Five Years

January 31, 2006, a new blog crawled out into the world with the prosaic name Steve Munro’s Web Site, now simply Steve Munro.

Over those five years, we have wrestled with budgets, debated the merits of LRT vs Subways (not to mention Swan Boats), talked about service quality and system management, and pondered the future of our local part of the universe, naturally the most important one.  We have even gone to the movies occasionally — apologies to readers in 2010 when I was remiss in getting out all my reviews for Hotdocs and TIFF.

There are now 1,152 articles and 20,190 comments.  We, or rather you, the readers, passed the 20k line about two weeks ago.  That’s a lot of writing and editing for me, and a lot of thought — some cogent, some funny, some, well, the less said the better — from you.

Thank you for making this site work.  Its reputation comes from being a forum where people, within reason, can talk about many aspects of transit’s future in the GTA.  I know that the comments are appreciated by a large audience of “lurkers” among the professionals and the pols out there on the Internet because of the variety of viewpoints available in one place unpolluted by comment trolls and spam.

There are days — right after the last election was one of them — when I despair that we will ever see the kind of transit system Toronto’s reputation should have brought us over past decades.  If you could build and operate service simply on reputation, Toronto would be a transit nirvana, and we might not endure unkind comparisons to so many other cities.  We can and must do better, although in an environment where saving money takes precedence over even common sense, this is a challenge.

After that despair came a renewed sense of what must be done, of the importance of keeping the discussions going, the fight for better transit alive.  Over the past months, I was heartened to read so many comments on other sites and in the media generally that reflect a stronger sense of what transit could be, of what the options are.  We won’t agree, but at least the debate is starting from a much better-informed level than it would have 10 or more years ago when a former mega-mayor claimed that “real cities don’t use streetcars”.

There’s a lot brewing in the next year, and you can read about it all (as much as I have time to write, at least) here, in these pages.

Wanna Buy a Subway?

For Sale:  One Transit System.  Slightly Used.  A Faded Beauty and a Handyman’s Special.  No reasonable offer refused.  Call Honest Rob’s Transit Hotline for details!

Adam Radwanski’s article in this morning’s Globe and Mail triggered a flood of emails between the latté-sipping chattering classes today as journalists, politicians and transit advocates tried to make sense of Mayor Ford’s scheme to upload the TTC, or at least its subway lines, to Queen’s Park.  By the end of the day, the McGuinty government had replied “no thanks” to the offer, but the issue will still get lots of debate.

I have to wonder if the Mayor has really thought through what he has proposed.  Here are a few small questions.

  • The City’s share of the operating and capital deficits for the entire TTC, including Wheel Trans, is over $1-billion.  How much of this would the province actually take over?  If Toronto wants better service — things like trains every 5 minutes at 1 am on a line carrying almost nobody — would Queen’s Park send us a bill for service in excess of their own standards?
  • If Queen’s Park got only the subway system, how would revenue for the TTC as a whole be shared?  Would the subway become a separate fare zone with its own GO-like premium fares?  Would the revenue split be skewed to make the subway “profitable” even though it depends for its huge demand on the surface feeder network?
  • If Toronto wanted a subway on Sheppard, but Queen’s Park thought that an LRT line was all the street really needed, (a) how would the City force Queen’s Park to build it and (b) would Toronto have to pay the difference in construction and operating costs for a subway?  Why should provincial planning trump local preferences when this almost never happens in any other sphere of provincial influence worth mentioning?
  • If Queen’s Park took over the bus and streetcar services, who would riders complain to about overcrowding, service quality, system cutbacks and fares?  Would Liberal ridings (at least while they’re in power) get better service than Tory and NDP ridings?  If people living in Long Branch elected a new government, would service on the Queen car improve?  (They’ve tried everything else.)
  • How much will it cost Queen’s Park to buy out objections from Hamilton, Mississauga, Ottawa and every other transit operator about an unfair subsidy by way of a Toronto upload?

Anyone who has dealt with GO Transit on a construction project, or with Metrolinx on transit financing, will know that “transparency” is not their watchword, information is difficult to come by, and future planning consists of whatever is announced in the provincial budget.  Don’t look for a politician because the board is a collection of untouchable agents of the private sector bringing their expertise to bear, don’t ya know, but certainly not interacting with the public on a day-to-day basis.

Radwanski reports that Queen’s Park wants ownership of lines it pays for to stay on its books.  At first, this looks like little more than accounting dodge — a way to show an asset to balance of the debt floated to build, say, a new subway.  However, a book asset’s real value is that it can be sold.  Remember Highway 407?  What would prevent Metrolinx from selling the Sheppard line to a private owner with no control over what the new proprietor might charge us for the use of “their” subway?  Would fares go through the roof just like highway tolls?

Selling or uploading the TTC is a hare-brained idea that does nothing to address the basic transit problems both Toronto and the GTA face.  Transit is a big, expensive business, and somebody has to pay for it.  Cook the books all you like, there is only one rider, one taxpayer, one citizenry stuck with the bills at the end of the day.

Debating who might “own” the transit system diverts attention from vital transit advocacy.  Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty should concentrate on transit plans and strategies that are achievable, and convince voters of the need for good transit funding, even if this means new sources of revenue.

Planned Service Cuts and Managed Public Consultation (Update 4)

Updated January 25 at 7:30 am:

At the TTC public consultation on January 24, officials strongly denied the claim in the Globe and Mail story quoted below that service cuts would result in job losses at the TTC.  The article was modified slightly overnight removing the reference to follow-on cuts from lost riding on routes that would remain.

The bulk of the additional staffing is at the Toronto Transit Commission, which is adding 376 jobs for capital projects such as a major rebuild of the bus fleet, and 221 jobs for operations, including more drivers to accommodate skyrocketing ridership.

That number will go up if Mr. Ford can’t persuade council to reduce hours on 48 little-used bus routes, a proposal that is supposed to save the equivalent of 87 drivers’ positions.

TTC management continues to plan for service increases addressing growing demand on the system in fall 2011.

Many attending the TTC’s consultation meeting were annoyed at the format where TTC staff approached the issue as one where people needed to be told what their alternative routes for travel might be.  The opportunity for concerted public outrage was, by this tactic, short-circuited — good for the staff and politicians, but less than satisfying for TTC riders who wanted to demand answers, not be placated.

The displays of each affected route showed the numbers of riders affected by each change, but notably they did not show the riders/vehicle hour values which, in some cases, crests the 15/hour screenline the TTC arbitrarily chose for this exercise.

Moreover, maps of overlapping routes were distant from each other so that the combined effect of removing several lines was not immediately obvious.

Later in the evening, I appeared on Goldhawk Live to discuss the proposed cuts.  Former TTC Vice-Chair Joe Mihevc was also on the show, but nobody from the current TTC Commission would come on the program.  Only three of the Commissioners were at the Metro Hall meeting.  As for the other six, they were, one assumes, too busy to appear on this popular public affairs program.

Updated January 24 at 4:45 pm:

Kelly Grant reports in the Globe & Mail about the staffing effects of the TTC’s budget.

The bulk of the staff increase for day-to-day operations come from the TTC, which proposes adding 221 total positions at a cost of just over $20-million, most for extra drivers to accommodate skyrocketing ridership.

The transit agency expects to axe 116 drivers jobs by shrinking hours on 48 little-used bus routes – 87 jobs for the route reductions and the equivalent of 29 jobs to reflect presumed decreased ridership on surviving hours on those lines – but it proposes adding 337 positions.

Of the additional jobs, 252 are operators, 41 are for training, technology and maintenance and 35 are for station managers and other customer-service enhancements.

The 221 positions mentioned above were listed in the presentation to the Commission of the TTC’s Operating Budget (table, page 8).  This is the net change in approved staffing, and it includes many operators for extra services.  There is no reference to the 116 positions, and this would, in any event, be a temporary situation if the equivalent service were to be restored elsewhere in the system in the fall.

The interesting part is the reference to presumed decrease in riding on the affected routes during “surviving hours”.  This confirms that the TTC acknowledges that when service is cut for part of the day, it can affect riding at other times.  Moreover, this implies that service at these times might be cut if riding drops enough.  This is precisely how the death spiral of a transit system begins.

We can pretend that it doesn’t matter because the affected routes are small and unimportant, and most of the cuts are late on Sundays when we should all be home in bed.  The real world doesn’t work that way.

Updated January 24 at 12:15 pm:

A detailed review of each proposed cut has been added to this post as a separate file.  If cuts are to be made, some are more obvious candidates than others.  Although the TTC claims that all of the proposals received careful evaluation, I find this hard to believe, and some of these definitely need review.  There are also cases where route and/or schedule restructuring may improve the situation without disservicing riders.  This is the sort of analysis one would expect from the TTC, but which the haste and political pressure of the moment have prevented.

2011.01.24 Why Are You Losing Your Bus

Updated January 24 at 8:45 am:

This morning, I was on CBC’s Metro Morning talking about the proposed cuts to many routes, and this interview was followed by one with TTC Chair Karen Stintz.

The podcast is now available online (11:15 am).

I talked about the TTC balancing its budget with service cuts and asked what they would do in 2012, but oddly enough Stintz replied that the cuts are not a budgetary tactic.  They are a reinvestment of resources where ridership actually is.  Two years after their implementation, the new services have not proved themselves, and the money is going elsewhere.  Riders will have, generally, a five minute walk to a nearby route.

This is all very well, but if we start talking about increasing walks for riders in areas with low demand and infrequent service, we will see the network gradually disappear.  Also, just because another route is five minutes away doesn’t mean that it is actually useful to a would-be rider.  The TTC has estimated that it will lose only one in five of the existing users of the services that would disappear, on average, although the percentages vary considerably from a low of 8% to a high of 62%.

Going in to the studio, I took the 5:15 King car from Broadview Station, and over the trip south and west to John Street, it handled 19 passengers, me included.  The peak load on the car was 12.  I am quite sure someone might suggest that a car every 15 minute is excessive and the TTC could make do with less service to be “more efficient”.  However, if that car ran every half hour, I wouldn’t bother waiting for it unless I was really a captive rider.

That’s the problem with “efficiency”: it’s easy to point to a half-empty bus or streetcar and say “get rid of it”, but that’s the path to dismal transit service, “service” in name only.  This year, we will cut 20% of the bus service on Sundays after 10 pm.  What’s next?

If Chair Stintz wants to do something really useful, she can start a public discussion about what constitutes good service.  How often should vehicles arrive at stops?  How full should they be?  Should we demand that long routes have more riders to balance off the cost of the longer trips they take?  Should we cancel little-used express buses (even if they are a Commissioner’s pet project) so that their resources can be allocated elsewhere?  Should unused subway stations close unless they generate enough traffic?

As we head into a very difficult year for the City’s budget and transit subsidies, the important question is what service we should have.  Once that is answered, we can find ways to pay for that service.  Reluctantly, we may accept less than perfection, but will know what our goal is and what we traded off for tax cuts or subsidies elsewhere.

[The original article from January 21 follows below.]

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To Thread or Not To Thread (Updated)

Updated January 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm: By a landslide vote of 21 to 8, non-threaded comments wins.  I have a clear mandate to change things back to the era before those latte-sipping threaded comment advocates took control of this site, and I will implement the change as soon as possible.  Thanks for participating in the poll.

It is clear from the different way in which some of the mobile device interfaces work that there is an underlying ability to request comments in threaded or unthreaded format.  I will dig around in Word Press to see if this is something that can be made optional.

[Original post from January 11 below]

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The “Ooops” Factor in Planned Service Cuts (Updated)

Updated January 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm:

The table showing the route cuts linked in this article contained an error, and this has been corrected.  In the original table, I calculated the imputed cost/hour and cost/passenger of the services under review by dividing the annual vehicle hours saved and passengers affected into $7-million.  However, that saving would only have taken place over 9 months, and its annual value would have been about $9.33m.

Therefore, the imputed values, corrected for full-year savings, are $70.74 per vehicle hour and $7.16 per rider.  Some reports have claimed that the current subsidies are $30/rider, and this is not borne out by the TTC’s own numbers.  The actual values will vary from route to route and day to day, but the average is about 1/4 of this claimed value.  Indeed few of the services up for cancellation reach the $30/rider subsidy level as is evident on the updated and expanded spreadsheet.

The link to the table is reproduced here for convenience.

2011.03 Route Cuts Analyzed

In other news, I have now learned that the service improvements implemented in January 2011 are to be funded out of the savings from the late night cuts.  These improvements have an annual cost of about $4m, leaving only $3m for fall 2011.  However, about $1m will be lost to the delayed implementation of the cuts, leaving only about $2m for service additions in late 2011.

Updated January 13, 2011 at 3:05 pm:

Maps added:

Map of routes facing proposed cuts

Map of routes with proposed additional service (Fall 2011)

It is worth noting that some routes appear on both maps indicating that they have a proposed service cut in one period to pay for an improvement in another, although we don’t know exactly what that may be yet.

[The original article follows below.]

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Not Quite Greased Lightning: GO Transit to Electrify, Eventually

Today, Metrolinx released its long-awaited study of GO Transit electrification.  I will comment on this in more detail over the next day or so, but here are preliminary observations while the news is fresh.

Updated 4:30 pm: The study appendices are now available online.  I have not incorporated any information from them in the article below.

The study finds that electrification is a worthwhile venture on selected, well-used corridors, and that it is an important foundation for the growth of GO Transit into its regional role proposed in Metrolinx’ Big Move.

The proposed staging of the electrification project (all times are estimates) is:

  • Preliminary design and Environmental Assessments (3-4 yrs)
  • Union to Pearson Airport, and Union to Mimico (Willowbrook Shops) (4-5 years)
  • Pearson Airport spur to Brampton (Mt. Pleasant) (2 years)
  • Union to Oshawa (including access to a new eastern maintenance shops) (4 years)
  • Mimico to Oakville (2 years)
  • Oakville to Hamilton (James Street Station) (2 years)
  • Oshawa to Bowmanville (2 years)
  • Brampton to Kitchener (2-3 years)

Other corridors were studied, but the best benefit-cost ratio was found to be the combination of Georgetown and Lake Shore.  Events over the next decades may prove this to be short-sighted, but that’s today’s plan.

The implementation is rather leisurely, and if all of its phases take place sequentially, it will be the early 2030s before this scheme is completed.  The Environmental Assessments will use the expedited process most recently seen on the Transit City projects.  This will avoid the need for “alternatives analysis” on projects where the alignment and technology selections are a foregone conclusion, and the “terms of reference” will be much simpler than a full EA.

No individual benefit is cited for electrification, but rather the combined effect of contributions to travel time savings, operating costs, reliability, environmental concerns and long-term capacity of the GO system.

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TTC 2011 Capital Budget

TTC management unveiled its Capital Budget and 10-year forecast on January 12 with a presentation to the Commission, and followed up with a presentation at the City’s Budget Committee on January 14.

Online information about the budget is incomplete.  More troubling, however, the “Blue Books” which contain the details of all capital projects have not yet even been issued to members of the Commission, let alone Councillors or, it would appear, the City’s Budget Analyst who is supposed to digest all of this on Council’s behalf.  Full consideration of the TTC budgets was held over to January 20 by the Budget Committee to await the Analyst’s Notes.

TTC Capital Budget Report

Appendix A: Ten Year Summary

Appendix B: Sources of Funding

Appendix C: Project “Packages” For New Funding Requests

Presentation to City Budget Committee (See Pages 49-70)

Meanwhile, the TTC presented a budget with previously unknown major capital projects and additions to existing ones, but with little explanation of why they are here.

Oddly enough, the City’s Executive Committee only yesterday was in turmoil over unexpected increases in the cost of hosting the Pan Am Games due to unplanned costs for soil remediation and the fact that the project estimate was in 2008 dollars.

The TTC would do well to understand that surprises in budgeting will not be warmly greeted by the City, and moreover that they can have a compounding effect of squeezing available funding for other projects.

In this article, I will give an overview of major points in the budget along with specific comments on a few major issues.  When the “Blue Books” become available (expected later this week) and I get a chance to review the full budget, I will write on major topics such as subway fleet planning and system expansion in detail.

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TTC Operating Budget 2011 (Update 3)

This article provides additional details on the TTC’s 2011 Operating Budget including information in a presentation given at the January 12 meeting, but not available online.

Updated January 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm:

A table listing cost recoveries for Canadian transit systems has been added at the end of this article.

Updated January 15, 2011 at 10:30 am:

On January 14, the TTC made its presentation to the City’s Budget Committee.  The linked document covers all three budgets: operating, Wheel Trans and capital.

The budget information is reformatted into the standard layout for City departments and agencies starting at page 26.  A projection through 2012-13 on page 30 shows the estimated growth in revenue, expenses and subsidy requirements, and the effect of a fare freeze on total cost recovery.  (Note that the projections do not include the effect of cancelling the proposed 2011 fare increase.)

Much supporting detail that was included in the TTC’s own budget presentation on January 12 is not in this document.  The detailed presentation is still not available online.

I will comment on the Capital Budget in a separate article.

Updated January 14, 2011 at 9:45 am:

Information has been added to the “Cuts & Additions” section regarding the annual savings from proposed cuts and their value expressed on a per vehicle hour and per passenger basis.

[Original post from January 13 below]

Revenue/Cost Ratio

The TTC’s revenue/cost ratio continues to run well above that of other cities and for 2011 will be about 70%.  Farebox revenue for 2011 is budgeted to rise by about $53.5-million relative to the 2010 budget which underestimated ridership.  Actual farebox revenue for 2010 is expected to be $40m above budget and, therefore, almost 80% of the jump for 2011 is attributable to strong ridership in 2010.

Advertising revenue for 2011 is expected to rise from $15m in 2010 to $20m in 2011 as a direct result of the improving economy and stronger demand for ad space on transit vehicles.  This is an example of a revenue stream where the ebb and flow of income has a non-trivial effect on fare and subsidy debates, although it is rarely mentioned.

With a projected farebox revenue of $941.5m and expenses of $1,429.1m, the farebox will account for 65.88% of total expenses.  Other non-subsidy revenues will bring in $58.7m or 4.11% of the total.  The remaining 30.01% will come from city-funded operating subsidy.

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TTC Budget 2011: Service Cuts Definitely, Fare Increase Maybe (Update 6)

Updated January 12, 2011 at 5:30 pm: Today the TTC decided to defer the matter of the proposed service cuts to its meeting on February 2.  I will comment in more detail on both the Operating and Capital budget presentations that were made today (they are not available online).

Meanwhile, details of the service cuts are available.  A few notes about this table (which comes from the TTC):

  • Vehicle reductions:  This is the TTC’s estimate of how many vehicles will be saved, and these numbers won’t always be the same as in the table I produced because of assumptions about interlining.
  • Customers affected:  These are the people who now use the service.  Equivalent to “boardings” used in a calculation below.
  • Customers lost:  This is the TTC’s estimate of the riders who will be lost.  Generally this is much less than the number affected because the TTC assumes people will walk to another route rather than abandoning the system.
  • Boardings/service hour:  For some reason, this appears only for a subset of the cases shown, although you can calculate the values.  If the proposed cut is 2 vehicles for 3 hours, then this is 6 service hours.  Divide that into the number of people affected to get the boardings/hour.  The screenline for cuts is 15 (not 12 as previously reported) boardings/service hour.

The TTC has already noticed one “oops” — the Downsview Park bus on early Saturday evenings carries 267 riders in the three hours between 7 and 10 pm, or almost 90/hour.  Saturday daytime, it carries 176 in the 13 hours from 6 am to 7 pm, or 13.5/hour.  However, it is likely that a good deal of this riding is concentrated later in the day, and it will be easy to get over the screenline by taking this into account.

I will digest this chart with additional calculations in a post tomorrow.

The methodology has a certain prejudice depending on the type of route.  For example, very short routes tend to have a lot of turnover and rack up boardings quickly.  Long routes handle longer trips, and the resources used per boarding are proportionately greater.  This means that a long route has to have a higher average load to meet the boardings/hour criterion and escape cuts.

For routes that don’t do well, this is something of a moot point because they are never going to the cut, but this sort of systemic error in analysis becomes important if, in 2012, the bar is raised to cut more “unproductive” services.

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Service Cuts Coming in 2011? (Updated)

Updated January 6, 2011 at 7:00 pm:

CITY-TV reports that according to TTC Chair Karen Stintz, the City’s budget allocation for operating subsidy to the TTC will remain at the same level in 2011 as in 2010.  This would be an increase over actual spending in 2010 because the TTC ran a “surplus”, at least on paper.

From the Chief General Manager’s Report up to the end of October 2010 we know that the projected subsidy requirement was running about $60-million below the originally budgetted level.  Of the expected $430m subsidy, only about $370m would actually be needed.  Some of this “surplus” arises from better than expected riding and fare revenue, and partly from some operating cost savings that may not be repeatable (an unexpected dip in fuel cost, for example).

If the TTC had been required to take a 5% cut relative to budget levels, this would have meant a $21.5m cutback in subsidy, but since they actually only used $370m, they would still be ahead of the game.  Getting the whole $430m is a bonus.  However, the total TTC budget is about $1.37-billion, and a 5% increase would not be unexpected given the combined effect of wage, service and materials increases.  That would eat up roughly $64-million.

Stintz confirmed that there will be some service cuts in 2011.  One important budget pressure is the “Customer Service” file which will trigger new spending in many areas.  This is a challenge for the TTC and a delicate balancing act — if service gets worse, it will be hard to deliver that service with a smile.

The bigger challenge for the TTC and for Council is the multi-year view of budgets.  There won’t be a big “surplus” (actually underspending relative to budget) in coming years, and real dollars will have to be found either on the revenue or expense side of the ledger.  Council is supposed to be moving to multi-year budgeting, but there is not yet anything definitive on this nor on the effect for medium range transit policies.

As I write this, a special TTC meeting to deal with budget matters is rumoured for next week, but it has not yet been publicly announced.  The City Budget Launch meeting on Monday, January 10 may provide more details.

The original article from December 23, 2010, follows below.

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