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.
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.
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.