Say “Presto!” and All Your Cares Will Vanish

Lately, with one announcement after another out of Queen’s Park (or is it Liberal Headquarters), I’m having a hard time deciding just what Rob MacIsaac’s job at the GTTA really is.

The push is on to make announcements now, to have photo ops now, to show caring Liberals fixing transit, environmental and traffic problems now!

Alas, the real world is not that simple.

The latest event was the unveiling of the Presto Smart Card out in Mississauga.  I am not going to duplicate a lot of good comments made by several writers on the thread at spacing wire, but the core of this debate lies the following issues:

  • The cost to implement Presto on the TTC is very large and has grown from $150- to $250-million in the past few years.  A detailed report was prepared by consultants for the TTC covering many of the issues.  The projected cost for the TTC implementation was actually cheaper, relatively speaking, than similar projects on other large transit systems.
  • The alleged reason for Presto is to allow seamless movement between many transit systems.  However, there are much more basic impediments to such movement notably the service quality (or lack of it) at boundaries, and the existence of multiple separate fares in each system.  Any fare integration that reduces costs to riders will require higher fares overall or improved operating subsidies.

The implementation to date between Missisauga, GO and TTC at selected locations is miniscule and has a tiny fraction of the technical requirements of a GTA-wide scheme.  A great photo op, but not nirvana.

Absolutely essential to any farecard implementation will be a unified fare structure.  Should we charge by distance?  Should we charge by time of day?  Should we treat one fare as a limited time pass eliminating the concept of a transfer per se?  Presto can make any of these possible, but we need to know what we want to accomplish and the potential effect on future and present riders.

The TTC has no pressing need to replace its fare collection system and is moving increasingly, for frequent users, to flat-price passes rather than charging for each trip.  Should we invest a fortune in a system to track details of passenger movements and calculate fares if a pass system (electronic or otherwise) will handle the majority of the transactions?

Some cities have used Smart Cards to replicate and expand byzantine fare structures already in place.  If anything, the GTTA is all about simplification and flattening of our fare structure.  Presto can help with this, but the important policy choices must come first.

This project has been around for quite some time as a technology looking for a problem and using the sham argument that fare collection technology is the answer to interregional transit.  This is total nonsense.  Better service, better fare structures and better subsidies (all of which are inextricably linked) come first.  How you collect the fare is a distant second.

After all, we already have the GTA pass, and that didn’t require any technology at all.  What it’s missing is the network and the service levels to make it widely attractive.

Queen’s Park may have scored a hit with MoveOntario, but Presto will do little to improve transit in the GTTA for years to come.

Kingston Road Transit Improvements EA

The draft terms of reference for the Environmental Assessment of improved transit service on Kingston Road from Victoria Park east to Eglinton are working their way through City Council approval.

One bizarre aspect of this process is that the Kingston Road study was already underway when Transit City was announced, and for some reason, no line was included on the Transit City map for this corridor.  This is rather odd considering that the proposed St. Clair extension to Jane was included in Transit City even though it is little more than an intriguing add-on to the overall St. Clair project.

Furthermore, the Kingston Road study is proceeding under the old EA process soon to be replaced by a new, streamlined “Class EA” that will be used for the Transit City studies.  Some processes, once started, are hard to stop, but it’s important after the MoveOntario announcement that the various studies now in progress for Transit City, the Waterfront and any other bits and pieces proceed as a co-ordinated effort.

The draft Terms of Reference and Supporting Documents are available online. 

GO Transit’s Addiction to Parking Lots

The GO Rail system has for years depended on parking lots small and large to bring riders to its trains.  Local bus services do some of the work, but the parking lots are the mainstay of GO ridership.

With the recent announcement of substantial increase in GO capacity and reach, especially on the Lake Shore corridor, the linkage between parking lot construction and GO rail service must be drastically reduced.  There is an upper limit to the amount of land available for parking, and huge lots poison the land around stations — natural focal points for communities — by limiting development.  I have even heard a politician complain about the opening of a GO station because of the traffic it will generate through her community enroute to the parking lot down the road.

GO has started to think about developing the land around its stations, but this is still in the context of even more parking.  Garages are expensive, and GO hopes to defray this cost by including them in condo developments or office buildings.  This is a very short-sighted view.

A major gap in MoveOntario is the absence of funding for local transit operations, especially lines that will feed new and expanded regional services.  Many families cannot afford to have enough cars that each person can drive to the GO station as and when they need to use the service.  GO’s ridership is already at a level where they cannot provide parking for everyone, and even before MoveOntario was announced demand was expected to double over the next 20 years.

Today, I learned that about one third of the riders boarding at Oakville Station come by transit.  The rest drive in either to park or be dropped off.  As the Lake Shore line becomes a frequent, all-day service, accessing GO by car will not be a realistic way to travel because the lot will be full early in the morning.

MoveOntario forces all of the GTTA to change the way it thinks about transit both regionally and locally, although I’m not sure Dalton McGuinty’s advisors thought that far down the road when they cooked up this scheme.

GO must break its dependence on parking if it is to grow out of its role as a peak-period commuter network, and the local systems must expand to complement the regional improvements.  I am not saying we should close GO parking lots, but we have to think hard about stopping expansion plans, especially on heavy routes with present or soon-to-come all-day service.

My New Streetcar [Updated]

This has already been covered in other blogs such as spacing and Transit Toronto, but there are a few observations I want to add to others’ comments.

The TTC launched their public consultation for a new streetcar design (stop already folks — I know it’s a “Light Rail Vehicle”, but real people out there call them “streetcars”) at the last TTC meeting.  Information flyers appeared on TTC vehicles and a website sprang to life.  This is an excellent example of the sort of co-ordinated announcement that is possible when an organization actually thinks about getting its message out.

The TTC wants to show people examples of modern car designs and ask their input on what’s important for the fleet that will serve Toronto for many decades to come.  Bombardier has a partial Minneapolis car in town that will be on view at Dundas Square on Thursday, June 28 from noon to 8:00 pm.

Other public sessions (at this point it is uncertain whether the demo car will be on site) will be held at Finch Station (June 25), Scarborough Town Centre (June 26) and the Albion Centre (June 27).

[James Bow has advised that the mockup car will only be at Dundas Square, not the other locations.]

As someone who works at STC, I will be thrilled to see a display of possible new streetcars just outside the door (I can see the existing ones at Broadview Station from my living room), but it will be bittersweet.

The SRT line was supposed to be an LRT line originally and parts of it were engineered for that technology — the loop and the original low platform at Kennedy — and the signs at Kennedy even had LRT pictographs on them on opening day.  Instead we got an expensive orphan technology, and the planned extension to Malvern was never built.

The TTC studied the question of replacing the RT with LRT and their consultant, Richard Soberman, was clearly leaning to that conclusion at the public meetings.  Then something changed, and the idea of LRT conversion was presented in as negative light as possible.  With the recent funding change relieving the City of responsibility for capital spending on major lines like this, the decision on technology really is out of the City’s hands.  Nominally, it’s the GTTA’s decision, but I fear that the need to prop up the reputation of the technology will trump any other issues.

On Tuesday the 25th, we will have the irony of a display about new streetcars at a location they will never serve.

Stand Left, Stand Right

Today’s Globe has a front page article by Jeff Gray (aka Dr. Gridlock) on the subject of escalator safety.

Some months ago, the TTC’s “Walk Left, Stand Right” signs vanished overnight from every escalator in the system.  This is an astonishing feat for an organization that can’t keep info about routes anywhere near current and depends on hand written signs to inform its patrons.

Why did the signs disappear?  Well, according to the escalator gods, people are not supposed to walk on escalators and the signs might encourage this dangerous behaviour.  It’s a safety issue, don’t you see? Continue reading

Private Sector, Maybe?

Noticeable by its absence from the grand transit funding announcement, MoveOntario, last Friday was any mention of public-private partnerships.  Making up for lost ground, Premier McGuinty was quoted in today’s Metro as saying:

There will be public ownership, and public control, and public accountability.  But in order for us to move aggressively, we will be using private sector partners — where that makes sense to do so.

Those who read this blog know that I am not a fan of PPP arrangements as they tend to overwhelmingly favour the private partner who would not undertake most risks associated with transit systems on their own.  PPPs are also notoriously difficult to manage as many in Great Britain have found.  Our own Highway 407 is a sterling example of a sweetheart deal with a private company who bought a public asset at fire-sale prices with a guarantee of constantly increasing returns whenever they decided to jack up the tolls.  A fine example of Tory stewardship of public assets.

There are various ways the private sector could be involved in MoveOntario.  Most obviously, they will do most of the design under contract to agencies like the TTC who maintain only a small inhouse engineering department, and they will do all of the construction.  Vehicles, too, will come from the private sector. 

The oft-heralded expertise of the private sector should be manifest in competitive pricing, and the ongoing series of contracts will quickly reveal those who bid low and produce shoddy, untrustworthy products.

Another area of private sector involvement lies in finance, although it’s odd to think of my pension fund (one of the large public sector employee funds) as the “private sector”.  Whether the return on “MoveOntario Bonds” will be adequate to attract investors from these funds remains to be seen.

Finally, the private sector is sometimes touted for design/build contracts with either a long term lease or operating agreement.  The argument is, in essence, that the private sector can manage the design and construction process better than the public sector and deliver a superior price/performance to us, the client.  Well, maybe.  If they skimp around the edges, this may not be visible for years after a line opens and our recourse may be limited.

I have no problem with the private sector bidding on design, construction and supply contracts for MoveOntario.  With any luck, they should make a decent profit and happily bid on more work.  However, the assets must stay in public hands.  We’re paying for them.

The GTTA Lives On The Web!!

Astounding as it may seem, the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority has finally gone live with a website.

It’s a temporary site, and they promise great things to come.  I can’t help contrasting this with the way the TTC handled both the Transit City and My New Streetcar launches with sites up and running the day each announcement came out.

Possibly we are still suffering from the cutbacks of the Harris era and the load of stone tablets didn’t make it to the GTTA offices because they were stuck in traffic.  In any event, there is some preliminary mention of the MoveOntario funding announcement although, of course, no sense of project sequence or priority because the GTTA didn’t have anything to do with putting the announcement together.

Let’s hope that the GTTA finds its way soon.