A tale of two cities — Toronto: Wake up, sleeper
February 14, 2010
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
It isn’t that the poor TTC guy was sleeping on the job – to snooze is human – as why he’s even in the booth at all.
Any customer-driven service organization would have that man out of his box and helping people with their strollers, giving information, keeping the station neat and tidy and generally being the friendly, watchful face of the TTC. No modern transit system sells tickets or makes change anymore except with machines. And as for tickets and transfers – why do they even exist?
A state-of-the-art fare card, which might be your cellphone, can be topped up over the net anytime and doubles as your Visa card, library card and discount card at featured restaurants and attractions, supplying you with real-time info about what’s on and when the next train is coming. And offering space for advertising that sends money right back to the TTC.
Everything I’ve just described already exists on the London and Hong Kong transit systems. The question for the election is: Why isn’t that kind of imagination in public service delivery happening here? What does it take to move our city administration into the 21st century? Because make no mistake, we are being left behind by what are very exciting innovations in big city management all over the world.
Paris introduced the Velolibre free bicycle system, now being copied in some form in almost every big city. But not Toronto. Westminster in the U.K. reserves its best parking spots free for electric cars, and provides free recharge. Not in T.O. London has its highly effective congestion charge. Don’t even talk about it here. Stockholm collects waste on its new waterfront with vacuum tubes under the street, encouraging source separation and recycling, and opening up a line of business for local companies now being bought by Montreal and Singapore. Toronto has resisted installing any such system, let alone inventing it.
Across the urban world all kinds of waste-to-energy systems are being explored. The city that can crack a neighbourhood-friendly, non-polluting, cost-effective system will have created the municipal equivalent of the electric car, and establish an extraordinary global business at the same time. Huge competition is taking place in Europe to patent the optimal system. Yet in a fit of environmentalist fervour, Toronto has banned any consideration of waste-to-energy options.
In the U.K., where all public services now have to meet a competition and choice test, one city can bid to provide another city’s services. Think of it. A competitive Toronto Building Department could do the best job for Kingston, or Calgary, or Dubai. Why not? After all, Sick Children’s Hospital was just awarded the right to develop the new children’s hospital in Qatar. That’s how modern service enterprises work. That’s what ensures productivity, quality and creativity.
The conventional answer as to why nothing new or innovative seems to happen is that the unions have somehow tied everything down so tightly that no change is possible and that no administration has ever had the courage to face them. There’s clearly some truth to that. City hall has a double monopoly. It is the exclusive supplier of most municipal services and the collective unions are in turn its exclusive supplier of labour. Monopolies are inherently uncreative, no less in the public sector than in the private. They have no incentive to change and pass on costs because there’s no imperative to be productive. Indeed, to a dangerous degree in Toronto, public sector unions and weak municipal management have been allowed to privatize the civic interest. Those scowling, well-paid faces on the garbage picket lines last summer left little doubt of that.
But the truth is that all the innovations I described in other cities around the world have taken place inside public sector, highly unionized environments. What it took was strong, well-directed municipal management to demand excellence. We need that new operating system for the city.
So is it a sledge hammer or a scalpel that will best refashion city hall to launch Toronto 2.0? A bit of both probably. It’s not at all clear why city hall needs to physically deliver certain services – waste collection, street cleaning, parks maintenance, road repair, water or electrical distribution, for example. And many inside services would be better done by a computer.
Toronto is increasingly the exception among world cities in still doing so much with its own labour force. Indeed, being directly responsible for so much day-to-day service delivery often places the city in a conflict of interest about what its real job is: to ensure that those services are well and efficiently provided and meet broader civic policy ambitions. If the current city workforce can demonstrate they can be the best, then good for them. But they have to be put to that test.
Toronto should be the most effectively and innovatively managed city in the world. Why not set that as the election challenge? If it were, there would be a real start on bridging the budget crisis with new-found productivity and new revenue sources. And that dynamic managerial style will better lever provincial, federal and private sector funding.
It isn’t the guy in the TTC booth who’s asleep. It’s city hall. Who and how can we best wake them up?
Joe Berridge is an urban planner and partner at Urban Strategies Inc. He is currently working on projects across North America and in London and Singapore.