The TTC’s Visitor Centre (Updated)

Updated August 25 at 6:15 pm:

The function of a Transit Visitor Centre really needs to be understood.  A “museum” and a “visitor centre” are not the same thing.  The recent Customer Service report suggests that the TTC place information kiosks in major subway stations.  Putting info where there are actually people may be a radical concept, but it is clearly the approach needed to make “information” broadly available.  A tourist should not have to travel to Yonge & York Mills for info about how to get around the city.

There is a parallel desire for a “Museum of Toronto”.  While that project, too, may be hobbled by a lack of funding and political interest, that’s the place any exhibits looking at the TTC’s history and role in city development should go.

A major concern with the museum is the availability of space.  However, the proposed design consumes a considerable amount with static vehicle displays (although one of these is used for a theatre) and creates design problems for the new Head Office due to structural loads.  An alternative location was rejected as having insufficient space (not to mention higher cost), but the new design promptly eats up space for vehicles that might otherwise not be needed.

When Council approved exploration of this project, it approved less than $100K to finance the work.  However, the TTC actually spent about four times as much, and is now shuffling money between accounts to cover the shortfall.  This is an example of the kind of budgetary sleight-of-hand that a proposal now before Council seeks to end.

The museum as a project needs to stand on its own merits and be seen in the context of a wider museum of Toronto.  It is unclear why this project should be entirely financed by donations when other City museums receive municipal support.  That’s only a ruse to allow this project to continue without attracting attention to funding needs.

My original post on this issue from August 23 follows the break.

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Service, Courtesy, Safety (Part I)

Since 1954, the coat of arms of the Toronto Transit Commission has proclaimed the slogan “Service Courtesy Safety”.  After the Russell Hill subway crash in 1995, safety and maintenance quality zoomed to the front of the pack.  Years of neglect, of saying “we can get by” on inadequate budgets, finally took their toll.

Much work has been done to restore a safety culture at the TTC, to the point where other important aspects of the operation were eclipsed.

The TTC hasn’t had the best of times.  Although last year’s civic workers strike was not a TTC affair, any municipal strike reminds voters of past job actions by transit workers.  By late 2009. the media were in a feeding frenzy looking for any stories to discredit the Miller/Giambrone administration.  The “sleeping collector” fell right into their laps, and became the lighting rod for a host of complaints about the TTC, its employees and its service.

In March 2010, the TTC created an independent “Customer Service Advisory Panel” to examine a range of issues, and that panel reported yesterday, August 23.  The full report is available online.

Reading through it, I was struck by many quite reasonable items, but also by a sense that parts of the document were an attempt at face saving.  Too many recommendations place the responsibility for change at the front line employee or even at the customer without acknowledging that the best employee cannot do a good job without proper support from the organization.  Management must not regard good service (in many senses of that word) as something they can’t afford.  Departments must not assume that “it’s someone else’s job” to deal with problems, or defend their turf against others while failing to provide good service.

To give TTC management credit, statements by Chief General Manager Gary Webster at the press conference, the Commission meeting and on an interview with CBC Radio were open in accepting the need for organizational change.  Yes, there are some proposals with significant costs attached, but many structural and procedural problems require only the will to change how the TTC does business.

Early in the report, the panel tells us:

[W]e were pleasantly surprised to learn that all of the TTC stakeholders are passionate about their transit system. Everyone, from employees to management to customers, truly wants a TTC of which they can be proud.  [p 2]

This should not be a surprise.  The TTC was once (as they so often told us) the envy of transit systems world-wide, a system of which the city could justifiably be proud.  But that was a long time ago.  Years of mutual back-patting among the TTC brotherhood coupled with declining financial support from governments of all parties were a poisonous combination.

If you’re perfect, it’s hard to admit that some of the lights are burned out, that the stations are getting dirty, that the trains are not maintained to quite the standards of “the old days”.  If you’re perfect, then your customer service must be ideal, a sterling example for others to follow.  Pride in the system was replaced with self-congratulation, with a view bounded by the mirror on the wall.

That desire for pride is worth remembering through the entire process.  We want to believe in the TTC, we want to show our friends (even those who think that the only way to get around is in a car) how good transit can be, we want people to say “have you heard what Toronto is doing”.  We don’t want excuses.

Another surprise for the panel was the rider expectations for TTC frontline staff:

Operators are expected to act as a tour guide, policy enforcer, fare collector, and custodian, while providing information, directions, and special assistance. All of this and much more is expected while, at the same time, they are to operate the vehicle in a safe manner – Paying attention to the road at all times, adhere to the speed limit despite a tight schedule, and practice defensive driving. And, above all, they must ensure that passengers arrive at their final destination safe, and on time. [pp 2-3]

This is a surprise? The next paragraph gives a troubling clue about the underlying thoughts:

[I]t is apparent that customers do not often consider the complexity of the huge system that operates in the background, day in and day out, to keep the TTC running. [p 3]

Yes, the TTC is large and complex, but it is by no means the largest system on the planet.  Many of them recognize the importance of good customer service despite their huge size.  They don’t depend on customers cutting them slack because the transit system is so large.  If anything, a big system should have a benefit of scale, of experience with complexity and change, that a small system might not encounter often.

Unfortunately, all the customers see is that the bus is late, or the operator did not effectively answer their questions. [p 3]

Exactly.  It is the view from the customer that’s important.  A guest in a hotel does not want to hear about the problems of repairing centuries-old plumbing, or of cooking huge dinner banquets, or of co-ordinating the unseen army of staff who keep the place running.  They want a clean, well-maintained room, elevators that work and service that is almost magically there without being asked for.

The report’s 78 recommendations are divided into eight groups.  A review of each of the 78 is not required to establish patterns, to see the underlying philosophy.

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Regular Service Will Resume Shortly

For all of my regular readers who probably wonder why the flow of posts has dribbled to a trickle …

A combination of factors including a comparative dearth of news, the heat, a few short vacations and family issues have kept me from working as hard and regularly on this site as I prefer to.

In the pipeline are:

  • A review of plans for waterfront transit from the Don to the Western Waterfront.
  • A review (yes, finally) of Metrolinx’ Benefits Case Analsis methodology.  With the pending rework of “The Big Move” and the likelihood that many will seek justification for building or ignoring various transit proposals, any so-called methodology needs to be rigourous, defensible and well-understood.  The BCAs fail on at least two of these counts.
  • A review of the Customer Service Panel’s recommendations.
  • A recap of the TTC meeting scheduled for August 24.
  • A review of streetcar operations on Spadina for February, and for the full-length St. Clair route for July.  Both of these routes use reserved lanes, and the GPS-based data make detailed analysis much easier and revealing.
  • Later this fall, I will turn to the Carlton and Dundas routes, the only two for which I have not published operational reviews.

There is also, of course, the small matter of the coming election.

City Council Plans Improved Control Over TTC Budgets

The TTC’s operating and capital budgets are a major part of the City of Toronto’s overall budget, and a considerable amount of TTC spending is provided directly by Council.

In 2010, the operating subsidy will be paid entirely by the City with no contribution from Queen’s Park.  This subsidy will be about $420-million, and in the absence of a fare increase, this will rise to $500-million in 2011.  The final 2010 figure will not be known until the year-long effects of ridership growth and the 2010 fare increase are clear.  Notwithstanding repeated statements from Queen’s Park and various mayoral candidates, no operating subsidy flows to the TTC from the Province.

The capital budget is complex because there are many sources of subsidy.  Some of these are project-specific such as the contributions by Ottawa, Queen’s Park and York Region to the Spadina Subway Extension.  Others are intended to support a specific class of project such as security upgrades or vehicle replacements.  Still others are not earmarked, and these sources fund projects as needed.

In 2009, the capital subsidies totalled $742-million.  Of this, $333-million came from the City, $195-million from Queen’s Park and $208-million from Ottawa.  The remaining $6-million came from other sources such as Waterfront Toronto.  Gas tax revenues from Ottawa and Queen’s Park amounted to about $320-million in 2009, and of this, slightly more than half of the Provincial money was used as an operating subsidy.  In 2010, all of the gas taxes are going to the Capital Budget.  (For details on subsidy arrangements, please refer to the TTC Financial Statements for 2009.)

Whatever is left over after all of the external subsidies is funded by the City.  These monies are raised partly from debt and partly as “capital from current” in the City’s operating budget.

A critical problem going forward in capital planning for the City is that various funding programs at both senior levels are drying up, and Toronto will be left with only gas taxes and the cost sharing on Metrolinx projects.  This leaves the City open to a greater call for TTC capital in future years, a problem compounded by the growth in planned capital spending.  Recent announcements of Provincial funding for transit network expansion contribute nothing to ongoing capital requirements for system renewal.

In this context, proper control and oversight by the City over TTC budgeting is essential.  However, the TTC has a long history of operating as an independent agency managing its own accounts.  This may have been acceptable before the City was the TTC’s primary funder, but not today, especially considering the effect of unexpected changes in TTC financial results and requirements on the City’s books.

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Smart Card Wars (Part IV, Updated)

The Star reports that the Ontario NDP has asked the Provincial Auditor to review the contract with Accenture for the development of the Presto smart card system.  An explanation of the background for this request is on the NDP’s website, and it goes into details of past contracts between Ontario and Accenture.

John Lorinc reports in the Globe that a system to be developed for Vancouver will use similar technology to that proposed by the TTC for its own smart card system, and come in at a fraction of the expected price for Presto.

Updated: Royson James weighs in on smart cards in the Star, and John Lorinc has an article on spacing.

In the case of the NDP request, the scope should look more widely than just Accenture which provides system development and operation.  However, some of the capital and ongoing staffing costs for the Presto project are carried in other budgets.  Any review needs to look at the whole picture, not just one contract.

Comparisons with Vancouver will be intriguing, but it will likewise be necessary to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison.  For example, the new system is to be implemented as part of a conversion of the Skytrain rapid transit stations from their current barrier-free design to use turnstiles.  This is intended to reduce fare evasion.  One big cost in Toronto is  for providing existing turnstiles with power and network links to handle Presto.  It is entirely possible that some components of the Toronto smart card budget will be covered by Vancouver’s turnstile retrofit budget.  (Similar burying of costs in multiple accounts occurs quite commonly in TTC budgets, notably for subway station renovations.)

Presto needs to be held to account for what it has produced and the expected cost of system expansion.  The fog of “commercial confidentiality” used, for example, to prevent revelation of the cost of a new city’s rollout (Ottawa) means that we have no way predict long term spending requirements, or to compare these with projects in other cities.

Ontario has just, thankfully, ended its relationship with SNC Lavalin for the Air Rail Link to Pearson Airport, and with this change we should have greater transparency and accountability for the project.

The same openness must apply to Presto.  If it is a demonstrably good and competitive system, then show us.

Paying the Piper (3)

Recently, I commented on the gathering held by the Toronto City Summit Alliance at which Metrolinx’ President/CEO (soon to be Chair) Rob Prichard posed a series of questions about funding of transit construction and operations.

Subsequently, as an attendee, I was asked to respond to these questions online.  Why write something for such limited distribution, I thought.  Here are the eight questions and my answers, updated a bit from the “official” version I left of the consultant’s website.

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