The Ashbridge Carhouse Debate

At its recent meeting, the TTC approved two reports related to the Ashbridge Maintenance and Storage Facility (MSF for short).  One dealt with the removal of contaminated soil and capping of the site at Lake Shore and Leslie, while the other addressed various requests from the City’s Budget Committee regarding site access by streetcars and possible alternative locations for vehicle storage.

The Ashbridge site selection and the proposed route connecting it to the existing streetcar system have been the subject of much debate over the past few years.  The community holds strong, if not always consistent, views on the subject, and has been generally supported by their local Councillors.  As it happens, Leslie Street is a ward boundary with Councillor Fletcher to the west and Councillor McMahon (formerly Councillor and TTC Commissioner Bussin) to the east.

Throughout the process of site selection and design, there has been a sense that “the fix was in” for the Ashbridge property, although purely from the TTC’s viewpoint, it is probably the best site.  The debate, however, isn’t going away, and there were two hours of deputations on the subject at the Commission meeting.  (These preceded the six hours we dedicated souls spent on the proposed service reallocations.)

This article is an attempt to pull together various threads of the debate and comment on them.  For the record, I was not a party to the deputations, nor was I consulted by Councillor McMahon on the details of her proposal.

The City’s website for this project contains all of the background material.

Continue reading

What Is A “Skills Based” Transit Commission?

Shortly after 10pm at the end of a marathon meeting of the Toronto Transit Commission, Chair Karen Stintz proposed the following motion which was adopted:

That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.

That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.

Regular readers here will know that I oppose removing political control over the TTC because any agency spending $2.5-billion of public money, and making decisions with policy as well as purely operational effects, needs to be accountable through the machinery of an elected Council.

With this motion, Toronto will begin the discussion of how the TTC should be governed, and I am starting this thread as a place where readers can jump into the fray.

To begin, I have concerns about the phrase “skills-based”.  What skills?  Do we want transit experts (a commodity rather thin on the ground in North America generally), business people to ride herd on budgeting and contract management, customer service gurus, technology wizards?  Don’t we already have transit management who are supposed to provide these functions for the TTC, and if not, why have those skills not be fostered and, where necessary, imported into the organization?

To what degree will these skillful Commissioners have the ability to influence or change management proposals or the day-to-day operation of the transit system?  Will they make cogent suggestions about how to keep Dufferin buses from running in packs, will they become cheerleaders for management, or will they hold that these are “operational decisions” in which the Commission (expert or otherwise) should not interfere?

The additional layer of a citizen steering committee is even more troubling.  Just how much “steering” will such a committee be allowed to do with two layers of experts on one side — the “skilled” Commission and the professional staff — and the political masters at Council and Queen’s Park on the other?  What sort of person will sit on this committee?  Will we have the usual suspects, the politicians in waiting, the lobbyists, the friends of those in power, and how will this be any more effective than members of Council?  Will “steering” consist only of broad policy matters, with decisions such as whose route gets what service left to the “skilled” folks below?  What role, other than budget approval, will Council have?

In this discussion, I would be interested in hearing of governance models elsewhere.  Some cities or countries have a very different culture of public service and the management of public agencies, a different set of citizen skills on which to draw, a stronger sense of citizen involvement and engagement by the professionals in transit agencies.  Governance models cannot be transplanted from city to city without considering the context in which they work, or don’t.

We could have widespread citizen engagement, or we could have an agency that listens to the public at best for show, if not with complete contempt.  That’s a question of the political culture of a city.  Selection of a “skilled” governance body will flow directly from a desire to have the best people running our transit system, not the best-connected.

I am often asked whether I would like to be appointed to some sort of official position related to the transit system.  Leaving aside the fact that this would compromise my ability to blog freely on a variety of subjects, there are the fundamental issues of responsibility and transparency.  The more layers we create to govern transit, the less clear we will be about who is truly responsible, about who actually makes the decisions.

After a nine-hour Commission meeting with countless deputations who were, in the end, largely ignored, I cannot help wondering just how much influence an expert board or a citizen steering committee would have in the face of political decisions about fares, service and system planning.

We have just elected a Mayor whose motto is “I have a mandate”, who does not care to consult Council or his own Transit Commission Chair, let alone an external non-elected body or even his own Transit Commission Chair.  Really big ticket items will be funded from Queen’s Park, and they are even further removed.  In the end, funding and policy priorities will be dictated at the political level and, at best, a “steering committee” can only advise.  The current TTC board’s makeup shows how skewed appointed bodies can be when there is a political imperative at work, and it’s hard to understand how we would get either citizens or experts who were independent of the current political flavour.

For a time, I sat on a Council-appointed Advisory Committee for the Union Station Revitalization project.  Despite the fact that this was during an era of supposed citizen involvement and support from Council, our Committee was repeatedly stymied by City Staff who attempted to constrain our discussions and access to information directly contravening the mandate in our Council-approved terms of reference.  Even the Mayor’s office was unable (or possibly unwilling) to overcome this problem.  I eventually resigned rather than waste my time on a sham.

This is fairly typical situation for advisory groups who are more for show than substance and confer a fig leaf of “consultation” for politicians.  Anyone who believes that a new arrangement for transit will be any better is in for a shock.  I will take elected politicians, thank you, who can be hounded by the public and the media and held to account, eventually, for what they accomplish.

If One Bus Is Good, Seven Must Be Better

Recently, I received a note from a reader about bunching on the 29 Dufferin bus.  This is one of two routes on which increased supervision has led, or so the TTC claims, to improved service (as discussed in my recent article about the Customer Service plan).

I’m wondering what TTC is doing to prevent bus bunching as this seems to be a big problem on many routes…

I wrote to TTC customer service but of course I didn’t hear back from them. I would be interested to know what measures are in place to space out the buses. It seems to me that buses are just rushing to get to the end of the line; they basically do not care if they have 2-3 buses traveling together or if the last buses have no passengers.

I took this video as an example, there are 7 buses passing Bloor stop in under 3 minutes … such a waste from TTC. Just imagine being the “lucky” one that just missed all 7 buses. How long they will need to wait for another bus?

The TTC talks a good line about service management, but a casual look at any of the routes where real-time monitoring is possible (through the open data interface to GPS vehicle data) routinely shows bunching even at 7am when there cannot possibly be “traffic congestion” effects.  Two basic questions about bunching emerge from all of the service reviews I have done:

  • Why are vehicles allowed to leave termini very close together rather than regularly spaced?
  • Why are vehicles entering service from yards or from short-turns not spaced between through runs so that even headways are provided?

This does not require millions in high technology to implement, only the will to manage the service, something the TTC once did regularly with no more than route Inspectors on the street.  With the tools now available for vehicle tracking, it should be much easier as all vehicle locations are available online.

I plan to review the Dufferin bus operations again in the Spring (my last review was published in January 2008) once the effects of winter weather are not a concern.

Short turns disrupt service near the ends of routes, and on Dufferin this can show up as poor service to Liberty Village thanks to turnbacks southbound at Dundas.  On King, short turns eastbound at Parliament and westbound at Roncesvalles deprive riders on Broadview and on Roncesvalles (which have demands to some degree independent of the route downtown) of service.

If the TTC is going to strive for having 99% of the service advertised actually on the street, it must also strive to have that service on the route, not sitting in a short turn, or running in a pack followed by a large gap.

Has TTC Management Hijacked “Customer Service”? (Updated)

At its recent marathon meeting, the TTC considered an update on the Customer Service initiative.  Thanks to two other long items (Ashbridge Carhouse and Service Cuts), the actual discussion on this report did not occur until very late in the evening.  The report on the agenda contains the following recommendations:

1. Receive the attached matrix updating the status of the recommendations contained in the Customer Service Advisory Panel report, dated August 23, 2010; and

2. Approve the creation of the Customer Service Advisory Group, to include Commissioners, outside Customer Service specialists, the Chief General Manager and appropriate staff; and

3. Endorse in principle the draft Customer Service Business Plan, as detailed in the staff presentation.

[Updated February 9, 2011 at 9:50 am]

This was amended by the Commission as follows:

i)    That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based
Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.

That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.

ii)   That the Chair of the Customer Service Sub-Committee work to establish a process for citizen representatives on the Customer Service Advisory Panel.

The first staff recommendation merely updates the Commission on the area of responsibility and status within the organization for various ways in which the TTC will seek to improve itself in response to the Customer Service Advisory Panel report.

The second recommendation is notable for the absence of one group on the recommended panel:  customers.  To her credit, Chair Karen Stintz moved an amendment to correct this.  How the representatives of customers will be selected remains to be seen.

The third recommendation is a Trojan Horse.  The Business Plan to which it refers exists only in a presentation made at a busy TTC meeting, not available for review in advance, and not published since on the TTC’s website.  (The failure to publish material of this nature is an ongoing problem with the TTC’s site as compared to the City’s site where presentations generally appear before, concurrently with or at worst shortly after the meetings at which they are seen.)

Indeed, this is not a “business plan” in the sense that it might give an overview of how the many hoped-for improvements for the TTC’s business would be implemented. Instead it is a grab-bag of projects, many of which have little to do with short-to-medium term customer service or satisfaction, or with the original Advisory Panel’s report, and a decidedly thin attention to customer-related issues.

Commissioner Minnan-Wong favoured approval of only the first two recommendations, but lost out to the Chair’s position that the whole package should go forward.  This was a mistake, and I can only hope that we are not told in a few months that the more dubious initiatives have now been “approved in principle”.

There are good points within the whole, but they are drowned by the presence of projects that have no business in this plan.  I cannot help being reminded of the perversion of the Ridership Growth Strategy (a scheme for low-cost, short-term improvements) by amendment to insert subway construction to keep management happy.

Let’s have a look under the covers at this presentation and plan.

Continue reading

For The Greater Good (Update 4)

Update 4 on February 9, 2011 at 9:30 am:

I have now received the official text of the amendments passed by the Commission to the staff recommendations:

i)    That staff review all of the routes and services prior to the implementation date to ensure that no routes were improperly assessed under this criteria.
ii)     That service re-allocations, including minor reductions and improvements, be reported to the Commission on a quarterly, or semi-annual basis, based on the service thresholds established by the Commission.
iii)    That TTC management staff be requested to report back to the Commission on the accuracy of ridership on transit routes that are affected and may qualify to have the service reinstated where the ridership trend may be justified.

Update 3 on February 5, 2011 at 10:30 am:

A section has been added at the end discussing the proportion of Ridership Growth Strategy service improvements that have not been affected by these service cuts.

It is fashionable in the current regime to knock anything done by the Miller/Giambrone administration at the TTC, of which RGS was a major initiative.  Saying that the vast majority of the proposed cuts are (or were) to services that were implemented under RGS gives the impression that RGS was a failure.  In fact, half of RGS additions to hours of service, and all of the headway improvements remain in place.  One might say that there is a mandate for the Ridership Growth Strategy.

One cannot expect a largely new Commission to be aware of these facts, but it is disappointing that TTC staff never pointed them out either in reports or in responses to questions at Commission meetings.

Update 2 on February 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm: A section has been added at the end of the article reviewing some of the planned cutbacks from the viewpoint of alternative ways to deliver service as well as the compound effect of several cuts on routes serving the same area.

Updated February 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm: A section has been added after the main article detailing the positions taken by each member of the Commission.

February 2, 2011, will be remembered as the longest TTC board meeting to date (and I have been attending since late 1972) starting at 1:00 pm and ending after 10:00 pm, but its infamy rests with the abuse suffered by the public at the hands of the Commission.

Beginning at about 4:00 pm (after a long series of public deputations and a vote on the proposed Ashbridge Maintenance and Storage Facility, about which more in a later post), the Commission began to hear deputations on the proposed service cuts.  The speakers list had 140 names when we began.  A few were added along the way, and by the end of the deps at 8:49 pm, many had given up waiting for their turn.  I will write in more detail about the type of issues raised, but the treatment the public received, especially by the Chair, Councillor Karen Stintz, deserves special mention.

Many people spoke to the hardships that cuts to their bus routes would bring, while many others spoke to the general issue that transit service should exist as a basic part of the city.  Some services won’t do well, but citizens deserved access to their homes and workplaces.

Some of the deputants took time off work to attend the meeting and speak out for transit service and most were not, like me, “professional” attendees at the TTC.  They waited a long time to speak, and those who stayed to the bitter end, waited even longer to find out if they had been heard.

Stintz agreed that, yes, service “reallocations” were the last choice in the tools available to a transit system in meeting growing demands on the system overall, but argued that what staff had recommended was “the greater good for riders”.  Those words will haunt her.  They should be posted on every service change notice at every affected bus stop.

For the greater good, you no longer will have service.

By the time she addressed her little homily to the multitude, thanking them profusely for their passion about transit, it was clear from other Commissioners’ comments that reversing any of the proposals was a lost cause.  We could have saved a great deal of time if, back at the start of the meeting, Stintz had announced that a straw poll of the Commission showed that all of the cuts would be approved, and the deputants should just leave now.

The real insult came in Stintz’ characterization of riders’ pleas as being from self-interest, from saving their own routes at the expense of riders on busier routes elsewhere.  That completely misrepresented the majority of the presentations.  Some spoke of special needs for residents in neighbourhoods.  Some spoke of safety walking late at night.  Some showed that TTC riding counts were clearly off because actual usage was higher than TTC stats claimed.

I will return to the arguments in more detail in an update to this article, but a common thread was that there was more to a transit route than the riding counts, counts that many did not believe anyhow.  Given the previous flagrant errors in the TTC’s analysis, it wasn’t a stretch to suggest that the counts were wrong too.

Stintz wished that all the riders who will benefit, eventually, from improved service could have attended to show their support.  Of course those riders at least have a bus, crowded though it may be.

A mark of a civilized city is that it looks out for everyone, not just those with power, or money, or those whose demands on the municipal infrastructure can be cheaply served.  We built the city as it is, hard-to-serve subdivisions and all, and we are stuck with the legacy of that built form.  As a city, we owe decent service to our residents all the way from the thousands on rush hour subway trains to the dozens on late night buses.

Karen Stintz prefers to set neighbour against neighbour with the strong, the numerous, getting not just all of the pie, but the crumbs too.

That’s not my Toronto.

Continue reading