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Can this expert solve Toronto's transit woes?

Eric Miller on why we have to stop “setting ourselves up for failure”

“We are non-ideological,” says Professor Eric Miller of U of T's Transportation Research Institute, which is assessing Toronto's transit needs and examining the SmartTrack Plan. “It has to be evidence-based.” (photo by Roberta Baker)

For years, the University of Toronto has been an “under-utilized resource” for the City of Toronto, Professor Eric Miller says – but he is at the forefront of changing that.

A civil engineering professor and the director of U of T’s Transportation Research Institute, Miller has had a close working relationship with the City of Toronto for many years.

But with both President Meric Gertler and Mayor John Tory stressing closer ties, that relationship has intensified. 

Earlier this year City Council awarded a contract to Miller and the institute to do a major study on the transit needs of Toronto, including an examination of Tory’s SmartTrack proposal he made during last year’s mayoral election campaign. The report is due in January.

Miller told U of T News that “it is very important that we not look at just one project is isolation,” suggesting that the study could make recommendations about walking and biking as well as public transit.

During the municipal election campaign Miller wrote in an op-ed column for The Star that Tory’s SmartTrack plan, tabbed a “regional relief line,” was a good idea. But he also said Olivia Chow’s proposal for more buses was welcomed as well, because “increasing the capacity of the surface transit network is essential.”  

The TTC is planning to add more buses, though its attempt to add more streetcars has been stymied by manufacturing delays.

Many transit advocates are pushing for a downtown relief line to ease the congestion on the Yonge/Spadina line. Miller noted though that  the SmartTrack plan would also offer such relief. The SmartTrack line will provide service from the Airport Corporate Centre in the west, southeast to Union Station and northeast to Markham in the east. It would have 22 new station stops and five interchanges with the TTC rapid transit network.  

Tory promised that the line would be built in seven years with service starting in 2021. 

Miller stressed that the institute is not an advocate for any one plan. “We are non-ideological. It has to be evidence-based and, technically, make sense or not.”

While not coming out in favour of any plan, Miller made it clear that one of the frustrations for transit planners is the lack of political will to get things done.

“The root problem is the total unwillingness [of politicians] to deal with transit funding. The idea that they are not willing to pay for it is so ridiculous. We are setting ourselves up for failure” by not coming to grips with the issue.

Gertler and city manager Peter Wallace attended a session recently on funding for municipalities during which they discussed alternative sources of revenue and alumna Anne Golden, former head of the United Way of Greater Toronto, suggested raising revenue for transit through a city sales tax. Golden made the recommendation to the provincial government in December, 2013 along with former city planner Paul Bedford.

“The reports were fantastic,” Miller said. “It could have been the solution” to the problem of finding money for public transit. Instead, we got a “totally mindless, kneejerk reaction” from politicians. “They don’t want to bite the bullet to pay for things that will make your life better.”

One group of people whose lives could be made better by improved public transit are university students, who often commute for hours just to get to class. 

Read about one student's commute

Miller was heavily involved in the creation of StudentMove TO which launched an unprecedented public transit survey of 170,000 post-secondary students in Toronto last September. One of his PhD students, Chris Harding, helped designed the survey.

Miller said “I am very, very excited” that the survey results will “lead to better policy decisions” that will help students. The results will be analyzed after the survey is concluded in January.

Read more about StudentMove TO

The strengthening of ties between U of T and the City of Toronto is critical to the success of both, he suggested. The relationship “has always been a little ad hoc” and formalizing it in a wide array of areas makes sense, Miller said. But he said “we have to be a little careful in making sure our [U of T’s] work is objectively based, and not politicized.”