Subways and Golden Ages

by Richard White

December 2013

All the drama this past year over Toronto’s Scarborough subway extension – or is it an LRT? – has prompted more than one Torontonian to pine for the Golden Age when Toronto could actually get things done, when it was, as Peter Ustinov supposedly said, ‘New York run by the Swiss’. Golden Ages often melt under historical scrutiny, but in this case the contrast between past and present is so stark that those bygone days, whether truly golden or not, certainly look pretty good: on one hand we have the past – three years of construction, in the early 1960s, to build the original twenty-some kilometre long Bloor-Danforth subway line, with twenty stations; and on the other hand we have the present – three years of dispute over a few kilometres being tacked onto the end of that existing line. What has gone wrong? If we did it then why can’t we do it now?

The question to ask is how was a subway built so fast in the 1960s. An important part of the answer is that the process was led and carried out by technocrats and experts, not by elected politicians and certainly not by citizens. It was accomplished, in other words, by the now fully discredited method called ‘top-down’ planning. Engineers and planners, some working directly for the transit commission and some as contracted consultants, measured and calculated all the facts and figures – projected population and ridership, land and construction costs, available capital funds, and who knows what else – and from that devised their optimum plan. Then followed a period of debate, but the debate ended, the plan was approved, and then the line was built.

There was some opposition: many in the City of Toronto still wanted the line further downtown along Queen Street as older plans had proposed, the thousands of residents displaced by its construction probably wanted it anywhere other than where it was, and the outer municipalities of Metro Toronto objected to their property taxes going to pay for a transit line that did not even enter their jurisdiction. But there is no sign – here the contrast is most stark – of the opposition gaining much traction or having much impact. Nor, one might add, did Mayor Nathan Phillips or any other elected politician seek political advantage by sidling up to voters who were not directly served by the scheme. Whether this consensus reflects the popular will or, as more critical social scientists might say, the power of the state and/or the interests of capital – which is to say was the consensus real or manufactured – is an important question in the broader picture. But that consensus, wherever it came from, is what allowed large-scale, expensive public infrastructure to be built so expeditiously. It was what created the Golden Age.

St George Station nearing completion, 1962 (City Toronto Archives)

St George Station nearing completion, 1962
(City Toronto Archives)

Such a consensus is unthinkable now. Extensive public consultation, which gives voice to opponents, is considered essential in matters such as this, and elected politicians have gained so much control over technical experts – in the name of democracy – that nearly all major planning decisions are contested in the political arena. There is inevitably some alternative site or route, a less disruptive technology or technique, or some under-served interest, so debates never end. And just as the presence of consensus permitted infrastructure to be built the absence of consensus prohibits it.

This is no secret. Others have made this observation. But what is not often acknowledged, and what may be the real heart of the problem, is how deeply valued this public contestation is in Toronto’s civic culture. The local citizenry feels fully justified standing up to the experts, and in fact does so quite proudly, as if following in the steps of the heroes who killed the Spadina Expressway. In fact I would say that for many inner-city residents the years when this ‘paradigm of contestation’ became ascendant, the early 1970s, are the real Golden Age in Toronto’s past – the moment when local citizens gained the power to resist the technocrat’s solutions and thus preserved a livable city for us all. So one Golden Age stands in the way of another. Who can untie that knot?

It is hard to imagine Toronto returning to a time when technocrats prevailed. Those days are gone, and few lament their passing. But it also unlikely that major public infrastructure will ever get built unless we do. History sometimes does a better job of illuminating a problem than of providing a solution.