The World According to Rick Ducharme

Several articles in today’s Star deal with Rick Ducharme’s departure from the TTC and his view of the transit world in Toronto.  Although I’m already working on a post on related subjects, Rick’s comments deserve a reply now.

Transit Priority 

In Kevin McGran’s piece The car rules T.O., Ducharme talks about the difficulty of getting transit priority for surface operations.  He complains that if he were given 100 new streetcars, he would just park them (and presumably Mayor Miller’s 100 new buses too) because, without transit priority, there’s no point in running more service.

This is a self-serving attitude that infected TTC management over a decade ago — it’s not their fault the service is rotten, just blame everything on traffic congestion.  The problem is that this argument doesn’t wash when you look at the real world.

Between 1990 and 2001, service declined on the streetcar routes by 25 to 40 percent thanks mainly to budget cuts.  The claim is that service just followed demand, but in fact the actual stats show that the cuts came first.  Moreover, we are not seeing better service when demand starts to rise again because the TTC cut its fleet size to match the new, lower service level.

Next, the scheduled trip times on the streetcar routes are almost identical to those in 1990.  What has happened is that a simpler form of transit priority — green time extensions at traffic lights — offset the delays from congestion.

Frequency of service is a big issue during peak and offpeak periods, and the TTC runs just enough to get by.  I will return to this problem later.

St. Clair Project

Ducharme complains about the delays in getting the St. Clair project underway.  This was not a delay occasioned by the Commissioners or by Council, but by a neighbourhood group who sued to block the project.  Without going into the details of their position (some of which I support), there were two big problems:

  • The TTC hired consultants to run the design and public participation process who were very insensitive to neighbourhood issues.  The preliminary design for the line, posted on the project’s own website, showed extensive sidewalk cuts to accommodate road widening.  This gave the lie to the claim that this is a project to beautify St. Clair and improve its pedestrian amenities.
  • The requirements and demands of the road engineers in the Works Department trumped local desires at many turns.  This is part of a larger problem with the imposition of suburban road standards on older city neighbourhoods.  TTC management  never fight this publicly and often wind up defending the road proposals to ensure that the Works Department does not oppose transit projects.

Building a Transit City & The Ridership Growth Strategy

Ducharme talks about the idea that, in our Transit City plans, we are going to build a network of similar lines similar to St. Clair.  The strange part about this is that it was Ducharme’s TTC that prevented the City of Toronto planners from including an LRT network in the new Official Plan.  The plan contains a few references to LRT, but you have to look closely.

Meanwhile, there is the saga of the Ridership Growth Strategy.  This arose from my repeated calls at TTC budget time for a report setting out what was possible to improve transit service, what it would cost, and how long it would take to implement.  The standard TTC management response to any request is “we can’t afford it” and/or “it won’t work here”.  This is not an acceptable response, but the Commissioners let management get away with it over and over again.

Then-counciller Miller moved that staff report on various options during debates on the 2001 budget.  The Commission passed his motion, but nothing happened.

Councillor Miller moved essentially the same motion in the 2002 debates, and the wheels started to turn.  The report surfaced in early 2003, just in time for Mayoral Candidate Miller to trumpet what transit could be doing.  Unfortunately, something happened along the way.

The original report did not contain any subway expansion proposals because the intention was to show what could be done in the short term with limited resources.  Subways, by definition, do not fit this scheme.  Ducharme supported the subway engineers within the TTC who brought forth a separate report on Rapid Transit Priorities including the Spadina and Sheppard extensions.  This was duly rolled into the RGS as a fourth priority — system expansion.

As a result, a plan that should have focussed our efforts on improving surface transit and making the fare system more flexible was co-opted to become an endorsement of subways.  This is Ducharme’s doing.

To be fair, I asked Howard Moscoe at the time why he supported this change of focus, and he said, in effect, don’t worry, we will never have the money to pay for it.  Well, the problem is that by stating as policy that you want to build $3-billion worth of subways, you set off the search for funding and crowd every other option off of the table.  This was a big tactical mistake by Moscoe who, at the time, was much enamoured of LRT.

Ripping Out the Streetcar Lines

Ducharme cattily observes that if we had destroyed our streetcar system, he could have come back as the great saviour and rebuilt them on private rights-of-way.  I doubt it.

The service levels provided by TTC on most routes is not at a level where you can justfy turning a street into a transit right-of-way.  Indeed, good candidates for LRT are consistently ignored by Ducharme such as Sheppard, Don Mills and the SRT replacement.

State of Good Repair

While we congratulate Ducharme for focussing on repairing and rebuilding the system we have, let’s not forget that he inherited that mantra from his predecessor, David Gunn.

Budget Advocacy

A major problem at the TTC — at both the management and the political levels — is that policy debates that should be in public are conducted in private, if they are conducted at all.  Attempts to improve transit service have consistently been shot down both by the TTC’s own finance staff and by the City’s Budget Advisory Committee.  In the former case, we don’t even know that it has happened because the budgetary decisions are taken privately.  

I understand that this year’s Service Plan has been delayed because the planners wanted to run more service that the bean counters wanted to pay for. 

This is outrageous.  If we are going to make this sort of decision, make it in public with all of the facts before the Commission and Council.  Have an “A” list of “must have” services with their associated cost, and a “B” list of “nice to haves” that would improve the experience of TTC passengers.  We don’t get this debate because TTC management precludes it, and I place this squarely at Ducharme’s feet.

What is the Commission’s Role

In case anyone thinks I have been writing a polemic against Rick Ducharme here with kudos to come for Howard Moscoe, think again.

The Commission’s role is to set policy, to direct staff on matters where there are alternatives that must be weighed at the elected, political level, and to seek advice on a range of options for the development and operation of the system.  It is not Howard Moscoe’s job to go to Wilson Yard every morning to see that the first train goes out on time.

Yes, the Commission will get involved in decisions where a policy issue is at stake — what the fare structure should be, what the standards for service quality should be, how procurement processes should be handled, where the next LRT line should be built.  But the Commission must let management do its job. 

If I have any complaint about the Commission, it is that they spend too much time sweating the details and not enough time looking at broad policy matters.  If the Commission does not understand an issue, they should ask for a report, and management should produce this information fully and fairly without prejudging the outcome.

In labour negotiations, there can only be one negotiating team.  Either it’s the management working on the basis of policy constraints laid down by the Commission (and modified as necessary during negotiations), or it’s the Commission, Council and Mayor.  A negotiating team that cannot make a “final offer” has no leverage at all.

If the Commission intends to play a larger role in TTC management, then they need to learn about the system they purport to run.  Understand how the budget works, understand what is involved in improving service, understand the nuts and bolts of the system.  If you can’t do that, then at least let the professional management do their jobs.

If you want a better system, get their advice (and maybe advice from some transit advocates while you’re at it), have the debate about where Toronto is going in public, and defend your policies at Budget Advisory Committee and Council.  If the City’s CFO doesn’t like what you are doing, tell him, thanks, but this is our decision and it’s your job to figure out how we will implement it.

That’s what really being in control means, and it’s a job the Commission and Council shirk far too often.

4 thoughts on “The World According to Rick Ducharme

  1. 1) The Commissioners’ Role:

    In some ways it is like the Board of Directors of a company (although Boards don’t have a stellar reputation based on recent events.)  A Board doesn’t run the day to day operations of a company.  The commissioners have other responsibilites too but that is more linked to their role as elected politicians.

    2) Spending to create capacity:

    Businesses make investments with the expectation of getting a return in the form of sales.  The analogy here would be for the TTC to spend money to enhance service (new routes, better offpeak service, etc.) and the return would be in the form of new riders.

    3) Who is in charge?

    The TTC is a body unlike other city departments.  It is supposed to be autonomous.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for City Council to play but it should be somewhat limited.  Also, 20% (9 of 45) of Council sits on the TTC so it is not as if it is completely on its own.

    Considering that the ridership pays most of the operating costs of transit service why should any any other city department really be that involved in transit decisions?

    4) LRTs

    Why kowtow to the Works Department?  Didn’t the city’s new official plan call for greater densities along “The Avenues” (such as St. Clair)?  Wasn’t one of the reasons to do this was to capitalize on what transit we did have?

    If you are converting from a regular streetcar line to an LRT then some compromises have to be made.  It seems as if the Works Department has the idea that it is immune from that process.  We have a number of reasonably wide arterial roads where we wouldn’t really miss a lane if it was given over to exclusive transit use.  Of course there has to be some reasonableness in design etc.  (The lack of this with regard to St. Clair has been mentioned many times on these pages.)


  2. Howard Moscoe has been passionate about transit, but he has shot himself in the foot and is now perceived to be a lame duck.  He hints that he will not be around after November, and if that is the case maybe he should go now.

    The pity of all this is that the political shenanigans and lack of direction will preclude major decisions, at a time when major decisions have to be made. It’s frustrating.

    Steve:  I am trying hard right now not to go “Quack quack!”.  Howard Moscoe with feathers.  The mind boggles!


  3. I agree that the division of responsibilities – i.e. governance vs. management needs to be re-established.  However, I don’t see it as the budget committee’s or Council’s as a whole to rubber-stamp TTC budgets.  As a general rule in all organizations, requests for capital exceed borrowing capacity.  It’s up to those asking for money to sell their ideas to those who in the end will make the decisions.

    Steve:  My concern is more that the TTC Commissioners, some of whom sit on the Budget Advisory Committee, and the Mayor who claims to be pro-transit, seem to change their tune the moment they leave Commission meetings.  They are gung-ho to support transit initiatives at the TTC, but don’t have the stomach (or the real dedication?) to fight for them.  One of Rick Ducharme’s ongoing complaints was that he was not supported by Commissioners in his attempts to get funding at Council.

    Despite your protestations to the contrary, you seem to be treating Mr. Moscoe with kid gloves.  For example, if there was a single catalyst to the law suit over the St. Clair EA, it was Mr. Moscoe’s declaration that the decision was a ‘done deal’ in advance.  Local residents I know would like to see Moscoe in feathers – with a good coating of tar underneath.

    Steve:  Yes, Howard’s insensitivity is legendary and is one of the reasons his position as chair has been difficult to say the least.  

    The sidewalk narrowing was first proposed in the TTC prelimary study (Feasibility of Reserved Streetcar Right-of-Way on St. Clair Avenue ) – as Concept #3.

    “In order to provide enough road width for the installation of landscaped medians, the road would have to be widened by removing 1.4 metres of sidewalk on each side of St. Clair Avenue … This option provides the greatest benefits to transit …”

    Steve:  Well, let’s put the responsibility where it really lies.  The actual design, one that the TTC has gone to great lengths to advocate, involves no landscaping, but the use of centre poles in the median to support the overhead.  This widens the median by 1 metre that could have been used for sidewalk space.  Why this change, considering that the overhead stays up just fine with side poles today?  Well, it allows the works department to install new, larger poles on a different spacing from those found on streetcar lines elsewhere. 

    Frankly, I don’t trust the rationales put out by the TTC for some of their designs.  We had similar problems years ago on the Spadina project, and if we are not careful, the works department will run roughshod over the eastern waterfront scheme now in early stages of the EA.

    Then there is the question of the consultant’s competence:  the original design included curb cuts where the actual location of buildings conflicts with what is proposed (they used old drawings) and there is at least one relocated farside stop that physically cannot be installed where shown on the preliminary plans.


  4. On reading the recent article in The Star about Rick Ducharme:

    His comment that the TTC “should have ripped everything out, have no streetcar lines and come and rebuild them” as did the American cities would appear to be a statement of frustration with the political system.  If by chance this had happened, the chances of replacing those lines with LRT would have been exactly equal to zero.  We would have had one large bus system with a lot fewer passengers and a lot more traffic problems.

    Now, what should have been done along with the preservation and upgrades of the streetcar system (and the trolley coach system) was the building of conventional light rail lines in the suburban areas that feed into the heavy rail systems.

    I think one would be pretty safe in saying that had Toronto phased out the streetcar system that it would not have immediately started to build light rail lines.  They don’t even have the progressive thinking to build them today.  When one sees some of the North American light rail systems, and what they carry (not as many as some of our streetcar lines), this city, and the GTA, should have numerous conventional light rail lines up and running or under construction.  But, God bless us, we are still talking about expensive subways.

    I believe that some in TTC sometimes get confused on what modern day light rail is.  Although the streetcar comes under the umbrella of the terminology of light rail and is capable of moving large numbers of people quite efficiently, it is by no means the same as some of the light rail lines that we see being built in the North America.  These systems have large cars, usually high platform loading and trains of three or four cars.  Not exactly what you would see in mixed traffic.

    At a recent EA meeting at St. Lawrence Hall for the portlands area, one of the people attending asked the TTC representative what the difference between a streetcar and a light rail vehicle was and his answer indicated that they were one in the same, but Toronto calls them streetcars. 

    Another statement was that they now make light rail cars that operate from either end (like the subway trains, it was explained) thus eliminating loops.  Wow, as if that’s a new feature. One could see them ordering cars and then finding that you need crossover points, doors on both sides and with all probabilities, a completely different overhead system.

    Steve:  Toronto’s embrace of the high tech Scarborough RT technology just at the point when it might have started to built an LRT network is one of the great tragedies of our transit system.  Couple this with management who don’t understand LRT technology and won’t look at it as a serious alternative to subway extensions, and you have a recipe for the last three decades of lost opportunity to build a serious suburban transit network. 


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