David Soknacki’s Valediction

In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeff Gray brings us farewell musings by the former City Budget Chief, ex-Councillor David Soknacki.  It starts off with comments about the TTC’s unwillingness to market itself, but goes on to meatier issues of property development, splitting up the TTC and private sector involvement.

First off, a few comments about marketing.  Many have written about the TTC’s lacklustre graphics and the fact that such hits as the subway station buttons and the Warm Soupy Butt subway map were not exactly a TTC invention.  But pace my friends over at spacing, we are not going to solve the TTC’s problems with a trinkets for the tourists.

What the buttons and the TTC’s heavyhanded response to the anagram map show us is an organization that has no sense of humour, and certainly little pride in the system.  Paranoia about copyright infringement takes priority over a celebration of a hilarious adaptation of the subway map.  We see a hypersensitive organization that knows the days of sparkling clean stations and vehicles, of good service marvelled at by other cities, are decades in the past.

So what would our former Budget Chief do about this?

First, he would take apart the TTC into separate agencies to run different parts of the system as happened in London, England.  We could have a separate subway, bus and streetcar company, for example. 

Sorry, David, but that way lies disaster as many in London have found.  The separate agencies get in each other’s way, and some of the screwups with subway operations can be traced to competing priorities between the company operating the trains and the company maintaining the tracks. 

Indeed, in London, the stiff penalties for non-performance in the public-private partnership contracts actually worked against the provision of good, reliable service.  Try telling someone waiting in the cold for the Queen car that the contractor who runs it will be penalized for poor service.  That penalty will only yield further cutbacks, not better service, and that’s exactly what has happened with public sector funding constraints.

The TTC has long been an integrated operation and splitting it up would, if anything, trigger greater complexity in the bureaucracy as each branch duplicated formerly shared services.  Soknacki thinks that a regional body could encourage innovation among a bunch of smaller operating companies. 

This is highly amusing considering that the entire thrust of provincial policy has been to amalgamate services across large regions.  A large co-ordinating agency will, if anything, decrease innovation by forcing everyone into a common, suburban-dominated model of what good transit and transportation planning should be.

Soknacki, like others including, recently, Chairman Adam Giambrone, talks about how the TTC could raise capital by undertaking joint developments at subway stations.  Please, Mr. Soknacki, do not insult our intelligence.  Property at subway stations is controlled by the City, not by the TTC, and has been ever since the former Metro Council took control of the Commission away from “citizen” Commissioners so that development schemes would be open to public scrutiny and review.

Moreover, planning has been underway for years for developments at Kipling, Islington, Victoria Park, Warden, Eglinton and Sheppard stations.  There may be organizational foot-dragging between both the TTC and the City, but the work has advanced to the point where there is a development proposal for the Islington Station lands.  If anything, that scheme may fall apart because it depends on relocating GO and Mississauga Transit operations to Kipling into a new terminal to be paid for by someone other than the TTC.

Meanwhile, up on Sheppard, the idea was that development charges on new buildings would help to pay for the line.  Unfortunately, Mel Lastman arranged for his developer friends’ projects to be grandfathered so that they were not subject to that charge.  At Bayview Station, there was a huge flap with the neighbourhood and former Commissioner David Shiner accused TTC management of colluding with a developer to make provision for a new high-rise in the station structure.

People talk about developments as if they will magically pay for rapid transit construction, but this is a fallacy.  Even the Islington development will not pay the full cost of restructuring the station, let alone building it from scratch.  The real purpose of the Kipling/Islington scheme is to make the entire area more attractive as a development site and turn the Six Points back into a neighbourhood from a highway interchange.  That’s what public investment is all about — spend public funds to attract private investment and more tax revenue.

Again, looking at Sheppard, there are strong reasons why development cannot go block-by-block along the line.  One big one is the station spacing, and another is the existing low-rise communities that don’t feel like being redeveloped.

Developments on public land can pay part of the cost of transit construction, but they will never pay the whole shot let alone provide enough riders to justify a new subway line. 

A few days ago, I published a table showing the level of service on the streetcar system from 1954 to 2006.  The Bloor-Danforth streetcar operated 84 cars per hour past Yonge Street in two-car trains, a design capacity of 6,300 passengers per hour each way.  Crush loads would push this over 8,000.  Meanwhile, parallel services on the Harbord and Carlton routes added another 4,000+ per hour, while streetcars on Dundas, Bathurst and King carried many riders into downtown from areas that now feed the subway.

That’s what we mean when we talk about building rapid transit where there is a demand.  No amount of tinkering with development proposals or financing schemes will change the fact that most demand patterns in the suburbs cannot sustain subway capital and operating costs.

I have a backlog of comments from readers about how the TTC stacks up financially, and will continue this thread in another post later this week.

4 thoughts on “David Soknacki’s Valediction

  1. Maybe the TTC as a whole should be run by a private not-for-profit entity, similar to the way the Greater Toronto Airports Authority runs Pearson.

    How else are they going to get rid of that backward fossil-like mentality at the TTC?

    If that entity consisted of two divisions, subway, and surface, I’m sure improvements could be made.  It can’t get any worse than it is now.

    Steve:  The attitude is one of corporate culture.  It doesn’t matter what agency runs it, if the same people are responsible for setting that culture, you will get the same result.

    Also, the Airport Authority is no sterling example.  The new terminals were very expensive, and Pearson Airport is one of the most expensive, based on landing charges, in the world to the extent that there have been concerns about it becoming uncompetitive.

    A surface-subway split really does not address the problem of an entrenched subway-building mentality.  A large contingent of staff and contract designers is sustained by construction projects, the larger, the better.  All over North America, the late 20th-century funding model turned transit agencies into construction companies because that’s where the money was.  Toronto was no different, and in the process we forgot that the primary reason for a transit system is to move people, not to employ engineers and construction workers.

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  2. Why does the city not subsidize the TTC?

    The TTC is a public utility, that option should be available to the TTC.  The province [BC] subsidizes Translink and Calgary subsidizes Calgary Transit.

    Steve:  The City does provide a subsidy, but the combined Ontario and Toronto subsidies have not kept pace with inflation or demands for additional service and vehicles.

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  3. I know the London model is no panacea, but closer to home, doesn’t the Translink system in BC work quite well?  I believe it splits up services with an umbrella planning structure.

    Steve:  The big difference in Vancouver is that the separate operations never were a single unified structure, and so there was nothing to take apart.  Also, Vancouver still has the advantage that the City of Vancouver is relatively compact and is still the major population centre in the region.  In Toronto we have huge sprawl and a population that has never known what transit could do.  This has a big impact on the expectations people have for any regional system. 

    What about toying some governance tweaks such as the possibility of putting some non-City councillor reps on the board for some new perspectives/ideas?

    Steve:  I don’t know how to put this delicately.  “Citizen” appointees are only as good as the government that appoints them.  Right now, we have the benevolent Mayor Miller, but just imagine the damage that could be done by appointees of someone like Mel Lastman and his cronies.  Even “experts” can tailor their opinions and positions to suit the wishes of their sponsors.  I would rather take the politicians first hand and hope for the best.

    Also, the big problems with the TTC have to do with planning and finance, both of which are going to be decided at Council anyhow.  A citizen-led TTC board could do all it wants, but if the City and Queen’s Park won’t pay for it, nothing happens. 

    I also think there would be value in doing an international benchmarking exercise every couple years — transit systems in Europe (especially Germany) are light years ahead of us on service.  I understand Hong Kong has a privately operated transit system that offers great service.  Don’t know if these would work in Toronto but it never hurts to look at new ideas within their context.

    Steve:  Definitely, we should be looking at other cities if only to dispel the idea that transit is limited in what it can achieve.  All the same, there is a deeply embedded culture in Toronto (not just in the TTC staff) that all those successes in Europe won’t work here because the cities and the socio-political climates are so different.  Again, the huge difference is that European systems are regarded as an essential part of cities, and they are not afraid to give them real priority both in road space and in funding. 

    As for HK, running a transit system in such a densely populated city is a sure fire money-maker regardless of who owns the system.  I don’t see private companies lining up to run suburban bus lines in the GTA unless they get a fat subsidy and lots of guarantees from the sponsoring municipalities.  If, for example, Viva had to pay its own way, all those empty buses I see every time I’m at Don Mills Station would vanish.

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  4. The minute a cities/countries infrastructure is left outside of government control, all hell breaks loose. It may initially appear that healthy competition provides a better public service, but it is not to far down the line that monopolies take hold. Usually in small areas, increasing to whole cities. We have seen this happen in the UK. Beware of infrastructure in the hands of commerce.

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