Raining on Civic Action’s 32 Minute Parade

This morning, the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, or CivicAction for short, launched its “What Would You Do With 32?” campaign.  They have a video with all sorts of folks musing on how they would spend all the extra time they would have if the full Big Move plan were implemented.  Very nice, very charming, very misleading, very wrong.

Getting. Around. Town. Can. Take. An. Eternity.

But it doesn’t have to. It can be so much better.

There’s a plan in place to dramatically improve transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area – one that could actually save you an average of 32 minutes on your daily commute. [From your32 website]

At the press conference, that number troubled me because I didn’t remember seeing such a calculation anywhere in the background papers to Metrolinx’ The Big Move.  It turns out that this number is not a saving relative to today’s trips, but a comparison of our future, 25 years out, in Big Move or “do nothing” scenarios.

What’s so important about the number 32?

32 represents the number of minutes per day, on average, that you’ll save on your commute if The Big Move is funded and realized – that’s eight days a year or about two years over the course of your life. It is the difference between the average commute time if The Big Move is built (77 minutes; Source: Metrolinx), and the commute time if no comprehensive system is in place (109 minutes; Source: Metrolinx). [From your32 website]

Anyone who thinks there commute will be 32 minutes shorter than it is today is dreaming.  For comparatively short commutes, a 32 minute saving is physically impossible unless Metrolinx has an unannounced program to teleport us around the city.  (Given Queen’s Park’s track record on transit technology, I wouldn’t be too keen on trying it out, although I can think of some guinea pigs who surely won’t be missed.  The concept of a short-turn does not bear consideration.)  Even for long commutes (over 90 minutes), a 32 minute saving is a substantial chunk of a trip, and it won’t be made over every segment.

The biggest problem for transit riders is not the “rapid” part of their trip today (subway or GO train) but it getting to and from the rapid line at both ends.  These parts of the trip don’t lend themselves to big reductions in travel time.  We might extend a subway to Vaughan, but unless you live in a condo on top of the station, you still have to get to it.  Many transit trips are all surface because even with The Big Move, they will not lie along rapid transit corridors and going out of the way (as an expressway driver would) to use them would be counterproductive.  The Big Move (and associated funding schemes) don’t address this problem and leave local municipalities to find the funds, if they are willing, to boost what are seen as feeder services to the subway, not as vital lines in their own right.

Yesterday’s discussion at Toronto’s Executive Committee included the important observation that people need to feel they are getting something concrete in return for a new tax they might pay.  Civic Action’s campaign has two phases — one to talk about what might be, and one to talk about how we might pay for it.  The fundamental problem, however, is that they are selling those “32 minutes” that don’t really exist.  Most commute times will not get 32 minutes shorter.

Don’t forget that’s an average, and so even greater savings are obviously forecast for some travellers while others will get little.  I am not sure of the arithmetic validity of these claims.   It’s noteworthy that the Metrolinx models were not capacity constrained and they forecast ridership on some routes like the main TTC subway lines well in excess of their actual capacity.  That translates into full trains and pass-ups, something riders know today, never mind 25 years in the future.  A missed train is extra wait time, but I suspect the Metrolinx model does not allow for this problem.  As for the TTC, there are limits on how many trains and riders can be stuffed into the existing system, and few of the updates needed to handle more riders (even if we assume they are practical) are part of The Big Move.

The basic problem with the “Your 32” campaign is that it tries to find something to sell — those 32 minutes — because it cannot talk about specifics of what network and services we might actually see.  Metrolinx’ plans are years old now, and there are already components that must be added to make the whole package work.  Among these are the proposed Union Station West (for additional capacity and operational flexibility), GO electrification (a prerequisite for very frequent service) and the Downtown Relief Line (with expanded reach and an earlier implementation date to make both Union West and the Richmond Hill subway practical).

Metrolinx has been hinting at an updated Big Move for some time.  One was expected this fall, but they now expect to release a “technical update” in Spring 2013, and there is no sense of how much this update will address.  We must hope that, at least, the 2013 plan contains all of the projects that the new Investment Strategy will fund, and that we won’t have an “oops” where a major component such as electrification is missing from the list.

Also still missing is a worked example of putting the many components of The Big Move through a prioritization scheme.  That process will inevitably set off a noisy political debate as people discover that their pet projects are now at the back of the queue (if they are still in the mix at all), and that major spending on new transportation capacity is decades away in some areas.  How badly will the transit map be gerrymandered to convince taxpayers and politicians throughout the GTA that they should buy into a region-wide funding scheme?

If we could raise $3-billion in new annual revenue, some of this would have to go to operations and to municipal transit systems, and it will be a quarter-century or more before the whole plan is completed.  One might ask the boffins at Queen’s Park whether the construction industry can even burn through capital at that rate given their concerns about the constructability of Transit City on a compressed timeframe.

John Tory, the chair of CivicAction’s board, spoke not just of traffic congestion but of leadership congestion.  This begs the obvious question of Mayor Rob Ford and his supporters.  At some point, “transit leadership” must include some blunt words about Ford’s views on transit and on funding.  Partnerships with the private sector might work, although there are no guarantees and transit riders (not to mention taxpayers) will be left holding the bag if these deals fall apart.  To his credit, Tory did not treat these partnerships as a source of free money, and talked of the need to pay back investments made by the private sector one way or another.

CivicAction recruited a council of over 40 “regional champions” for their cause.  What, exactly, they will do is still a bit vague, although one might hope they would organize outreach at the local level.  You too can become a “local champion” and take the message to your community.  This all has a rather amateurish feel to it, but I may be pleasantly surprised.  Much will depend on the resources available to these champions including clear answers from government agencies about the transportation schemes and revenue tools they are promoting.

A recent poll showed that 90% of GTA residents don’t even know about The Big Move, and if they don’t know about the plan in general, they certainly don’t know what it might (or might not) do for them.  Getting new revenue such as a regional sales tax will be an uphill battle if people see this as just another tax grab.  When and if CivicAction gets down to the task of explaining The Big Move, they will discover just how hard finding those phantom 32 minutes will be, and this could further undermine its credibility.

The potential revenue from new taxes and fees are well-documented, most recently in the City’s report, and the City consultations will focus on the money side of things.

“Your 32” might have been a nice idea in a different context, but I fear CivicAction fails on two counts.  First, the underlying premise is wrong, and there is no way to sugar-coat that statement.  It’s not a question of interpretation, but of misrepresentation.  Second, the real debate will focus on raising money for major expansion of transit, and this demands concrete answers about what we would actually build and what the benefits of various network components will be.  CivicAction depends on Metrolinx for this sort of information, and that agency remains silent on the details.

Advocacy by local municipalities and by CivicAction is hamstrung because there is no way to know what the provincial priorities might be.  Will The Big Move will be treated as little more than a bag of election goodies to dribble out as Queen’s Park sees fit?

14 thoughts on “Raining on Civic Action’s 32 Minute Parade

  1. The number does sound a bit suspect, even if it was 16 minutes savings (32 minutes a day). But I found out how to save at least 10 minutes off my commute – I gave up on the TTC and now bike to work.


  2. The “32 minutes” slogan has its flaws, sure. But it was all over major media outlets today. Torontonians need to be thinking about these problems, and the billions in tax dollars that they will cost; “32 minutes” is a nice way to frame the issue in a single, positive sound bite that people will take away with them.

    So, Steve: you dislike the slogan, so I’m sure you have your own plan to galvanize public opinion. Let’s hear it.

    Steve: Actually my problem with the slogan and the accompanying publicity material is that it all implies people will save time relative to their commutes today, not relative to what a “do nothing” scheme would produce in a quarter-century. “32 minutes” is also meaningless because there is huge variation over the region of the benefits of the Big Move network. We need to be honest with people about what will and will not happen if we undertake this megaproject.

    What is desperately needed are two things. First, an updated and prioritized list of projects to give people an idea of what might actually be built and how much each item in the wish list will cost. Second, the “investment strategy” for actual public discussion, informed by the list, so that we can see how much is needed (or alternately how much time would be required) to achieve our goals. There is no sense of specific purpose, no hard-nosed “if you want X, you must pay Y” information. Metrolinx has been sitting on all of this at, as I understand things, orders from Queen’s Park who are terrified at actually having a discussion rather than making vague promises.

    When voters are presented with proposals for new taxes, but little in specifics about what they will achieve and when, they are very suspicious. They might even fear that the money won’t actually be spent on transportation projects. They were not born yesterday.

    You asked, I answered. And, no, I don’t have a catchy slogan, but at least I am telling the truth.


  3. It’s nice that they are trying to quantify it into something that people can relate to (i.e. 32 minutes) but I think people will want to “feel” it a different way.

    I fear that people will only accept a tax if it comes with Cadillac service — no pun intended — i.e. subways.

    And to be honest I can understand that mentality but as you succinctly put it … it is about moving people everywhere, including to the subway stations.


  4. The 109 vs. 77 “average” feels like its a mean, not a median. The median (mid-point) is more useful in this case because its not skewed by a handful of very large numbers.

    What I would like to see is a graph of commute time vs. median time savings if the Big Move is built. (Or even a table with a few data points). Even then, it will only be an average – if you live by Finch and work downtown, your commute isn’t short and won’t get shorter.

    Steve: What has always been missing in TBM is modelling of a variety of outcomes with only partial networks, and with geographic breakdowns such as you suggest. We need to know what the improvement would be after, say, 10 years of building the high-priority projects and which areas would benefit by how much. Of course, we would have to actually build 10 years of projects in 10 years, not keep postponing them like McGuinty did with the Transit City lines.


  5. While we might appreciate the data showing how much time we will save depending on which pieces of TBM/TBM2.0 get implemented, to get the broader public onside you need a simple concept that can be grasped in 30 seconds or less. Longer than that and they start tuning out, which means they won’t get why new funding mechanisms are needed. The 32 minutes is an attention grabber that will hook people into talking about the need for funding.

    I do think CivicAction should have made it clearer that they were talking future commute times (The Q107 news report I heard this morning did make mention of it being future commute times, so it is quite possible to do so succinctly).

    Steve: I don’t think it’s too hard to make maps showing generically by sub-region (which is the way demand models work anyhow) what the deltas would be. This would also allow Metrolinx to show what might actually happen in 10 years, a timeframe people can grasp, not in some indefinite future after a full build-out nobody expects will actually happen. People see chart showing, for example, regional breakdowns of property values and taxes and understand them easily. Why not for the deltas in travel times. We might even see some embarrassing cases where times go up, not down, because of increased demand and congestion in corridors that are not in the first round of improvements.


  6. I agree that the number 32 seems to be arbitrarily arrived since they don’t show the source of the data and explain methodology used to determine it. Since most people don’t give a damn about statistics or methodology the only thing that is important to them is the extra 32 minutes. This number seems to have gotten attention and for that reason alone it is useful in starting a debate.

    Steve: Actually, the source is buried in the FAQ page which I quoted in the article, but the details have not been published even by Metrolinx, only the summary numbers.

    I doubt if many will remember the number 32 after a while but if it can get a real dialogue going about the need to improve transit in Toronto and around the GTA then it will be useful. It is far from perfect but most people can only absorb information in small bytes, especially with TV and radio reducing every thing to 30 seconds or less. I only wish that CivicAction were Douglas Adams fans; 42 minutes would sound much better.

    Steve: I will have to give that some Deep Thought!


  7. I don’t want to fault Civic Action for ‘trying’ and I suppose that their ’32 campaign’ is an attempt to simplify the debate down to a level that most people can respond to.

    Too bad the premise is based on a misrepresentation (as Steve points out) but they could work with that if they made it clear that this campaign just a way to get people to pay attention, and open the door to thinking on a bigger scale.

    One thing they should be focusing on is building connections with ‘regular’ people and taking the debate away from politics. However, that they have to do that without making it appear that they are being unclear or misrepresenting the issue because then they will lose credibility and we will be back to the bureaucrats & those politicians who put ideology & self-interest first.

    Steve said that the “Regional Champions” appears has an ‘amateurish’ feel … perhaps they were aiming for ‘Community Organizer’ instead? After all, we’ve seen the potential of what a “Community Organizer” can accomplish … but here in Toronto we’ve also seen what bare-faced ideological resistance & bureaucratic inertia can do together.

    I sincerely hope that we are pleasantly surprised by CivicAction and that they, along with our universities, provide a bridge between the politicians & the bureaucrats and the public.

    Lastly, I’d say that it’s time to have a real, large scale transport forum in Toronto where everyone comes together … rather than individual councils and Metrolinx discussing, debating & making decisions on their own.

    Cheers, Moaz


  8. Already today, Ford is singing the subway mantra, and Hudak has declared he will fund only subways. Given that a provincial election is likely sooner rather than later, we can sniff which way the wind is blowing … the sight is not pretty.


  9. I agree that the “32 minute saving” will probably be a short-lived advertising gimmick, and will not really change anyone’s mind when it comes to agreeing to pay more. There are too many magic cures where people are led to believe that “someone else will pay”, and that there is a magic quick fix. We are the people who will pay, one way or another. And fixing the system will be slow and painful.

    I think people will understand hard facts when they are presented fairly. One hard fact is how many vehicles would crowd our roads if we did not have transit. Can we remember what traffic was like during transit strikes, and drive that point home to the motorists who think that the TTC does not benefit them. Give them a picture of a bus ahead of them with 50 people inside, and replace it with a picture of 50 cars. Maybe the bus would not look so annoying.

    Another hard fact is that the system is aging, and has no excess capacity as it is. Knock out a subway line for any length of time and we get a true disaster. We take it for granted that the subways are an unbreakable fact of life, when in fact they are probably getting close to a breaking point. The TTC does a pretty good job of keeping things running, and the public takes this for granted. Some education into the nuts and bolts might help people understand where the money goes.

    Funding will be easier if people value what they are paying for. Disney World knows this. They work hard to give customers a positive experience, because they know people are willing to pay more for something they value. Perhaps some effort into showing a positive image of the TTC could replace the endless stream of complaints that fill the press. It would go a long way to getting voters on side.


  10. I think there is a cost effective way to significantly cut travel times (though not by 16 minutes per commute) on many surface routes without cost. The problem, and reason why they can’t do it is that the TTC ridership is basically content to travel slowly in the easiest possible way. The time sensitive potential ridership has found another way. So instead of optimizing around travel times, they optimize around providing routes with a minimum number of transfers, and minimum amount of walking.

    If cutting travel time were the focus, a simple solution would be to make the bus stops 200m apart, from the current standard that puts them anywhere as close as 50m apart.

    A couple years ago, in East York, I had 3 bus routes on 3 streets within 3 minutes walking distance from home. One of the routes had 3 stops in each direction within those same 3 minutes. The most direct route to the subway was 6 minutes by bus, or 12 minutes on foot. I certainly didn’t need all the bus service, and would have been better served by a shorter headway to a faster bus at any one of the close stops. The riders at the half dozen or so closer stops were virtually always better served (if speed was their goal) to walk to the station, and trivially, the riders further out would have also been better served if several of those stops did not exist.

    Fewer stops means higher average speed. Higher average speed means less time to complete a route. Less time to complete a route means the same number of buses can operate on shorter headways. Shorter headways means less waiting and less crowding.

    If one were willing to spend money on an upgrade, a DRL could potentially save a whole 16 minutes in the morning for all trips which ride the BD subway to Yonge, and then connect to southbound Yonge between 8:30 and 9:00am. The connection takes roughly that long at that time. Extending the line as frequently proposed through Thorncliffe to Don Mills and Eglinton would serve 2 priority neighbourhoods, and deal with the over crowding at Eglinton station.

    Then again, like a number of others, I wish the TTC could get its house in order, but it’s too late for me. I’ve determined that the financial district is an equal travel time from either East York or Oakville. The latter requires me to devote a larger portion of my budget to travel, but the amount remaining for housing secures nicer accommodation.


  11. I can’t argue with the comments about the “What Would You Do With 32?” campaign laid out by Steve and others, though I wouldn’t say that it is ‘misleading’. The devil is in the details and such details are glossed over by the campaign.

    That said, as far as it goes as a media event, it scores an A+, and partly because the details are glossed over.

    The point of the promotion was to get the public thinking about how a transit plan is going to be paid for. That money won’t magically fall from the sky or out of the pockets of some private partner. The message needed to get to the general public (a huge percentage of which had no idea that The Big Move even existed!), not transit buffs such as ourselves, and doing it with a number that is simple to understand accomplished that, though one could argue the extent of that accomplishment.

    No matter what your primary issue is, a great majority of the public will simply not feel it is that important. The key to communication is to present a simple message that gets the public to take a few minutes to think about it. Cluttering that message with all sorts of minutia not only won’t get anyone to think about it, they won’t even take five seconds to listen to it in the first place.

    Steve: I’m not sure that’s an entirely valid critique in the context of new taxation and spending on this scale. If people find out that the pitch is selling something they can’t get, the campaign could run aground.

    I lay the real blame for this at Metrolinx and Queen’s Park’s feet. During a period when Metrolinx could have been talking about the Big Move including specific benefits for various regions, listening to people, and fine tuning the plan where necessary, all we got was silence and secrecy. Advocacy is left to groups like CivicAction and individuals like ourselves, while the people who should be making the case are sitting on their hands and leave the hard slogging to everyone else.


  12. Sorry for not being ‘with it’ guys but with all the gazillions of transit plans and hope-fors flying around out there … what exactly was the “Big Move” all about anyways? I have asked a lot of people no one has heard of it before. thanks

    Steve: It is the master plan that Metrolinx published in 2008. It is now 2012, and work has not exactly been speeding along, and with the lack of progress we also have almost no ongoing publicity or outreach. You can read all the details on the Metrolinx website.


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