TTC CEO Andy Byford addressed the Empire Club on May 13, 2013 setting out a strong argument for political and financial support for the transit system (full text at the Torontoist site). After last week’s debacle at Council where almost nobody took any sense of responsibility for the future of transit beyond their own doorsteps, arguing for the TTC is a hard battle.
On one hand, we have an intensely local debate at the ward, if not the neighbourhood level, with the worst of petulant “I-want-a-subway-too” politics.
On the other, the region and the province are preoccupied with funding a large-scale plan that happens to have a spin-off for local transit, but one that will only give Toronto a fraction of what it costs to run and maintain the TTC today, let alone make substantive improvements.
In some ways, the TTC has been its own worst enemy managing on one hand to alienate potential supporters with poor community relations, unreliable budgeting and declining service quality, but on the other managing to attract riders and be more financially “efficient” in spite of itself. When political support for better funding and service is needed, the “success story” is that the TTC has managed to cram more riders into fewer buses and streetcars.
This is not a sustainable approach to transit. Growth – which has come disproportionately in off-peak periods when there is still some capacity in parts of the system – cannot continue on this basis.
Byford will formally launch a Five Year Plan for the TTC in the week of May 27, 2013, but his speech gives a broad outline of his goals. Are they enough, or is there too much concentration on the decor while the house rots around us?
Byford’s plan has seven goals under which a range of activities will be grouped. These are:
- Customer service
- People and management
- Asset management including service quality
- System growth
- Financial sustainability
- Improved TTC reputation and community engagement
Inevitably in a large organization, there will be overlaps between these major headings, but from Byford’s remarks there is also an acknowledgement that they exist and that improvements in one area affect performance elsewhere.
At yesterday evening’s York Quay Neighbourhood Association meeting, Byford spoke in detail about three areas within the organization: processes, equipment and people.
Some of the TTC’s internal processes are, and these are Byford’s words, archaic and bureaucratic. Systems and practices exist to serve the organization, the “production” of service rather than the customers who ride it. A well-known example is the short-turning of vehicles to get operators back on time, and Byford talked of the need to split this so that operators can short-turn without interrupting passenger trips (this is already done to some extent on the subway and at times on the 501 Queen car). Fare disputes now cause vehicles to stop (and in the case of streetcars all following service) while waiting for “the cavalry” to arrive. This must change to focus on keeping service moving.
Equipment and infrastructure will undergo major changes in the subway (TR trains, automatic train control, the Spadina extension, the Union Station 2nd platform), on the streetcar system (with a new fleet) and the bus system (with the reintroduction of higher-capacity articulated buses). Track upgrades in the subway are needed so that the full benefit of ATC can be realized rather than having trains poke through slow orders.
Presto will bring smart card fare collection to the TTC (with credit card support to follow) beginning on the new streetcars and spreading to the rest of the system. The transition will be complex because of the need to support both the new and old fare media and protocols at the same time.
Service levels with new, larger vehicles will be a challenge because of the debate over how to use increased capacity. Should the TTC replace capacity or vehicles one for one, or something in between? This question has not yet been answered and depends in part on the budgetary stance taken by transit supporters in the 2014 City Budget debates.
Of the three areas, people and management are the most difficult. If the TTC implements all of its planned changes in other areas, but still has poor service and inconsistent relationships with its riders, the organization will have failed. However, Byford argues that how people are managed affects how they behave, how they treat customers. TTC management is on notice that the TTC “culture” must change.
When Byford came to Toronto, he found the worst of all possible situations – good people, of whom there are many in the TTC, were ignored while the bad ones “got away with murder”. Now he has buy-in from the transit union that the offenders will not escape. Whether he will be as successful with his management and decades of a top-down mentality is another matter. (During the few years I worked for the TTC in the late 1960s, there was still a strong hangover from the military attitudes of a war that was over two decades in the past. The TTC does not change quickly.)
Byford wants a culture of accountability at the top and the bottom of the organization. “Bad things can happen”, says Byford, when this is missing. The not-my-job attitude, the finger-pointing is inevitable when avoiding blame is more important than fixing a problem.
The recently appointed Group Station Managers will become “one stop shops” for Councillors, BIAs and community groups, and will get to know the neighbourhoods they serve. Internal and external co-ordination should improve too if Byford’s plans work out. Later in the evening, as I discussed in another article, lots of confusion remained about the status of the Queens Quay and Spadina streetcar services and related projects. Hopeful words maybe, but Byford doesn’t have this under control yet.
At this point, we have a quick overview of some of what Andy Byford hopes to achieve at the TTC. When the full plan comes out, please, let there be more detail and specifics about targets to be achieved, about concrete improvements riders will see and feel in their daily travels. The “quick wins”, the low-hanging fruit such as vehicle and station cleanliness are a good start and show what can be done with some effort, but the big task is to make the TTC a system people want to ride, not one that is a reluctant choice.
For this Byford will need public and political support, and certainly more money. Some savings will be found in areas such as better line management (getting better capacity out of what’s already on the street) and in one-time changes such as a move to one-man crews on the Yonge-University subway. But that’s no substitute for a recognition by management and by politicians that transit must be more than a bare minimum, a service we provide grudgingly.
Prattling on about the poor “taxpayers” and “making do for the greater good” forgets that everyone benefits from better transit service whether they use it or not. That’s the message we hear in calls for better regional funding and large-scale capital projects, and we need to hear it just as loudly for day-to-day service.
The most important goal Byford could include in his detailed plan will be a view of what transit service will be like in five years on the TTC with better and reliable frequencies, less crowding, and a sense that Toronto is providing the best it can.