Big Smoke or decreasingly, Toronto the Good, Toronto has been a city of many names. Mercifully, we are now in our last few weeks as Ford Nation, so named for a mayor and his brother whose creative achievements in the disciplines of profanity, propriety and sobriety make the Trailer Park Boys seem like noble statesmen.
October 27th will launch the era of ToryTown, embodied by the blue-blooded, highly respected, responsible and upstanding John Tory. But there is no reason to believe it will mark the end, or even the beginning of the end, of Toronto’s most pressing problem – that of not being able to move from Point A to Point B by any powered mode of transportation, in anything less than a half-day.
Because underlying this pressing problem is the fact that Torontonians are incredibly cheap. Not when it comes to driving the very finest European automobiles or sipping lattes or doing both while crawling to yoga class on roads that look like vast luxury car dealerships, but when it comes to paying for anything whatsoever that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of those roads or the public transportation system with which our highways and byways are locked in a grim symbiosis.
This deep-seated cheapness explains why in Toronto, you can be a drunk, crack-addicted, woman-hating, physically abusive homophobic racist (note: list abbreviated due to space limitations), and still be mayor – as long as you are also cheap.
As long as you promise to build subways without raising taxes, a policy of great appeal to people who drive Porsches, Audis, Mercedes, Beemers and Range Rovers and whose monthly parking bill will get you rent in Winnipeg, yet who are convinced that roads must remain free of any user fee.
To the point that in this bastion of Canadian capitalism, neither John Tory nor Olivia Chow is talking about road tolls of even $1 a day to drive in the downtown, or along the 400-series highways that encircle and carve into the city.
They are not talking about it because they are afraid to talk about it, because they wouldn’t get elected if they did talk about it, because people in Toronto are cheap.
One dollar per highway trip in to and out of Toronto. A measly loonie. One hundred of the things so small, even the federal government doesn’t count them anymore.
And $10 or $20 per day to drive in the Financial District. The key point to remember is that people in Toronto are cheap, and that they will react to the cost by driving less at the most congested times and overall.
Multiply this pittance by the hundreds of thousands of car trips made every day to Toronto, and you have a multi-hundred-million-dollar windfall each year to fund round-the-clock roadwork that will make our roads and public transit more efficient and save some of the $6-billion in economic output lost every year due to gridlock we were already losing in 2006.
And most importantly, you have relief of the very real stress that congestion and delay puts on people as they struggle to do something we can all agree is priceless: spending time with families and loved ones.