Friday, February 10, 2012


I usually agree with Royson James, the Toronto Star urban affairs columnist, but I think his column on subways versus surface light rail transit has a logical flaw. He writes that he, unlike Rob Ford, will agree to pay for the subways that mayor wants Toronto to build. He indicates that Mayor Ford thinks the public will not agree to pay for the subways.

I agree with that part. It seems to me that Mr. Ford and his supporters have the approach to subway building that many teenagers have to household budgets: they want subways the way a fifteen year old wants the cool new cell phone. The parents have a credit card, so why can't they have it now? Mr. Royson, by contrast, takes an adult approach: if everyone gets a new phone, we can't afford a sixty inch plasma TV this year, so which do we want most? That puts him well ahead of the simplistic argument that we should have subways simply because people want them, regardless of expense, but I would argue he doesn't go far enough. Unlike families, cities operate in an environment of existential competition. If your son doesn't like his phone or the TV or the car, he can't usually go to live with the family next door. But cities do have to attract, and keep, businesses and the talented work force businesses require. Those businesses and people have alternatives, so the city has to provide good facilities at an acceptable cost. If a city fails at that task, its residents can face a bleak economic decline.

A city council contemplating a major capital investment such as a subway line needs to do more than simply agree to pay for it. They also have to do the work of planning, to make sure the money they spend buys services that enough people will use to justify the expense. Otherwise, the city tax base ends up saddled with debts for unused infrastructure, which means residents and businesses pay more taxes for the services they do use. This in turn creates an incentive for businesses and workers to locate elsewhere, leaving a declining commercial and residential base to carry the debt. This explains why, in urban transportation as most other things, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Against this hard economic logic, claiming the people want subways, or even that current Toronto residents will agree to pay taxes in order to get subways simply does not suffice.

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