Privatized Public Transit: A Sacred Cow?

Post by Steven Dale

Toronto's Mayor Elect, Rob Ford. On a Subway.

Yesterday in my hometown of Toronto, former city councillor Rob Ford was elected Mayor.

Rob Ford, to say the least is a divisive character. He’s more a rorschach diagram than a candidate. How you feel about Ford, I suspect, says more about you than it does about him. He fanatically rants against things the city can’t afford, yet wants more subways. He’s a fiscal conservative yet none of his numbers appear to add up. He’s anti-bike and anti-streetcar but wants to see more buses on the road everywhere.

He’s a hard one to get your mind around. Over the weekend, Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic had an excellent analysis of Toronto’s Rob Ford conundrum.

(Note: I intentionally did not vote in this election. While I am normally a conscientious and regular voter, I chose to abstain from this election. Some may say that is irresponsible. I see it as exercising my democratic right not to choose between a group of candidates none of whom resonated with myself and my values.)

The reason for Mr. Ford’s election – at least according to most commentators – is that he tapped into voter outrage over city spending. In the past 7 years, the city’s budget almost doubled while service (particularly transit) levels appeared to decrease.

Originally a fringe councillor and candidate, Mr. Ford gained his public profile from an ingenious stunt whereby he diligently refused to spend a single dollar of the $50,000 budget his office was allocated annually for expenses. As a private business owner, he could afford to do so and year-after-year lorded the fact over enraged rival councillors who routinely spent the maximum.

During a garbage collectors strike during the summer of 2009, Ford’s ward was one of the few unaffected. The reason? Unlike the rest of the city that relied upon the city for garbage collection, Ford’s ward had outsourced the task to the private sector. This was a key story in the Rob Ford mythos.

Quickly, with the garbage strike tale in tow, privatizing public services became a key plank in Mr. Ford’s campaign. And it seemed to resonate with voters remarkably well. Interestingly, however, Ford never suggested privatizing public transit; one of the single largest expenditures in the Toronto budget.

The idea of public transit was treated as a sacred cow; touch it at your own peril. Why is that?

Personally, I have no opinion on the public transit vs. privatized public transit debate. I don’t know enough about it except to know both sides of the debate have a tendency to cherry-pick whatever cases best support their cause. What I want to know is why the question of privatizing public transit is so touchy?

After all, most of North America’s public transit systems were originated by the private sector. Routes were laid, solidified and commercialized by private interests long before the public sector took over. One could make a fairly convincing argument that without the influx of private money decades ago, public transit never would’ve gotten off the ground. Furthermore, the work done by the private sector was essential in building our cities during their infancy and adolescence. So why then are we so hostile to the idea?

Again, this isn’t an endorsement of one perspective over another. It’s a legitimate question:

Is public transit a sacred cow? And if so, why? Does that need to change? Is there a third way – neither private nor public?

I don’t know.

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  1. Maybe I prefer public provision of PT is fare and service integration, and a commitment to service provision as a social good. (i.e. the last bus at 1am to get the drunks home safe). It is true that some cities do a way better job on those things than others, but the profit motive can get in the way of all of them. You do need the feeder buses to arrive just before the train leaves. You don't need two company's buses turning up at your stop at the same time, and then no service for the next hour. You do want to buy the one ticket to get you from A to B especially when you need to change at C and D. But to say that government run services are perfect would be completely wrong. I grew up in Adelaide, and found reading the bus timetables way harder than they had to be. I'm a computer scientist so you'd think I could master reading a timetable. Whoever was compiling them back in the 80's, I suspect may still be doing it. I offer as proof the world's worst map to accompany any PT timetable anywhere at anytime. http://timetables.adelaidemetro.com.au/timetables/routemaps/Glenelg-Tram_200310_routemap.pdf Can anyone read that with it's broken up mini-maps? Perhaps I'm agnostic on ownership of a PT network, but there has to be public control of routes and service standards. The passengers are more important than any potential shareholders.
  2. so who voted for Ford? was it the people who live downtown where streetcars and bikes and subways are prevalent? nope. http://torontoist.com/2010/10/which_wards_voted_for_who_for_mayor.php

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