Here’s my latest op-ed, about how we can build financial support for transit expansion, by celebrating the shovels (and machines) that are already in the ground.
Toronto STAR: Building support for Toronto transit expansion
After years of political bickering and setbacks, there seems to be a renewed sense of optimism about public transit in Toronto. Major outreach campaigns have been launched across the region. Metrolinx recently hosted public roundtable discussions, Toronto City Hall has announced a transit consultation process and Civic Action is running a campaign asking commuters how they would spend an extra 32 minutes a day – if transit was more efficient. Each project has similar goals: to seek input on future transit planning and help build public support for new revenue sources required to implement the province’s regional transit plan, The Big Move.
The campaigns are clever and effective, but if we want to get people really excited about building transit perhaps there are lessons we can learn from an entirely different Big Move.
It’s been two years since Molson Coors purchased six huge fermenting tanks for their Toronto brewery. Each tank was 150 feet long, weighed over 44 tons and had to be shipped from Germany. A big move indeed. The tanks were shipped by boat and placed onto special wide flatbed trucks in Hamilton. The tanks were too large to fit under highway bridges so the caravan of trucks took a winding journey through residential neighbourhoods. The disruptive project blocked lanes of traffic and overhead wires had to be dismantled to accommodate the massive vehicles. In total, over 1,600 service wires (cable, phone and hydro) had to be raised or removed.
Molson Coors could have had a public relations nightmare on their hands. Instead, they turned it into a marketing coup. Using photos, videos, press releases and twitter updates, they invited the public to watch the entire journey, in real-time. It was a media sensation.
People love watching big machines. TV shows such as Extreme Engineering and MegaStructures appeal to our collective fascination with tunnels, trucks, concrete, cranes and steel. The question is, how can Toronto do a better job of celebrating our own local extreme engineering?
From the Eglinton Crosstown line, to the Airport Rail Link, to the Spadina subway extension. Each time one of these massive projects hits a milestone, the entire city should know about it. That way we could all feel excited about what’s being built.
To their credit, Metrolinx and the TTC have both made recent efforts to post some pictures and videos about tunnel digging. Here are a few suggestions to boost the buzz even more:
• People want to see things live, in the moment. Posting a recent video of a boring machine breaking through a wall is great. But a live-feed broadcast will create much more attention than a re-run.
• Cut holes in construction hoardings! Let people look down into our massive construction sites. Why not build viewing areas, with bleachers? Let us watch.
• Above ground, large vibrant signage should explain what’s happening below the surface. Why not have markers or flags for each boring machine, that move as the machines inch forward below? Otherwise, the work is invisible to all.
• For information to go viral, avoid technical acronyms like TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine) on twitter.
• Build a live GPS-based map of all underground boring machines, so we can see progress each day. (We currently have a static map with a disclaimer saying “the position of the Boring Machines are approximations only”.)
• Recruit celebrities! When a tunelling machine breaks through a new wall, why not have Geddy Lee, Sarah Polley or José Bautista at the wheel?
We often hear transit riders lamenting our stagnant route map while jealously describing the massive subway networks of New York or London. Let’s turn our shame into pride. Surely if the city got excited about six beer tanks, then we can also get excited about our new transit tunnels. And if we can build excitement for our existing transit expansion projects, only then can we ask the public to fund new expansion.
The Big Move is one of the most urgent projects in the GTA. But we need to move hearts before we can move people.
Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based writer, organizer and educator. He’s currently working on a book about public participation.