For my latest Toronto through the eyes of column for blogTO I met up with trainspotter and transit geek Steve Munro – a man who knows more about the TTC than anyone in the city. And the man can talk. I had to leave some of the interview out of my blog post – but for those hardcore Munro fans (they are out there), here’s some extra nuggets:
Tell me about where you live now?
I live at Broadview and Danforth. We’re sitting in the park in the middle of Broadview Station – this park was a bus loop before the Bloor Subway was built. Then this became vacant land, but it wasn’t officially a park, it was an open space people would come and sit… but there was a proposal by the TTC to sell this land for redevelopment and the neighbourhood went ballistic… But it was only with the recent reconstruction of Broadview Station that this land has been formally dedicated as parkland, so that it’s no longer a potential development site.
That’s the really kind of small-scale stuff that you get in neighbourhoods all over the city and it’s the kind of thing people get very exercised about at that very micro-level of city planning. Transit is at the other end of that scale because it’s an issue that affects the whole city… and it’s much harder to get activism at the broad scale because the issues are much more diffuse and the timelines are often incredibly long because people often say, you know, I got better things to do than fight City Hall.
You’ve been fighting city hall all your life. How do you sustain that?
Well, there have been times when I despair. There was a period in the ‘90s when the regime in power both at the TTC and the City Hall, they weren’t very friendly to activists to put it mildly…
Basically since Mel Lastman was replaced and we’ve got a regime in power at City Hall that is pro-transit—and Queen’s Park, while they’re not as gung-ho as I might want them to be, certainly are better than they were in the Mike Harris era—there’ s a feeling that issues that affect the well-being of the city on a broad scale, of which transit is an important one, are finally getting attention and political support. Seeing that encourages me to do more.
How would you describe Toronto to someone who’s never been here?
The first thing I would have to say is that there are at least two Toronto’s. There’s the old city, which is the thing people rave about when they visit, downtown… plus the inner suburbs. It’s surrounded by a lot of crap, which is only now kind of pulling itself together, and it will take decades… to make that part of Toronto feel like this part of Toronto. And I’m not sure we’ll actually completely get there.
You’ll find it in the side streets… but you don’t have main streets to link it all together as a pedestrian network … Where you can walk along a Queen West, or a King West, or Gerrard Street East there’s no equivalent in the suburbs because the arterial roads in the suburbs are laid out at least six lanes wide, the strip malls are set back behind parking – these not areas where you browse, they’re areas you drive through, so I don’t think you’ll ever have the same kind of tourist relationship to Toronto as you do to the old city downtown.
It’s funny because I worked in the IT business all my life… and I came to blogging comparatively late… because I’ve been at it for three-and-a-half years… It was also the time period when I got the Jane Jacobs prize, the rise of Spacing magazine and there was a community of people who were interested in what made transit work and needed… things a bit more technical, with a bit more of a historical background and that’s when I got started running my website. I was astounded at how popular it became how quickly and it was one of those things, “Why wasn’t I doing this five years ago?”
Back in the ‘70s… you had much more coverage of local issues by the media… the City Hall press gallery was much larger than it is and the space in print and the air time devoted to local issues was huge. Now you’re lucky if you can get one issue a day getting decent coverage and there is very little longitudinal coverage of issues where you’ll have reporters that become expert in say housing, or garbage or whatever…
Metro Morning for example, I’m a great fan… but if you look at the mix in the rotation through the hour now compared to what it used to be, they have more filler than they used to, they run a lot more music, they’ll use comments that people have phoned in with, which are good, but sometimes you get the feeling you’ve got five minutes to use up… as opposed to originally produced stories because there are fewer story producers working there because of the staffing situation at CBC…
So things have changed a lot. And of course the reach that I have is that I don’t have to worry about going to City Hall doing my five minute deputation – I can write articles and I know they’re read… I go on the basis of, I write something and how long does it take for someone to phone me about what I just wrote…
Where do you go to be inspired?
I can be inspired if I’m lucky in a theatre of some flavour by whatever performance… whereas I can go to a park and there’s all different variations. You’ve got really high-end formal parks like High Park and the Music Garden. Then… there’s a junction of park paths… where three major park systems meet in the middle of the interchange of the Don Valley Parkway and Greenwood. It’s so ironic to have a junction of pedestrian pathway systems in this intensely car-oriented space in the Don Valley… I like that in the middle of the city I don’t have to go very far… and you can filter out some of the noises… It’s that change of scenery… you stop thinking about the detail of the immediate surroundings and it’s more just the feeling of the space that you’re in.