Seoul is opening new subway projects every year. Chinese cities throw up whole new districts in what seems like the blink of an eye. Toronto, dear old Toronto, does things differently.
Consider what has happened – or hasn't – right in front of City Hall. Way back in 2010, city council approved plans to build a bike station in the giant parking garage beneath Nathan Phillips Square. The idea was to promote cycling by giving two-wheeled commuters a secure, sheltered place to park their bicycles.
Seven years and two mayors later, the station still isn't open for business. The caged enclosure for 195 bikes sits vacant and forlorn beside the exit booths at the southwest corner of the parking garage, close to the popular skating rink on the square above. Officials say that if everything goes to plan – a shaky bet given the history of this project – it should open at last next year, bringing the wait to eight years. World wars have been fought in less time.
It's a small example of a chronic problem. Toronto is a booming city with big plans, but putting those plans into concrete form often seems to take forever.
A subway extension to neighbouring Vaughan that cost far more than expected is finally supposed to open by the end of the year. The makeover of Queens Quay on the waterfront faced all sorts of snags and overruns. A stylish facelift of Nathan Phillips Square itself went way over budget and behind schedule.
This city isn't the only one to struggle with getting projects finished. Look at the saga of New York's vastly expensive Second Avenue subway. But Toronto's sagas seem to drag on longer than most. The story of the bike station waiting to be born is a classic of the type.
Cycling groups cheered when city hall decided to install a bike garage as part of the Nathan Phillips Square renovation. At the time (and still) Toronto was way behind many other cities in building bike paths and other facilities to make cycling more attractive. Chicago has a big, modern bike garage at Millennium Park, its splendid downtown gathering space. London has created tens of thousands of bike-parking spaces, many of them at big cycle-parking "hubs" near transit stops and other central locations.
The original plan called for Toronto's City Hall station to have space for 380 bikes. It would include showers so cyclists on their way to work could clean up after their ride. But under budget pressure, city staff quietly put the project on hold in 2011. Building it, they argued, would have meant compensating the Toronto Parking Authority to the tune of $70,000 a year for the revenue it would lose when 24 car parking spaces were removed to make way for the bikes. Considering that bike stations were planned for other places, including Union Station, they decided the City Hall project could wait.
When city council moved to revive it in 2013, Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug had a fit. They called it a reckless waste of money. Doug, in typical form, suggested that it risked becoming a bathhouse, complete with a towel boy and all sorts of "hanky panky."
Councillors voted to go ahead anyway. That was in May, 2013. The city invited contractors to bid on the project, but their bids came in a million dollars over the $1.4-million budget. So in 2014 the city decided to do the job in phases, with the basic structure first and the bike racks and showers later, when the money became available.
In May, 2015, a city spokesman told the Toronto Sun that "the project is both on time and on budget." All the same, it took till June, 2016, for workers to complete just the first phase. The city has only just awarded the contract for finishing the project. A spokesman says work should start in June and be done by the end of the year. That would allow for an opening early in 2018. The total cost has more than doubled over the years, to $2.5-million.
How it can take so long to put in something as simple a garage for bikes is hard to imagine. Building the CN Tower took 40 months.
Jared Kolb of the advocacy group Cycle Toronto remembers going down to City Hall to push for the bike station. "Here we are are sitting here five years later and we are still waiting. There are some things in this town that are just like pushing a boulder up a hill." Councillor Joe Mihevc, one of those who called for reviving the project back then, says it feels as if he is watching a rocket on its launch pad. The flames are coming out but the rocket is still not rising.
Even if the launch happens next year as promised, the tale of the empty bike garage is cautionary. If the city can't get a project this basic done, what hope is there for all the grand new parks, transit and housing city hall wants to build? Oh, Toronto.