Margaret Wente Rides the Rocket (Updated)

Today’s Globe and Mail features an article, in the Toronto section, about Margaret Wente’s week riding the TTC.  Wente, for those of you who don’t follow that paper, has written rhapsodies to her SUV, to the joy of driving the most environmentally unfriendly car in the city, rather than taking the TTC to work at the Globe.

For one week, she forsook her car and used the TTC (well, almost a week) and discovered how the other half lives.  In the process she made several observations that won’t be news to regular users of the system, but might actually embarrass the folks who run and fund the system for one or two moments.

Among the things she learns:

  • Taking the TTC is not the faster way, especially if you live on a route like Queen with notoriously irregular service.
  • You can’t shop ’til you drop riding the TTC because you have to carry those goodies home with you (not to mention into and out of all the stores where you might only be browsing).
  • You do save on parking, and you do get to catch up on your reading, provided that you got a seat and brought something along to pass the time.
  • If you’re trying to go somewhere that’s not on the TTC’s high priority of places to connect, you will take forever.
  • Your car-driving friends and family will think you are mad.
  • Surface routes take you through interesting neighbourhoods you tend to ignore as a driver.
  • Transit riders are a genial bunch overall even though some people have manners and hygiene that leave something to be desired.
  • People who use transit organize their lives differently both in time and space to take into account the limitations of the transit system.  A lifestyle (including a far-flung circle of friends) that works with a car has its limitations on transit.
  • Anyone who is transit dependent has a rough time getting around with anywhere near the comfort of a car owner.

Having said all of that, I must salute Margaret Wente for not just giving up and taking a cab for some of her trips.  That’s what a lot of frustrated people downtown do because they’re not going very far and they can eat the odd cab fare when it’s necessary.  Indeed, cabs do a good business in my neighbourhood (Riverdale) cruising by TTC stops looking for riders who are giving up on the TTC, at least for this trip.

Intriguingly, Wente’s inbound trip to work is just after the morning peak — 9:10 am from the eastern part of the Beach.  Somehow, she manages to take one hour and 15 minutes to get to Spadina and Front.  She ran for the first car coming west from Neville to her stop, but it ran faster and passed her by.  That elapsed time is astounding and implies a long wait for a car.  Later in the article we can figure out that she rides straight across to Queen and Spadina rather than transferring to the King car at Broadview, something that would speed her trip.  Oh well, newbies make mistakes like that.

On a return trip later in the week, she encounters the dreaded short-turn at Woodbine Loop.  This would have been a minor inconveniece but for the fact that the through car, coming right behind the short turn, didn’t bother to wait for transferring passengers.  This marvellous state of affairs is possible thanks to the separate left-turn track eastbound at Kingston Road that allows streetcars, just like buses, to whizz past each other and ignore passengers who want to get on.

Both of these illustrate a trend I have seen far too much of lately.  On both the surface and the subway, operators care more about leaving the stop (if they stop at all) than serving the public.  Recently, I was on a subway train that was not late (it was held at dispatch points by the signals), but on three occasions, the guard closed the doors before everyone had a chance to board.  Some were caught, some were left behind.  Darn those pesky passengers for wanting to ride the system without taking time to appreciate the architectural delights of an empty station!

One side effect of Wente’s comparatively late departure to work is that the Beaches Express Bus is not running by 9:10 am.  This would take her, for a premium fare, from her home to Peter and Adelaide Streets, a short walk from the Globe’s offices.  It’s so nice to know that the TTC will run a special service for you if you live in the right part of town and are willing to pay extra for the privilege while people wanting regular bus service are told there are no buses or operators free to serve them.

Panic sets in when Wente realizes that her dinner arrangements are planned for a restaurant somewhere out in the wasteland of Eglinton Avenue.  Actually, it’s four blocks east of Eglinton West station, a location she could easily reach from the Globe via the Spadina car, the subway and a short walk or ride on the Eglinton West bus.  Instead, she opts to reschedule and they eat on Queen West. 

Had they gone to Eglinton, she probably would have made the wrong choices going home too and could have spent an eternity on various surface routes.  Even so, a trip back to the beach in the evening (and in the rain) is fraught with perils.  Ms. Wente lives right down by the water, a few blocks south of Queen, and is quite a walk from the south end of the Main bus which is infrequent at the best of times, and runs every half-hour late at night.  Taking the Bloor subway east to Main and the bus down to Queen is not really an option here.  Someone living in this part of the world will typically drive home or take a cab, if they can find one, unless the Queen car is in view and the operator swears the car will not short-turn.

Another planned trip to the burbs is dropped because the return trip will take too long.

By way of illustrating the importance of frequent service, well-grouped destinations and the benefits of not having to find and pay for parking, here are the trips I took on Saturday, October 7:

  • Broadview & Danforth to St. Lawrence Market (King car)
  • Return trip (King car)
  • Broadview & Danforth to Yonge & Wellesley (subway)
  • to Manulife Centre (on foot)
  • to Yonge north of Bloor (on foot)
  • to Danforth near Chester (subway) (two stores visited)
  • to home (on foot)
  • Broadview and Danforth to Greenwood & Dundas (subway and Greenwood bus)
  • Greenwood & Dundas to Roy Thomson Hall (walk to Queen, streetcar to Yonge, subway to St. Andrew Station)
  • RTH to home (King car)

The only service that needs careful planning is the Greenwood bus running every 20 minutes on Saturday afternoons.

I should mention that on one occasion, I was the beneficiary of an operator who waited for me to run to the stop, and on two other occasions, operators waited for elderly passengers.  There are still many fine staff at the TTC.  Sadly, people remember their negative experiences, and this is a marketing problem that won’t be cured with some spiffy ad campaign.

People trying to get around in the suburbs must wait longer for service, especially if any transferring is involved, and likely have a much more dispersed set of destinations.  Travelling by TTC would not be my first choice were I forced to live in such surroundings.  If we are going to make transit truly attractive, we need to make it convenient, frequent and reliable everywhere, not just on one or two subway lines.

Margaret Wente’s week on the TTC wasn’t entirely negative, although she is still a confirmed car driver.  This is the classic transit vs car problem:  car drivers find that the TTC is not worth the hassle and the extra time, never mind the uncertainty, or that it simply does not go where they need to be.  Only if we spend more money making transit better, not equal to the car, just better, for most of the people most of the time, will we start to win the political battles.  Alas, one of those battles is funding, and without funds for service, well you can see where that is going.

Leadership is vital in changing the way a city thinks about itself and about the services it provides.  Leadership on transit is something that has been missing-in-action on Toronto Council for the past term.  We are content to celebrate small victories, a transferrable pass, new buses (that might finally see the light of day in late 2007), but we don’t advocate for the betterment of transit for everyone.  A subway to York in 2015 is not a vision for region-wide transit, and the sooner that both Mayor Miller and Premier McGuinty start thinking in terms of networks and service rather than megaprojects, the sooner we will see real improvements.

That will take leadership.

6 thoughts on “Margaret Wente Rides the Rocket (Updated)

  1. Steve, being one who has run down the hill to Neville for the past 20+ years, I can sympathize with Ms. Wente.  We have always suffered the ‘route-end’ syndrome where we are just a turnaround(sometimes), but since the 143 began a decade or so ago, things have gone downhill.

    Apparently to provide this AM express, a streetcar or two is removed for every 143 bus so in fact we non-express users get even less service during the morning rush.

    Ms Wente. without knowing it, entered the ‘dead-zone’.  Between approx 8.50am (when 2 or 3 cars depart within minutes of each other) and 10.00am weekdays, you are lucky to get one, let alone two streetcars showing up.  At 9.10am, she probably waited a half hour or so.  The evening ‘dead-zone’ begins around 5-530pm.  Once again the wait is usually 30+ minutes and going west, the 143 buses do not pick up any passengers, they return downtown as ‘Out of Service’ (The 143’s do however, pick up local from Kingston to Neville in the PM rush, but this doesn’t help the westbound traveller.)  Oh, and during the ‘dead-zones’, the streetcars always sit in the loop for 7-10 minutes for a break, before going west.

    There is nothing more frustrating than waiting 20 minutes for a car, and then watch it take a ten minute break!

    Daytimes are also hit and miss affairs.  After lengthy gaps, 2 or sometimes 3 cars arrive within minutes of each other, take their break and then depart together.  You have to wonder if any human being is actually supervising this route!

    Evenings…regular as clockwork.  One car in the loop, waits for another to arrive..leaves.  Regular, reliable service except that after 7PM, no one rides the service (or very few).

    Have the planners actually ever ridden this route????

    Oh, another frustration.  How would you feel waiting 15 minutes for a streetcar, you see one coming, approaching Neville, finally, here it is…oh-oh, the dreaded red sign, it’s an out of service car with 2 yard guys taking it for a test drive.  This happens all day long.

    Frustated…. yes

    Steve:  This is a testimonial to rotten line management.  Any time I have looked at Queen Street in the morning rush hour, there is very little traffic congestion.  Most stores are closed, and this means there is no delivery or shopping traffic parked legally or otherwise.  Moreover, the morning service should not be a mess from six hours of mid-day traffic and screwups, and things should be in good shape.  That’s the theory.  What happens on the line clearly does not match this.

    One big problem with short turns these days (as the long layovers at Neville attest) is that even after the schedules were padded to allow for layovers or “recovery time”, cars still get short turned “on spec” even if they are only slightly late.  There is no management of their re-entry into the westbound flow, let alone any attempt to space downtown-bound service on the 501, 502 and 503 to even out loads and headways.

    The gigantic gaps of half an hour are simply unacceptable, and it is time the TTC faced up to the fact that one of its major lines is a complete mess as far as service to the Beach is concerned.  Stop carping about transit priority and start managing the service properly.

    The idea that cars were removed from the line to offset the 143 is a real joke considering that this cut affects riders on the whole line, not just the east end where riding is not at its peak anyhow.

    Occasionally, I come down to the Beach to the Fox Cinema, but try to avoid doing this in the winter given the irregular service from Neville late at night.  On paper it’s not too bad, but in practice, I sometimes wonder if there is any service on the line at all.  Route “supervision” consists of maintaining something like a regular headway at Queen and Yonge.  Those who live east of Kingston Road or west of Roncesvalles can take their chances.

    And finally, the Manager of Service Planning lives in the Beach and rides both the Queen car and the Main bus depending on where he is going to or coming from.  His department write the schedules, but is not responsible for managing the quality of service.


  2. The problem with Ms. Wente’s article, apart from her obvious classism and, let’s face it, wilfull ignorance, is her repeatedly demonstrated refusal to think in terms of a broader picture.  Her insistence on complete autonomy – being able to go where she wants to go, shop where she wants to shop, eat where she wants to eat all utilizing the least amount of time and effort possible – regardless of what negative impact this may have on others (the poor, the asthmatic, the endangered) exemplifies the defining nature of car culture.

    What is sad is that so many others think just like Wente, and a week on the TTC – whether necessitated by auto breakdown or a gimmicky newspaper story – cannot transform their perspective enough to realize it is their very greed that prevents public transit from reaching its potential as the better way.

    Steve:  Looking back at the article, I am also struck by the car-induced idea that you don’t need to know about your local neighbourhood’s services because “shopping” entails driving all over the city.  Where I live, there is a wealth of nearby stores, and in a pinch I can get to specialty shops on a short transit ride.  Yes, my local supermarket may not have everything a well-stocked house might want, but I can make a round trip there in under half an hour including the time it takes to get dressed and wait for the rather leisurely elevator service in my building.  Meanwhile, I save a fortune by not owning a car.


  3. For those who dislike Wente, I have a blog devoted to rebutting her columns at  I’ve linked to this post from there.

    Steve:  I don’t dislike Margaret Wente.  She serves a useful purpose of showing just how shallow some journalistic analysis can be.  The frightening part, and the significance for many areas of public policy, is that many people have the same view of the world and its problems.


  4. Brampton Transit had an idea on how to manage their system where bunching of buses is much more serious (There may be only 2 on the line).

    They intended to have GPS installed on all of the buses, reporting back to transit control on the exact location of the bus.  It was intended that the schedule would be modified as needed depending on the situation, connections etc.

    The operators killed the project because they considered it would deprive them of their independence.

    Steve:  This is ridiculous.  Transit systems all over the world have tracking systems for their buses, and if Brampton is using union opposition to block the project, I can’t help wondering how committed they were to it in the first place.

    For several decades, the TTC has known where all of their vehicles are, although you would never know it from the way they run the service.


  5. Ed Drass has the TTC side of the story on service gaps here:

    Besides road congestion and lack of buses, deputy general manager of surface operations Bob Boutilier, says they have 20 to 30 supervisors out on the street and 7 people in front of the computers each watching 8 or 9 routes using “old technology”.

    He also says, “I don’t like giving excuses, because there’s no reason why we can’t do a better job than what we’re doing — but certain things are out of our control.”

    Perhaps they should move the supervisors in front of the computers so they can see the big picture and invest in improving thier route monitoring software. It shouldn’t be too expensive if they can do it without updating the hardware on each bus. With the modest cost and the ridership they are losing because of bunching and shortturns, it would be worth it.

    I read that the supervisors used to work in front of a computer, but David Gunn put them on the street. Perhaps a compromise is to put them on the street with Palm-top computers connected to the TTC using Hydro’s wireless Internet.

    Steve:  Last week CBC Metro Morning ran a series of items on TTC and technology focussing on fare collection and all the money we lose via “old technology” or could gain via smart cards etc.  The whole issue of line management is a perfect example of how we don’t use technology that is sitting there for the taking (and has been for years) to properly manage the system.  Rather, we somehow think that marketing will convince people that there is really something scrumptious in that empty shop window.

    The TTC is very good at making excuses, not so goot at fixing things


  6. RE: Comments by Pan on October 8th

    That kind of attitude towards car owners (i.e. over 85% of the GTA population) is not helpful to the discussion.  The last thing we need is a “us versus them” type mentality which will get us nowhere.  People are free to choose their lifestyle however they want.  Who are we to judge them?  Making a political/ideological statement out of it is absolutely unnecessary.  There is no need to use your own sense of pride to judge others.

    I am a transit advocate myself, and I also do not own a car as I take the transit everywhere everyday and I love it.  But unlike some of the readers here, I do recognize the importance of a balanced transportation network where cars and transit should co-exist.


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