» In a three-way race for Toronto mayor, picking the best candidate could result in the worst outcomes for the city.
Because the U.S. political system is basically a two-party duopoly, few electoral races offer more than a singular comparison between a Republican and a Democrat. In terms of transportation issues, there frequently is little question about who is the better candidate. Nonpartisan elections offer an alternative by opening up a broader range of choice for voters.
Case in point is Toronto, where local voters are going to the polls Monday to pick their new mayor. There, three candidates have made it to the end of the race, right-wing Rob Ford, centrist George Smitherman, and left-wing Joe Pantalone, the last being the heir to current Mayor David Miller. A new poll suggests Ford is leading the race with 43.9% of expected votes; Smitherman follows with 35.6% and Pantalone is expected to receive 15%. The election has one round and is not an instant runoff.
Despite the choice this election offers, voters interested in preserving the quality of North America’s third-largest transit system may unfortunately have to stomach voting for a less-than-ideal candidate to prevent a truly dangerous one from winning. Ford’s positions are dangerously anti-transportation alternatives and could spell trouble for Toronto’s chances to dramatically improve its mobility options over the next decade. For people hoping to keep up the momentum, voters would might naturally prefer Pantalone may have to choose to be strategic rather than idealistic by supporting Smitherman instead. Multi-party electoral systems have their downsides, too.
Mayor Miller has been in office since late 2003 and has been a strong proponent of increased investment in his city’s transit capital program: His 2007 announcement of the eight-line light rail Transit City program and his subsequent campaign to get Ontario provincial funds to pay for the projects were groundbreaking and entrepreneurial on a scale few cities have dared to dream up. After all, 75 miles of new rail lines serving new crosstown routes are no drop in the bucket; if built, they would fundamentally change the ability of people in Toronto to get around by rapid transit.
Yet candidate Ford, who at the moment appears to be on a fast-track to winning this race, would discard the Transit City plan full-stop. Using rhetoric to inflame already disenchanted suburban residents, concerned that their priorities aren’t being considered by a center-city focused city hall, Ford has declared that he will fight to “end the war on cars” (words that are uncomfortably similar to those of British Conservatives). How will he do so? By eliminating bike lanes from major streets and, even worse, by dismantling the city’s 47-mile downtown streetcar system, which serves 285,000 daily customers. Ford claims that these are disruptive to the free-flow of automobiles in North America’s most-congested city, but removing the transit infrastructure now would likely mean never getting it back.
Ford’s comments are couched in familiar conservative terms of “fiscal responsibility,” but it is clear from his message that he is simply more interested in promoting car travel than transit. By removing streetcars, Ford would have to cancel an already finalized C$1.2 billion contract with Bombardier for 204 new trains at a potential penalty of C$100 million and buy 550 new buses as well as construct two new $100 million bus garages. Because Toronto’s streetcar vehicles carry three times as many passengers as buses, operations costs would expand dramatically and the number of buses on the streets would multiply significantly; meanwhile, passenger comfort would decline. How more buses carrying fewer people would result in less traffic congestion as Ford seems to imply is unclear.
In exchange for the large network of light rail lines Mayor Miller has proposed to implement (construction is underway on one corridor already), Ford would build new subways that sound good in theory but which would ultimately mean far less transit expansion because of their higher costs. But subways are more convenient for Ford because they’re buried underground, safe from interrupting the travel of his precious automobiles.
Joe Pantalone, on the other hand, has been a full-throated defender of investments in public transportation, pushing the Transit City plan as strongly as the current mayor. He has promoted a 1,000-kilometer bike route plan that would ensure increased safety and convenience for those who choose to cycle around. Under his leadership, it is hard to imagine the city falling behind in the development of alternatives to the automobile.
Unfortunately, Pantalone is so far behind in the polls that a vote for him would help split the vote enough to put Ford in office. People who want to see the improvements he is promoting may have to vote against Ford, not for Pantalone.
In this case, that means checking off the box for George Smitherman. Though his transportation proposals has been relatively vague and he has not proven himself to be willing to put his political ambitions on the line for improved transit, Smitherman has generally supported the Transit City plan and has developed a plan to fund the local transportation network through gas taxes and profits from the power and parking authorities. He has regrettably asked for a moratorium in new bike lanes.
Steve Munro, an influential local transportation advocate, has reluctantly endorsed Smitherman, suggesting that the three-candidate election leaves progressive voters no choice but to vote centrist unless they want the conservative to win with a minority of votes. If Smitherman isn’t perfect, his efforts will be improved by the decisions of the larger city council.
Is Munro right? Is it worth sacrificing one’s ideals and voting against someone rather than for someone else?
Update, 25 October: Rob Ford has won the race, getting about 50% of the vote.
Image above: Streetcar in Toronto, from Flickr user Diego Silvestre (cc)