November 2011: A Month of Meetings (Updated)

Front Street Redesign

November 3, 2011 (Thursday) from 3:00 to 7:00 pm
Room 309, Metro Hall

This is the second public information centre as part of the Environmental Assessment process for the proposed redesign of Front Street between York and Bay Streets in front of Union Station.  The intent is to make the street much more pedestrian to support the very large volume of foot traffic to and from the station.

One through lane of auto traffic would be maintained in each direction (effectively what is now the case given parked cars, buses and taxis), but the lanes would be wider and would also provide space for cyclists.

This is a drop-in event, not a formal meeting.

For background information, visit the project page.

Updated November 4:  The display panels are now available online.

Ashbridges Bay Carhouse

November 9, 2011 (Wednesday) 6:30 to 8:30 pm
Toronto EMS, 895 Eastern Avenue (at Knox)

This meeting will present the landscape design for the new Maintenance and Storage Facility at Leslie and Lake Shore.  Site preparation work for the new building is already underway, but the contract for construction has not been let by the TTC.  There have been rumours that this will come before the November Commission meeting, but until we see the agenda as well as details of the 2012 Capital Budget this is still uncertain given funding constraints.

Note:  The public display of a mockup of the new TTC low-floor Light Rail Vehicles will likely occur over the weekend of November 11-14.  Further details will be posted here when they are available.

For background information, visit the project page.

Toronto Talks Mobility

The Cities Centre at the University of Toronto will host a two day forum on mobility in the GTA.  There will be two free events, but both of these require pre-registration.

November 9, 2011 (Wednesday) 7:00 to 9:00 pm
City Hall Council Chambers

November 10, 2011 (Thursday) 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
Wychwood Barns

According to the event description:

… this event is not about re-hashing the “Transit City” vs. subway discussion debate. Rather, “Toronto Talks Mobility” will examine what we do next as a region to build on progress made to date (including the Big Move) and how we can ensure long-term success. Ultimately, the event aims to kick-start a campaign to bring a broader civic voice to our transportation future.

I can understand the organizers’ reluctance to get bogged down in debating Transit City or various alternative.  However, any discussion of mobility must address the basic questions of whether we plan for networks we can afford to build, how we will pay for them (and by extension, just what “afford” means) and the tradeoffs between transit modes, speed, road space and network capacity.  This will inevitably touch on Transit City, if only as a starting point.

A “broader civic voice” is definitely required, but this requires ears willing to hear the message.  If Queen’s Park and the City of Toronto reject funding strategies that inevitably require new sources of revenue, this will be an exercise in debating the obvious to no effect.

Calling on Ottawa for new funding is a predictable, but pointless, exercise if we are not prepared to begin the work of funding transit ourselves.  We will be talking about massive network expansion at a time when day-to-day service and quality are under attack not just in Toronto but in many parts of the GTA.

Metrolinx Board Meeting

The regular meeting of the Metrolinx board will be held on Wednesday, November 23 at 8:30 am.  I will post a summary of major issues when the agenda is released.

TTC Commission Meeting

The regular meeting of the TTC will be held on Wednesday, November 23 at 1:00 pm.  I will post a summary of major issues when the agenda is released.

TTC Customer Information Town Hall

November 24, 2011 (Thursday)
City Hall Council Chambers (final details TBA)

This is planned as the first of an ongoing series of Town Hall meetings around the city for the TTC to get public input on a range of issues.  Whether we will actually get to complain about budgets and their effect on service quality remains to be seen.

Waterfront Toronto Queen’s Quay Project

Waterfront Toronto recently hired a Project Manager to oversee this project, and they plan to hold a public meeting covering the construction plans for work on the redesigned Queen’s Quay.  Details will be posted here when they are available, but the meeting is likely to be in late November.

There is also a Community Update meeting planned for the East Bayfront (Yonge Street east to about Parliament).  This is a general update regarding land developments and related projects, but there is not likely to be much info on transit as the whole question of the “Harbourfront East” LRT is hung up in funding problems at the City and TTC.

November 22, 2011 (Tuesday) 6:00 to 8:00 pm
Corus Quay (Atrium), 25 Dockside Drive

TTC Commission Meeting Wrapup for October 2011

The Toronto Transit Commission met on October 19, 2011.  With the exception of one item, it was an uneventful agenda.  This article deals only with matters where significant new information came to light beyond that reported in my initial review of the agenda.

28 Billionth Rider

In case you were wondering, the “official” 28-billionth rider chosen to mark the TTC’s 90th anniversary on September 1, 2011, was not chosen with a countdown clock, but from the pool of the TTC’s Metropass Discount Plan subscribers.  The lucky rider gets a free Metropass subscription for one year.

I did not win, although I have been using the Metropass since its inception in 1980, and became a subscriber as soon as this was possible.  By the 100th anniversary (if the TTC still exists by then), we will all be using Presto.  Sigh.

Budget and Efficiency Reviews

The Operating Budget was mentioned only in passing in the context of planned public consultation on “Customer Service”, and the service cuts for January were treated as a done deal that is not subject to discussion.  This is rather odd considering that Council has yet to finalize its budget, and “what if” questions about various funding scenarios will be an obvious part of the debate.

For example, the current TTC budget requires a 10-cent fare increase to balance the books.  What further cuts will be needed if this is not implemented?  We don’t know.  Indeed, we didn’t even know what cuts the present budget would bring until the detailed list found its way to me earlier this week.  Officially, the TTC was still working on the cuts (probably true in the strictest interpretation), but a detailed proposal had already been posted for staff information.

If a higher fare increase were implemented, what could be done with the added revenue?  This type of question, of planning, was at the heart of the Ridership Growth Strategy which, thanks to Mayor Ford, was jettisoned as an unwanted leftover of the Miller era.  With the fundamental assumption that any improvements cannot be afforded, or worse, might be “gravy” undeserved by the beneficiaries, Toronto finds itself cut off from the basic debate of the worth and quality of its services.  The present crew of TTC Commissioners colludes in this by avoiding discussion on alternative budget strategies.  “What if” is a question nobody wants to hear answered.

Meanwhile, Chair Karen Stintz focuses on “good news” stories about things the TTC did, or appeared to do, well.  She is dancing on the deck of the Titanic.

Several issues raised in the KPMG “Efficiency Reviews” are now under study by TTC management.  While many of the areas addressed here are worth studying, they represent comparatively small efficiencies and, moreover, they are one-time savings.  Improvements in the affected cost areas may be found, although some may not bear fruit until 2013.  However, an “efficiency” cannot be repeatedly applied to yield new savings year after year, and the TTC will have do deal with ridership and inflationary pressures in 2013 and beyond without the one-time reductions applied in 2012.

One large “saving” comes from the designation of the TTC’s Pension Fund Society as a “jointly sponsored” plan which does not require full solvency of future liabilities.  If the TTC had been required to fully fund the plan, this would have added $40 to $45-million annually to the Operating Budget through about 2022.  This is really only an avoided cost, not a saving against current spending.

In a separate study, the City is reviewing the consolidation of various pension plans, including the TTC’s.  The possibility of such a move and its financial implications have not yet been reported out to Council.

Wheel-Trans Operating Budget

Commissioner Cesar Palacio tabled a request that staff consider moving from the current 60/40 ratio of contracted versus TTC-provided service to a new target of 80/20.  The question of using private operators to carry more of the WT customers has come before the Commission many times before, although in this case it crept into the agenda unexpectedly with Palacio’s motion.

The fundamental problems with previous attempts at private operation of WT vans/buses has been with the quality of staff, vehicle maintenance and passenger treatment.  How this will be address in the 2013 budget cycle remains to be seen.

One point TTC management has not yet addressed is the degree to which high in-house costs are a function of poor dispatching that affects vehicle utilization and trip lengths.  A new booking system is supposed to reduce these problems, but we have yet to hear any reports on actual operational or financial benefits.

Fitness for Duty

By far the biggest issue for debate was the question of mandatory testing for drug and alcohol use by TTC staff.  The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 strongly opposes this scheme, and the matter is already in grievance proceedings and likely to wind up in the courts.  The ATU’s position is that random testing is an invasion of privacy, and that it does not fully address the problem of a driver’s ability to perform their job.

The ATU supports the implementation of non-invasive technologies to assess driver alertness that check for response times using video displays, a system already deployed in parts of the USA.  The ATU’s position is that this would monitor for all forms of fatigue including those due to tiredness or illness, not just test for the presence of drugs or alcohol.

This is not as straightforward a situation as it may appear.  For one thing, privacy and especially health privacy laws in Ontario are much more strict than south of the border.  The TTC also claims that it is interested in whether someone is impaired at the time a test is taken, not whether there is evidence of past use.

TTC Management and the Commission appear to be exploiting a recent collision between a bus and truck which caused a passenger’s death to push through the new policy.  The driver was charged with “criminal negligence causing death” and it is unclear whether a separate charge for marijuana possession has any bearing on this case.  I will not comment further on this matter, and will edit out any comments that speculate on this subject because it is before the courts.

What is clear is that until various legal and labour proceedings work themselves out, the new policy will be in limbo.

Subway Station and Vehicle Cleanliness

The TTC received a presentation on the cleanliness of its stations and vehicles.  In case you have been wondering why TTC vehicles might be a tad grubby, we now know that the only daily cleaning they get is a “dust and sweep” except for the bus fleet which gets an exterior wash as part of the daily fuelling cycle.  Streetcars don’t need to be fuelled, and they go straight to the yard.

Now that the wash tracks at Wilson and Greenwood are back in operation, subway trains do look a lot better, although some cars remain grungy, notably on the BD line, possibly because the long period without cleaning has left dirt and grease more or less permanently part of the cars.

Audit results for the condition of stations and vehicles show that there has been some improvement, but the TTC is still not at its hoped-for targets.  The streetcar fleet, in particular, is well below the hoped-for level of litter although this is probably due to the relatively large number of vehicles staying in service all day and evening without a mid-day break where basic housekeeping might be possible.

The TTC plans to transfer some subway cleaners from carhouse duties to subway terminals where they can clean out trains at the end of each trip.  It is unclear whether there are enough cleaners for this during all service hours.

Some tile and grout work now underway at a half-dozen locations should be finished by year-end.  However, there was no comment on the many locations where portions of station walls were removed for inspection, and the due date for replacement recedes into the future.  Similarly, there was no comment on locations like St. George where the trackside walls remain filthy even while work continues on the platforms and stairwells.

More Icing, Less Cake (Updated)

Today the TTC announced the creation of a Customer Liaison Panel following up from the 2010 report of the Customer Service Advisory Panel.

Updated October 13, 2011 at 11:45pm:  The TTC has confirmed that the November Town Hall meeting will occur in the Council Chamber, and they are hoping for live coverage via Rogers Cable 10 and/or Internet in the same manner as Council meetings.

Chair Karen Stintz observed that “customers make our system what it is”, an intriguing comment considering what City Council and the Commission are forcing on customers in response to City funding cuts.  Yes, customers are the heart of any organization and without them, there is little raison-d’être, no matter how lofty a mission statement one might concoct.

To engage customers better, the TTC will conduct quarterly “town halls” beginning on Thursday, November 24 at City Hall.  I hope that they use Council Chambers [this has now been confirmed by the TTC], not a small committee room with limits on numbers and speakers so appallingly shown by Toronto’s Executive Committee.  TTC’s new Chief Customer Service Officer, Chris Upfold, observed that it is “dangerous to meet customers en masse … you don’t know what they will say”.  That’s precisely why you need to meet them — if you already know, or presuppose, what comments riders might have, or prejudge which ones were worthy of attention, then why meet at all?

Stintz noted that “it would take some time” to implement recommendations as “culture change” is not an overnight thing in an old organization.  This statement is odd on two counts. The age of an organization should not condemn it to bureaucratic paralysis — that’s the outcome of a lack of direction and focus on quality and improvement, an assumption that the TTC is the best on the planet.

Moreover, this doesn’t address the issue of frontline staff versus management attitudes and support.  Customers have many complaints about the staff they meet every day.  However, the way the system is operated, the priorities for improvement and the dedication to follow-through beyond photo ops and notices, these are issues for management and the Commission.  Managers must manage, and Commissioners must provide resources to match expectations.

Stintz listed five goals for improving customer service:

  • feedback to customers
  • cleanliness in stations and vehicles
  • a mission statement
  • changing practices to have a customer focus
  • encouraging customers to be advocates for transit

Stintz went on to list various projects such as the new subway cars, the York-U/Vaughan subway extension and the Eglinton line as examples of what the TTC is doing for its customers.  That’s fine, but the real issue is that in only two months, the TTC will cut service in response to budget constraints at the City.  We will get baubles, a few new lines, one almost a decade in the future, but meanwhile don’t try to get on the Dufferin bus.

Chris Upfold spoke in more detail about the TTC’s engagement with its customers.  There will be more surveys, the Town Halls mentioned earlier and the liaison panel.  A few issues are already being addressed:

  • Fare and ticket/transfer policies will be reviewed to eliminate nuisances and to prepare for the transition to the Presto smart card system.  The intent is to look at what works for customers (a novel idea in many technology implementation projects).  There are no specifics, and what might be a “nuisance” obviously varies depending on who you talk to and what form of ticket they already use.  Transfer rules, for example, have no effect on passholders.
  • The Customer Service Centre hours will be extended to reflect when people actually need information and assistance with support available via phone and online, including social media, from 0700 to 2200 daily.  The TTC will actively attempt to follow up with timely callbacks in response to problems.
  • The Request Stop Program, formerly available only to women, will now be offered to all riders looking for a safer or more convenient drop off from buses at night.

Upfold hopes that riders will recommend the TTC to their friends and family, a hope that implies considerable improvement in the typical rider experience at a time when the quality of that experience is being cut back.  Stintz tried to make the best of the situation by hoping that improvements such as cleaner stations would offset issues with wider headways and crowding.  If she really believes that, then there’s little hope for the TTC.

Stintz argues that the City has told the TTC to operate with less subsidy, but she ignores the fact that there has been no public debate about the effects and benefits of alternatives including fare increases or freezes, service standards, and the long-term problems of handling growing ridership.  The TTC may save 1% or so on its 2012 budget with the revised loading standards, but that’s at best a one-year fix.  When buses are full, they are full.  What will the TTC do in 2013?

Indeed, it’s the unseen demand, the would-be riders the passenger counts completely miss, who are the problem.  They’re the equivalent of the “silent majority” of voters who, some claim, feel that transit is oversubsidized.  These lost riders vote with their feet, their bicycles, their cars.  Their potential political support for transit is squandered in the name of municipal economy.

Steve O’Brien (who chaired the 2010 advisory panel and will sit on the liaison panel for 2012-13) was asked if he was satisfied with the rate of implementation of his reports recommendations.  He claims to be “impressed”, that the panel didn’t “expect instant results” and that he is “very proud” the TTC took the recommendations seriously.  Chris Upfold noted that about 20 of the 78 recommendations would be implemented by yearend, and that a further 25 would be rolled out in 2012.

What nobody mentioned is that most of these recommendations address problems of communication in a broad sense, but the report is silent about system management and service quality.

There has been no discussion of the service implications of the budget cuts beyond the general policy change in loading standards — we don’t yet know which routes and time periods will be affected, or how much more crowded they will be.  Chair Stintz stated that the proposed cuts, in detail, would be part of the budget process at the TTC and Council.

Chief General Manager Gary Webster confirmed that the cuts would go into effect in January 2012 to get the greatest benefit for the budget year.  Verification of riding counts is now in progress and schedule design will follow shortly.  By mid-November, the details of January service levels will be known, certainly in time for the first Town Hall.  However, if any Fairy Godmother plans to rescue the TTC from service cuts, they will have to do so quickly.  Stintz may talk about this as part of the budget discussions, but the City won’t finalize its budget until February, long after the service cuts are already on the street.

The currently proposed fare increase of 10¢ per token will only offset the roughly $29-million hole in the TTC’s budget which already includes service cuts.  If current services are to be funded through fares, then an increase of at least another 5¢ would be required.  Looking ahead, the TTC’s total operating costs will grow by about $100m annually.  This implies an ongoing need for about $67m more in subsidies and $33m more in fares (equivalent to a dime every year) just to keep the system as it is.

At a time when the world needs serious, informed discussions about finances, Toronto is again papering over its transit cracks with one-time fixes.  Those who argue for better service, even for retaining what we have, are portrayed as whiners, special interest groups who do not represent the broad voice of taxpayers.  We must wait three years for those taxpayers, those voters, to vent their true feelings on City policies.

Better Customer Service is a good idea.  Adding this to an already excellent and improving system (dare I say it, one with the kind of pro-transit outlook that brought us the Ridership Growth Strategy) would be icing on an already rich and delicious cake.  In the face of service cuts, greater crowding and an inevitable decline in staff-to-customer relations, that cake will be small, thin and bitter no matter how happy a smiling face sits on the thick icing above.

TIFF 2011 Reviews Part I

September brings the Toronto International Film Festival, a period when some of my readers complain that I am preoccupied with movies, and a few think I may miss some skulduggery in transit politics.

Last year’s reviews (and indeed my spring batch from hotdocs) were incomplete for personal reasons.  I may push short versions out the door at some point, or just leave that to history.  The films that deserved to vanish without a trace have already done so, and those that deserved accolades have, mostly, seen them without help from me.  I will try to do better this year.

Reviewed here:

  • Pina *****
  • Le Havre ***
  • Urbanized **½
  • Keyhole **½
  • The Love We Make ***
  • Land of Oblivion ***
  • Barrymore ****
  • Alois Nebel ***½

This covers days 1 to 3 of the festival.

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