Article in today’s Toronto Star. Sometimes the good guys win.
Three decades after Steve Munro saved city’s iconic streetcars, his influence continues
AARON VINCENT ELKAIM/TORONTO STAR
Steve Munro looks equal parts Santa Claus and aging hippie, standing at the streetcar stop near the Christmas windows at Queen and Yonge.
The shoppers climbing aboard have no idea they are riding with the man who helped save the legendary 501 streetcar, along with 10 other routes still operated by the TTC.
Munro’s waist-long, grey ponytail is hidden inside his signature black leather jacket. But the bushy white beard is a head turner beneath his dark knitted toque.
The facial hair dates to 1972, the year Munro and a group of rail fans persuaded the city not to abandon its iconic streetcars. He remains the undisputed authority among a loose-knit group of unpaid activists whom TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc affectionately refers to as the “transit geeks.” They convene at monthly commission meetings at City Hall. It’s their best chance to speak face-to-face with senior TTC officials and the city councillors who govern them.
In his own decade on the transit commission, Mihevc can’t remember a meeting Munro didn’t attend.
Munro seldom debates publicly. His influence is wielded more subtly, after careful listening. His blog is a compass for those intrigued by the physical and political complexities moving unceasingly behind regional transit.
While much of Munro’s reputation rests on old battles, it’s his longevity and continuing influence that some believe make his ideas about urban transit more relevant than ever.
“Activists get involved and they either slowly lose interest or get discouraged … Steve’s been doing this for 35 years,” says Matt Blackett, publisher of the urbanist magazine and website, Spacing, where Munro writes a column.
It will be a landmark year for Munro in other ways.
When the TTC breaks ground next fall on the first of seven Transit City light rail lines into the suburbs, it will be in large part due to Munro’s vision, according to Blackett.
The city is touting the sleek, Euro-style Transit City plan as an opportunity to transform suburban streetscapes, including some marginalized neighbourhoods, by increasingly their density and giving new life to major avenues like Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard.
Mihevc, the longest sitting transit commissioner, says Transit City is a “dream come true” for Munro.
“He was the one who kept the candle burning during the dark days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when light rail was not seen as a part of the city,” he said.
“There have been dark periods,” Munro admits at a late Saturday brunch near Broadview and Danforth. What’s sustained him, he says, “is maintaining some sense of what transit can be.”
Munro has other circles of interest beyond his encyclopedic knowledge of transit and trains. A film, theatre and classical music buff, he’s also a computer programming whiz who runs a tech team of about two dozen employees at the Toronto District School Board.
But he has loved the rails almost since he was born 60 years ago at Women’s College Hospital. He grew up riding the St. Clair car. On weekends his dad would take him to explore the city along the streetcar routes. Munro believes transit in Toronto needs to be about more than commuter service.
“Sixty per cent of TTC (ridership) is outside rush hours. Transit is not just for poor people. It’s not just a social service. I think we’ve got past the point where were doing this just for the poor people in Scarborough.”
There’s been a political evolution on the topic, he says: “Now there are politicians that can ask questions without me having to write them out beforehand.”
Councillor Gord Perks, elected in 2006 in Parkdale-High Park after a long history in the environmental movement, is one of them.
He has known Munro for 14 years and refers to him as a dear friend, calling him one of the “most multi-dimensional people I know.”
Munro is as accomplished with UNIX coding as he is at the keyboard, according to Perks.
But even those who regard him highly can find Munro challenging.
Mihevc admits they were at odds over the hotly contested St. Clair dedicated streetcar line.
“Once in a while when you’re tired and you’ve done everything you can, you don’t want someone reminding you there’s still more to do,” says Perks.