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Toronto Through the Eyes of Steve Munro

Posted by Crystal Luxmore / August 23, 2009

Steve MunroSteve Munro is a transit geek with an edge. His Santa Claus beard and twinkling eyes signal natural warmth, but the click of his badass leather motorcycle boots as we walked through his neighbourhood around Broadview and Danforth reminded me that this guy does more than just salivate over streetcars.

An intricate shaded tattoo of a grapevine starts on his right foot winding all the way up the side of his body and down his arm. On his back a tree grows up his spine and across his shoulders. He got the tattoos in his fifties because he loved the artist, Daemon Rowanchilde, and chose them partly because they're symbols of inherent strength without the nasty aggression.

A proud trainspotter, Munro's been riding the rocket for kicks since he was a kid. He parlayed that love into a life of transit activism, crafting a reputation at City Hall for his reasoned ideas and ability to recall any streetcar on the line. It also makes him Yoda to up-and-coming urban planners and transit fans in the city, penning columns for Spacing Magazine and getting phone calls from reporters and city planners hours after publishing his latest blog post.

In March, Munro retired from his IT management post at the Toronto District School Board. Now the 60-year-old is busy cleaning out some of the transit ephemera crowding his apartment and spending even more time indulging his other big passion - theatre, film and concerts.

When you think of Toronto what three words come to mind?

Neighbourhoods. Trees. Citizen Activism.

What was it like growing up in Toronto?

The city was a lot smaller than it is now. Because I was a streetcar fan, one of my weekend treats with my Dad was to go out for a ride somewhere on the streetcar system. So I got to learn about the city by riding the streetcar lines. The Yonge subway opened in '54, and I was only five-and-a-half then, but the Bloor Subway opened in '66 so there were large parts of the city that still had streetcar service.

Was your Dad a big streetcar/train guy?

Not really. But that was what I was interested in, so that's what we did.

My Dad was big into trains, and that was like the essence of our family vacations. We always had to go train museums and things like that. He had four girls who weren't interested in machines or trains of any kind, and now he has a grandson who loves Thomas the Tank Engine and can't get enough of machines. I'm wondering... do you think that this is a boy thing?

I've met women who are machinery nerds but there's a long history of rail fans being guys, and not necessarily the most socially well-equipped ones either.

You've met a lot of other so-called "transit geeks" in Toronto... is it mostly a male community?

Very much so. There are a few women but they come into transit through a side door, through interest in green stuff, and they say, "Hey! Transit's an important thing."

Spacing magazine has sort of created transit fandom among young creative types in the city who value the old TTC architecture, the font... I mean there's buttons, and there's the Every Station Club. What do you think of all this?

A friend of mine... one of his great aims in life was to have a picture of every single streetcar that the TTC owned. Well, he had many pictures of every TTC streetcar the TTC owned before he died... so that's a rail-fanish approach to transit.

Spacing is a mixture. You get people who are connected to the ephemera, to the type font, the look and feel of the transit system, but there's also an interest in how the transit system is a part of the city. And that's one of the things I like with the new crop of activists... they're not just looking at the streetcars or buses, they're seeing the transit system in the context of how it serves the city.

What's the difference between rapid transit and light rail transit (LRT)?

Rapid transit, without the world "light" preceding it, is any mode in which an integral part of the way it operates is that it has to have its own private right of way... so you can't have level crossings, you can't run in mixed traffic for short periods, and people can't walk across the tracks. That's rapid transit.

When you tack the word "light" on to it the distinction is that you do not require a dedicated infrastructure as a prerequisite. A very, very low-end example of that is the Spadina Streetcar... because it's a streetcar running in its own lane. It's faster than it would be if it were in mixed traffic, but just that. The next step up from that is to have a line with the stops further apart. You could also have a route that has some parts of the line grade separated. A good example is the Eglinton line that will be underground and basically a streetcar/subway from Weston to Eglinton, but from Weston out to the airport it will come back out on to the surface.

The strength of LRT is that you don't need the most heroic infrastructure for parts of the line that don't really require it. In terms of the Transit City Plan I think David Miller's on the right track because you could not possibly build as much coverage of the city with subway technology as you could with LRT.

Steve Munro Do you have a favourite building in the city?

I have to pick one?

Well you can pick a couple.

Oh, that's really hard. You've got Commerce Court North, which was the height of deco style. I really like the tension between the old style office building and the original TD Tower. Of all the new buildings downtown I like the [TD Tower] the best because it is what it is.

There are lovely little streets where you'll come on a row of houses from the 1880s and '90s, like Wellesley Cottages.

There is one really good industrial building that's left. The Toronto Carpet Factory building.

Describe how you would spend an ideal Sunday afternoon in the city?

It depends on which hat I'm wearing. If I were wearing my city-person transit hat then I might go wandering around the city mainly on streetcars because I am a streetcar fan, but I don't' have a kind of religious objection to riding buses. It's not just to ride on the streetcars but to look at how the neighbourhoods I'm riding through have changed. I visit the St. Clair construction project quite regularly... it's a text book example of how not to do a major public works project... it's just a nightmare.

I go to a lot of movies, theatre, and concerts. One of the lovely things about retiring is the word "matinee" suddenly becomes part of your vocabulary.

There's stuff I do - I don't' want to get into the intimate details - but there are things I do with friends in the privacy of one's home and that can be a nice thing to do on a Sunday afternoon as well.

And then, of course, when all else fails, I blog.

What are your favourite restaurants in the city?

Bonjour Brioche. If I wanted a French restaurant I would go to Batifole over on Gerrard. There's a place called Easy on Queen and Roncesvalles, for great brunches.

What about the GTA, do you hang around outside the city at all?

I hate to say that I'm one of those people who spends all my time in the inner 416, but I'm one of those people who spends all my time in the inner 416. Eglinton is a long way north for my personal geography. People stay in their neighborhoods. I'm sure there are nice places to visit in the suburbs, but they're a pain in the ass to get to because I don't drive.

Do you have a Metro Pass?

Yes... I can proudly say I have had a Metro Pass since they were first available in May of 1980.

I noticed you almost always wear all black, is that right?

Yeah, almost always...

Why?

A variety of reasons. A friend of mine who is a rather amply-proportioned lady of colour and who always wears black said, "Black is such a slimming colour." I don't have to worry about coordinating my wardrobe all the time. Although I have many different shades... careful observers will note that some of them are blacker than others, some of them are slate grey. And you may get denim, or you may get leather. Denim more commonly; leather is awfully hot.

Leather pants?

Yeah.

Cool.

That's another hat that I wear.

Discussion

23 Comments

Helena / August 23, 2009 at 10:38 am
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What a lovely article and lovely man! Such an enjoyable read.
gadfly / August 23, 2009 at 10:53 am
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Interesting read, but I wonder if that is perhaps what is wrong with the planning/vision of this city: all downtown-centric. There is a world beyond TTC and steetcars, but it seems to be the people such as Mr. Munro who have the ear of Council these days; however, there is so much more going on beyond the borders of downtown.
To truly appreciate Toronto's strengths and weaknesses, one has to have lived and travelled the globe to see how others are doing it. The future is more than just streetcars.

It is interesting to see a different perspective, though. My father used to take us on rides on the subway from York Mills (terminus back then) to Union and back, just for giggles, but I preferred blasting along the DVP (back when you could actually blast along that highway) in my dad's '69 Chrysler - a great view of the city and beyond.
Jordan / August 23, 2009 at 11:49 am
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Giving Spacing all the credit for a new wave of transit fandom? Ugh. Wasn't the system doing it itself?

(in the question, not the response)
kyle / August 23, 2009 at 02:29 pm
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Hey great article! Would love to meet this guy I ride the transit for fun too.
Miroslav Glavic / August 23, 2009 at 02:56 pm
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I am so sitting on Steve's lap next time I see him and tell him what I want for Christmas.

I think Steve has been a transit advocate for longer than most TTC Commissioners (maybe Mihevc has been around longer) and I think most current City councillors.

Steve Munro for City counil so he can be TTC Chair
Sharif / August 23, 2009 at 07:09 pm
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Great article. And I've been to Batifole. It's a great little restaurant.
chephy / August 23, 2009 at 11:16 pm
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Good comment about downtown-centric vision. When someone starts calling Eglinton 'burbs, you know that person has a somewhat skewed perception of the city's geography...

BTW, I don't drive either, and I never found it difficult to get to Eglinton from downtown or vice versa. Even if we forget about cycling, it's got three subway stops. And god know how many bus routes cross it. Heck, I consider it a relatively short *walk* from St. Clair, which Munro claims is not too far away from him.
Ed Drass / August 24, 2009 at 01:05 am
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Munro lives (about a block) north of Danforth -- his "downtown" bona-fides are in question. ;^)

As for inner-416 bias, I note Steve happened to champion Transit City (through North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough) ahead of the Downtown Relief Line. He may not travel on Finch Avenue, but I believe his advocacy clearly takes into account the people who do.

Great article.
William Self / August 24, 2009 at 08:55 am
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Steve is a very interesting fellow indeed! Great article. I am definitely going to be visiting his blog on a regular basis from now on as it is chock-full-of-gold for transit geeks like myself!
Stephen van Egmond / August 24, 2009 at 09:15 am
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Best final line of an interview, ever.

Steve, I hope you drink beer, because if I ever run into you, I'm buying you one. You're a credit to this city.
Jason / August 24, 2009 at 09:49 am
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Does he ride it for fun at 8:30 am on a weekday?
William Self / August 24, 2009 at 10:06 am
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Steve is a very interesting fellow indeed! Great article. I am definitely going to be visiting his blog on a regular basis from now on as it is chock-full-of-gold for transit geeks like myself!
Jonathan / August 24, 2009 at 10:29 am
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"BTW, I don't drive either, and I never found it difficult to get to Eglinton from downtown or vice versa. Even if we forget about cycling, it's got three subway stops. And god know how many bus routes cross it. Heck, I consider it a relatively short *walk* from St. Clair, which Munro claims is not too far away from him."

I sympathize with Mr. Munro about Eglinton being far away, though the opposite way for me. I live near Bayview and Eglinton. Getting to Danforth by TTC is a pain and does take a long time. This is primarily because of the Don Valley's geography, but the routes that do go across through Leaside and East York are slow and infrequent. Having to go 20 minutes west to the subway so that I can travel east is not a great use of my time!
Jonathan / August 24, 2009 at 10:36 am
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Also, that article you linked to about Jones Ave is interesting... I've never seen a neighbourhood website that goes out of it's way to trash one of it's streets in every way possible. The buildings are ugly, the people don't speak English, the poors will rob you, oh the horror that is Jones (even the name of the street is ridiculed).

Why am I not surprised the author thinks the only good part is the Starbucks.
Anon / August 24, 2009 at 10:38 am
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"My Dad was big into trains, and that was like the essence of our family vacations"

Is it just me or was this a very oblique reference to one of the best Space Ghost episodes evar? To wit:

Zorak: ... You're not my friend.

Space Ghost: We have things in common. Er, your dad's still big into those trains, for instance?

Zorak: No.

Space Ghost: Well...what's he big into now?
Crystal Luxmore / August 24, 2009 at 10:55 am
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Steve is a talker and due to unwieldy length of the post, I had to edit our interview quite generously. As for his Toronto-centrism, he says we all stay in our neighbourhoods: just like someone from Mississauga wouldn't drive all the way downtown just to go to a good Indian spot (because they have one in their own neighbourhood), neither would he.

Anyway - for even MORE of the interview you can check my website - crystalluxmore.com. Thanks for reading.
Crystal Luxmore / August 24, 2009 at 10:56 am
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Steve is a talker and due to unwieldy length of the post, I had to edit our interview quite generously. As for his Toronto-centrism, he says we all stay in our neighbourhoods: just like someone from Mississauga wouldn't drive all the way downtown just to go to a good Indian spot (because they have one in their own neighbourhood), neither would he.

Anyway - for even MORE of the interview you can check my website - crystalluxmore.com. Thanks for reading.
gadfly / August 24, 2009 at 11:36 am
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Those who are restricted to transit use will stay in their neighborhoods - that goes without saying. I live downtown and drove up to Bolton on Thursday just to check out some abandoned bridges along the Humber. Last Monday I was in Wasaga Beach, Collingwood and had lunch up on the Bruce Trail. Try that on a streetcar!
Steve's view is quaint, indeed. Family time is better actually at the destination, rather than trying to get there. I prefer to get out and see the world - and I've lived downtown about half my adult life.
J-Fizza / August 24, 2009 at 11:47 am
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@Gadfly:

TTC planning downtown centric? Are you joking? We have 2 subway extensions the Transit City plan and at most maybe 10% of that planning will affect the downtown core. Yet the DRL which directly affects transit in the downtown core is placed on the back burner?

Downtown centric indeed.
Steve Munro / August 24, 2009 at 11:53 am
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I just had to reply to the comment about my calling Eglinton "the burbs". I said that it was a long way north for my personal geography. Other than when I visit family who live there, I have little reason to go to that part of the city, especially the newer parts well away from Yonge Street.

I know people who live in Markham, work in Scarborough and rarely come downtown. It's the same thing in reverse. People stay in the neighbourhoods they know close to home, work and their major recreations.

On the other hand, I make a point of looking at transit in the suburbs to see how it works (or doesn't), but that's different from where I go for coffee.
Bryce Lee / August 24, 2009 at 04:59 pm
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The friend who died and had numerous photographs of everything streetcar in Toronto was Bob McMann. Suspect we who were followers streetcars miss him. In the late 1960's and through the
1970's Toronto City was a happier less cosmopolitan city. I preferred it that way. People knew their place and stayed there.

Much of the positive stance Toronto has had in regard to transit
has been the result of Steve Munro pushing for change and hounding those who would not listen. He hasn't changed, even though he has lost some on top and the bushy black beard is now white. The spectacles are still there as is his stance on many issues.

Say hello to the Jane Loop sign for me Steve, the next time you
see it hanging on a certain person's wall.



Mike / August 27, 2009 at 10:47 pm
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Steve definitely includes suburban and regional needs in his transit thinking, and he urges the TTC and Metrolinx to do the same - witness the recent bus service improvements and his constant urging that we take better advantage of existing GO infrastructure.

He's forever reminding his blog commenters that not all TTC trips are from the suburbs to downtown, so we need a proper grid of reasonably fast lines to service the city properly. Hence, Transit City.
Rodney / November 26, 2009 at 01:58 pm
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A transit-guru? DON'T MAKE ME LAUGH!! Steve is just one of these so-called transit experts who thinks he knows it all when it comes to transit planning for the entire city. How can you take someone very seriously when they propose Eglinton (the east-west spine of Toronto) and the DRL should be LRTs?

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