Time to create a Federal roads czar

In idle moments, the Internet encourages me to visit fascinating historic sites. Recently, it led me to a series of ancient articles and planning documents related to a man named Sam Cass, who served as Metro Toronto’s Roads and Traffic Commissioner from 1954 to 1989.

I was struck almost speechless by a quote attributed to Cass in 1999, regarding the initial plan to build a series of expressways across the city: “We would respond to what people asked for, rather than what we wanted them to do. It isn’t for municipalities to tell citizens what form of transportation they should use.”

What a beautiful concept! In other words, if drivers choose to drive, why not funnel their tax dollars into building more and faster roads?

The Toronto maps associated with the early Cass years had me drooling with driver envy. They reveal a series of high-speed corridors slicing the city into tasty, bite-sized chunks.

Sadly, the plans to build more Toronto expressways came to a screeching halt in 1971 when Ontario Premier William Davis decided the city loved public transit more, as he chopped off half-built expressways at the root. Don’t get me wrong, I like to take mass transit every time my car is in for repairs and I need to travel a short distance, but after three or four rides, the novelty simply wears off.

While I accept the need for a form of mass transit in urban settings, I’m becoming increasingly impatient with the notion that those who choose to ride buses, streetcars and subways are somehow smarter or more evolved than car drivers.

Yet, across Canada, the needs and desires of drivers seem to be treated like a dirty little secret. Road building is at best a concession to some sort of demented splinter group that likes to get behind the wheel of a car. Even while driving, pixel boards mounted overtop express routes subtly remind drivers that they are insane, essentially choosing roads that have been deliberately overlooked and ignored by planners over the crowded cattle runs we call public transit.

You don’t like public transit? That’s simply because it hasn’t gobbled up all of your tax money yet! If you doubled the funding of public transit, you would love it. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced gold brocade subway upholstery and in-bus bowling alleys.

And if I could afford to drive a newer car, with a better stereo, I’d do that, too.

Metropolitan planners continue to delude themselves that what drivers really want is to ride on buses or trains, cheek by jowl with their fellow creatures. In their minds, citizens could be convinced to switch as long as they devise a happy jingle or the colours of the transit vehicles are sufficiently jolly.

Meanwhile, cities preach the mantra of intensification, granting builders the rights to build monstrous condominium towers at major intersections, in hopes of transforming crushing knots of humanity into ready-made, eager transit customers. For the sake of the delicate sensibilities of urban planners, let’s not refer to these 40-storey intersections as overpopulated anthills. Let’s just call them “nodes” containing buildings designed for “optimum density.”

However, when those new residents begin to clog up city streets with automobiles, city planners screech that the predictable traffic pandemonium justifies the need to expand transit. Even more devilish — giving a nod and wink to newer condominium plans designed with little to no in-building parking.

The choice between individual and mass transportation is really nothing more than a synthesis of the value we place on our time, our money and the qualities we value in our rides. Leaving that choice to the individual without excessive coercion or tilting of the playing field seems to me to be the best plan of all.

I recall reading something years ago about a Russian leader having an expressway built between his house and the Kremlin, solely for his own use.

Though the concept has great personal appeal, building roads directly to even four or five of my favourite destinations would probably constitute an expense greater than my local municipality and fellow ratepayers would tolerate.

But while I’m thinking about Russia and the curious American habit currently in vogue of dubbing any unelected government bigwig a czar, it might not be a bad idea for Canada to create the position of a federal Roads Czar — someone who could represent the interests of drivers who simply want to go farther, faster, cheaper.

Last time I checked, Sam Cass was still available.

Photograph by: Peter J. Thompson for National Post, National Post