Updated January 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm: The description of the loading standards introduced with the Ridership Growth Strategy has been corrected.
The election season is upon us in Toronto, and transit made an early appearance on the campaign with mayoral candidate David Soknacki’s proposal that Toronto revert to the LRT plan for Scarborough. I am not going to rehash that debate here, but there is a much larger issue at stake.
The Ford/Stintz era at Council and at the TTC has been notable for its absence of substantive debate on options and alternatives for our transit future. Yes, we have had the subways*3 mantra, the palace coup to establish Karen Stintz and LRT, for a time, as a more progressive outlook on the TTC Board, and finally the Scarborough debate.
But that’s not all there is to talk about on the transit file. Do we have a regular flow of policy papers at Board meetings to discuss what transit could be, should be? No. Ford’s stooges may have been deposed, but the conservative fiscal agenda remains. Make do with less. Make sacrifices for the greater good, whatever that may be. Show how “efficiency” can protect taxpayer dollars even while riders freeze in the cold wondering when their bus will appear.
Every Board meeting starts with a little recitation by the Chair of good news, of stories about how TTC staffers helped people and the good will this brings to the organization. There is ever so much pride in improved cleanliness and attractiveness of the system – a worthwhile achievement, but one that should become second nature to maintain. It should also be a “canary in the coal mine”, a simple, obvious example of what happens when we make do with “good enough”, with year-by-year trimming to just get by.
If the bathrooms are filthy, imagine the condition of the trains, buses and streetcars you are riding. I’m not talking about loose newspapers blowing around, but of basic maintenance. From our experience in the 1990s, we know how a long slide can take a once-proud, almost cocky system to disaster, and how hard it is to rebuild.
In a previous article, I wrote about the threat to basic system maintenance posed by underfunding of the Capital Budget, an issue that has not received enough public debate. Part of the problem is that the crucial maintenance work that must occur year over year is treated the same way as new projects. Maintenance competes with the glamour projects for funding, and may be treated as something to be deferred, something we don’t need yet. Couple that with starvation of funds for basics like a new and expanded fleet and garage space, and there’s a recipe for a TTC that will decline even while more and more is expected of public transit.
The budget isn’t the only issue that deserves more detailed examination, and many other policies should be up for debate. Within a month, the TTC will have a new Chair as Karen Stintz departs for the mayoralty campaign. Within a year, Toronto should have a new Mayor, one whose view of transit is not framed by the window of his SUV. At Queen’s Park we may have a Liberal government with a fresh, if shaky, mandate to raise new revenues for transit construction and operation, or we may have a populist alternative with a four-year supply of magic beans.
In the remaining months, the TTC Board has a duty to lay the ground for the governments to come, especially at City Hall. The 2015 budget debates should be well informed about the options for transit, if only for planning where Toronto will need to spend and what services the TTC will offer in years to come. Will the TTC rise to this challenge, or sit on its hands with a caretaker Board until the end of the current term?
Here is a selection of the major policy issues we should be hearing about, if only the TTC would engage in actual debate to inform itself, Council, the media and the voters.
- Fare structure: What is the appropriate way to charge fares for transit service? By time, distance, week, month? How does smart card technology change the way fares are collected and monitored? What are the implications for regional travel and integration?
- Service standards: What loading standards should be used to drive service improvements? Should the TTC build in elbow room to encourage riding and to reduce delays due to crowding? Should there be a core network of routes with guaranteed frequent service?
- Service management: What goals should the TTC aim for in managing service? Do the measures that are reported today accurately reflect the quality of service? Are bad schedules to blame for erratic service, or does this stem from management indifference or from labour practices that work against reliable service? What are the tradeoffs in the relative priority of transit and other traffic? What are the budgetary effects of moves to improve service?
- Budgets and Subsidies: Both the Operating and Capital Budgets have been cut below the level recommended by TTC management. These cuts will affect service and maintenance in the short and long term, but there has been no debate about the effect, especially if these are not quickly reversed in a post-Ford environment. The Capital Budget faces a huge gap between available funding and requirements. Over ten years, the shortfall is 30% in available financing versus requirements, and this is back-end loaded so that the shortfall rises to 50% in later years. The proposed level of City subsidy is barely half what would be needed if Queen’s Park returned to its historical 50% capital funding formula. Hoped-for money from Ottawa is more likely to finance major projects such as new subway lines, not the “base” budget for capital maintenance. The budget, especially capital, is not well understood by the TTC Board or Council in part because of the confusing way in which it is presented. Toronto cannot begin to discuss subsidy policies if those responsible for decisions cannot understand their own budgets.
- The Waterfront: While battles rage over subway and LRT proposals for the suburbs, a major new development on the waterfront is starved for transit thanks to cost escalation, tepid interest by the TTC, and the perception that waterfront transit can be left for another time. The pace of development may be threatened if good transit does not materialize on Queens Quay, and later to the Port Lands, but meanwhile this project sits on the back burner little understood by most members of the TTC Board and Council.
- Rapid transit plans: The artificial distinction between GO and the subway (or even higher-end LRT operations such as the proposed Scarborough line) will disappear as GO becomes a frequent all-day operation. There will be one network regardless of the colours of the trains. GO service to the outer parts of the 416 is particularly important as an alternative to subway construction serving long-haul trips to downtown. Subways, LRT and BRT each has its place in the network, but electoral planning must not leave us with fragments of a network rather than an integrated whole.
- Accessibility: The need for accessibility extends all the way from the severely disabled who require door-to-door service, through a large and growing population who have some degree of independence, to those whose only problem may be bad knees or a weak heart. Neither the TTC nor the City has taken the issues of accessibility particularly seriously in recent years. There may be good words, but the budget and service policies clearly limit the growth of the parallel Wheel Trans system. Meanwhile, retrofitting the system for full access is delayed thanks to funding limitations at both the City and Queen’s Park. What we do not know is the true extent of the need for accessibility on the TTC and what this means for service and infrastructure.
At its December 2013 meeting, the Board endorsed a motion by Chair Stintz asking that staff report in January
“… on the relative costs and benefits of moving to a time-based transfer policy and the best way to make a change should it be adopted.”
A discussion of new fare structures for the TTC, and for the GTHA overall, is long overdue. The TTC has been moving, well inching, toward smart cards for fare payment since the pre-Ford version of Council, but any debate on changing fares would inevitably bring debate about subsidies, an absolute no-no to the Ford/Stintz conservatives.
Time-based fares are used elsewhere in the GTHA along with, in some places, fare zones, while distance-based fares are the standard on GO Transit. The TTC stands alone with its complex rules about transfers, stopovers and continuous trips.
There is certainly a debate to be had about the merits of distance-based fares, or at least of a zone system, but it is important that we all understand the trade-offs between the schemes, and the implications for various classes of riders.
Time based fares could encourage riding on the fastest routes because one can travel farther for the same fare. Whether most trips actually take long enough for this to matter is another question.
Distance based fares penalize riders who have long commutes. From these riders we hear calls for much improved suburban transit (and rapid transit) coupled with true integration of service and quality across regional boundaries. Should they pay a higher fare because housing, income and job location patterns work against short commutes? If local transit fares changed to a distance base, how would the price of long TTC trips compare to comparable journeys on GO Transit?
This is not just an issue for Toronto, but for the GTHA including Metrolinx. “Regional integration” is a phrase we hear a lot, but true integration (regardless of the colour of the bus or train) can only come with an integrated fare system, one that does not penalize riders for crossing invisible boundaries between service territories. If a smart card simply converts paper transfers and zones based on municipal borders to an electronic format, that is not integration any more than a Visa card working at many stores does not “integrate” those businesses.
Integration will almost certainly result in some riders getting a cheaper ride than they have today – that is, after all, why riders are calling for fare integration in the first place. The GTHA will also face problems of overlapping service territories with TTC subways operating into the 905. This is similar to the era when Toronto had zone fares and the subway pushed into “zone 2” bringing distortions in the fare system with it.
If GO Transit evolves into a regional rapid transit network, will its distance-based fares and lack of full transfer rights to and from the TTC interfere with GO’s ability to offload demand on Toronto’s “local” network? How many billions will we spend building subways to do work that GO should at least assist with but for their desire to show a high farebox return?
That return, not just for GO but for all of the GTHA, is a subject of much debate. What is the “correct” level of cost recovery? 60%? 70%? 80%? That debate looks at the problem from the wrong end.
Starting with a target cost recovery level almost guarantees that options to make transit truly “the better way” will never get onto the table. Fare subsidies and improved service are as important to make transit attractive as billion dollar subway lines, but they are always treated as a cost, not as an investment.
The question should be “what kind of service do we want to provide, and what combination of fares and service will increase public transit use”. Once that is known, the level of subsidy follows.
Additional issues for fare card implementation include:
- Should individuals who receive certain types of social assistance be given fare cards that charge at a lower rate, or which are funded directly through government programs? How would such a scheme apply to families, not just to the person receiving the benefit?
- Should the total fare charged per week or per month be capped at the equivalent of a weekly or monthly pass so that riders who have a burst of transit usage benefit from “pass” discounts without having to actually buy a pass (or load its equivalent onto their card) in advance?
- How will costs and subsidies due to regional integration be separated from costs due to local preferences for a higher service quality? Do we design subsidies to a minimal level of service in the least transit-friendly parts of the 905, or for some higher goal?
No fare structure will be perfect, but we need to discuss and understand all of the options rather than precluding any debate with the excuse “we can’t afford it”. How do we know what we might afford if we do not know the costs and benefits?
Service Standards define the amount of service that the TTC will provide relative to the demand on a route measured as the average load at a peak point during the peak hour. A decade ago, as part of the Ridership Growth Strategy, the TTC relaxed the standards to provide more room on vehicles:
- Average load targets for bus routes during the peak periods were reduced by 10%. (A comparable change was not made for streetcars because there were no spare vehicles with which to improve service.)
- Average load targets for buses and streetcars during the off-peak were set at a seated load.
There are two benefits to this change. The first is that less crowded buses and streetcars are more attractive to riders, and the extra space provides headroom for growth (not to mention room to absorb the typical minor variations in headway and surge loads at major stops). The second is that less crowded vehicles spend less time stopping while passengers push past each other to board and exit.
Another standard introduced by RGS was that almost all routes would operate 7 days/week from 6am to 1am.
These changes followed examination of the effects of the policy changes that revealed the marginal cost was fairly small. The whole purpose of RGS was to bypass the typical policy stagnation where “we can’t afford it” precluded any discussion with the implication that any change would bankrupt the system.
There is a lesson in the RGS for today’s TTC Board and Council – don’t let debate be defined by “what we can’t do”, but instead by “what we could do” if only we had the will to proceed.
With the arrival of the Ford/Stintz band at Council and the TTC, hated remnants of the Miller era, including the Ridership Growth Strategy, were dismantled with the claim that they were examples of “gravy” ladled onto undeserving transit riders. This was done in two waves.
In 2011, new standards were introduced for marginal routes to claw back the full service rule so that:
- A route (or route segment, or period of service) with fewer than 10 riders per vehicle hour would not be retained.
- A route with 10 to 15 riders per vehicle hour that was less than 600m (an 8 minute walk) from another service would not be retained.
- A route with 15 riders or more per vehicle hour would remain.
This change triggered a long list of service cuts at an estimated annual saving of $6-million (pro-rated from the 8 months of savings projected for May-December 2011). According to the report recommending these changes, this did not reduce the total hours of service provided because the resources would be reallocated to overcrowded routes. However, this statement was not entirely true.
The originally budgeted service level for November 2011 was 164,456 vehicle hours/week (Service Budget dated Sept. 30, 2010). This was revised as part of the February cutbacks so that the service level for November 2011 was 160,896 vehicle hours/week, or 2.2% less than had originally been planned.
The next round of cuts came in 2012 when the loading standards were rolled back to pre-RGS levels. This was projected to save $9.2-million. Services increases continued at a modest pace with 161,990 hours budgeted for November 2012.
In 2013, the TTC made up for some of the cutbacks with budgeted hours of 167,119 in November 2013. This was possible in part because it was an addition late in the year, and because there was an increase in the “as spent” subsidy for 2013 that escaped notice by Ford’s bean counters (see discussion of the Operating Budget below). The budgeted service for November 2014 is 169,357 hours.
Period Budgeted Scheduled Pre-Ford November 2010 159,347 November 2011 160,896 160,809 164,456 November 2012 161,990 163,772 November 2013 167,119 166,361 November 2014 169,357
Good financial results and strong demand in 2012 allowed service to grow late in the year to a higher level than the original budget. However, by 2013, the level of service had risen by only 4.4% compared to 2010 while system ridership grew by at least 2.5% annually. The budgeted level for 2014 is only 1.8% above the scheduled service for 2013.
It is self-evident to regular users of the TTC that the system is more crowded today than it was four years ago. A return to RGS loading standards would cost somewhere around $11m allowing for inflation since the 2012 cutbacks. However, such a change would not be immediately possible during peak periods because the TTC has no spare buses or streetcars with which to improve service.
As for the marginal off-peak services that were cut in 2011, some of these cuts have produced transit wastelands where 2km square blocks of the city have no service during certain periods. Clearly, this violates the 600m walking distance standard provided that there would be enough riders, but we don’t know how many we would see because there is no service for them to use. Ever since the 2011 cuts, the TTC has not returned to its practice of re-evaluating routes for additional off peak operation, if only to justify the continued absence of service.
Finally, a proposal that was not approved even by the Miller regime was the Transit City Bus Plan. (The roadblock was more a political one – who had ultimate budget authority over the TTC operating costs – rather than a philosophical opposition to the plan.) This would have included two major components:
- Definition of a core network where service would be provided at least every 10 minutes (except the overnight period) 7 days/week.
- Creation of express services on long routes.
Also under discussion at the time was the possibility of a maximum headway for all services of 20 minutes, but the cost of implementing this would have been substantial and it was not pursued.
The TCBP is not perfect, but the concept is sound and it should be revisited with two important changes:
- The expected LRT services that would have begun on some major routes are not being built, at least for now.
- The streetcar system was not included because “it’s not a bus”, to quote former Chair Adam Giambrone. It may come as a surprise, but some streetcar headways are wider than 10 minutes.
- Ridership Growth Strategy (2003)
- Transit City Bus Plan (2009)
- Crowding Standards (2014)
- Route Eliminations and Access Standards (February 2011)
- Return to Pre-RGS Crowding Standards (January 2012)
Managing transit service depends on several factors and the fact that this is a real time operation, not a theoretical exercise. Conditions will always vary from day to day, hour to hour, route to route, even block to block along a street. There is no one size fits all way to achieve “perfect” service. Indeed, we know that even on the subway where in theory there should be nothing to prevent evenly spaced service, this is far from the case thanks to various types of delay.
The issue, then, is to have goals for what the service should look like, strategies for achieving it, and a management context that rewards provision of good service and removes barriers to this happening.
The TTC produces a daily report summarizing the previous day’s operation by the rapid transit lines as well as by the two surface modes: buses and streetcars. The goal is that service operate within three minutes of the scheduled headway (the time between vehicles).
For the rapid transit lines, the goal is that the headway be no more than three minutes greater than the scheduled value 96-98% of the time, depending on the route. This is measured at several locations and times of day and so a few major delays can easily be dwarfed by the overall regularity of service. Indeed, if there is a 20 minute gap followed by several trains 2 minutes apart, there is only 1 train that fails to meet the goal even though the parade may be 10 trains long.
For the surface modes, the goal is to be ±3 minutes of the scheduled headway 65% of the time for buses and 70% of the time for streetcars. The details of how this is calculated (points on the route, number of observations per day, averaging effects, etc.) are not published, and the daily figures blend together operation on every route. (Detailed route-by-route numbers are published quarterly, and they are not very impressive.)
Roughly speaking, the TTC’s goal is to provide service within 3 minutes of the advertised frequency about 2/3 of the time. Needless to say, this guarantees that a rider will encounter a gap in their travels quite regularly to the point that when everything actually works as advertised, it is an unusual experience. Riders must assume they will be delayed and factor this into their trip plans. That is hardly the way to win new customers over to transit.
Neither the subway nor the surface metrics report the proportion of service operated as compared to the schedule. Wider headways can be caused by bunching, but they can also be caused by the service falling short of the scheduled trips/hour. The subway, for example, could get a 100% rating even if trains ran every 320 seconds during the peak (the scheduled 140 seconds plus the allowable 180 seconds of variation). In other words, the TTC could provide less than half of the planned service and still get a perfect score for “punctuality”. Similar problems exist on the surface system, compounded by the endemic issue of short-turning.
A further problem exists on routes and in periods with wide scheduled headways. Once a route (or a branch of a route) is scheduled to operate at a frequency of 15 minutes or more, headway is less important to riders than on time performance. A bus or streetcar is expected to be at a stop at a certain time, and within a small margin, it should be there so that riders do not face a long, uncertain wait, especially when making connections.
None of the metrics reported by the TTC measures on time performance for this type of route. Buses could be scheduled 30 minutes apart and be completely off of their expected times, but they would be “punctual” if they maintained their relative spacing. This is not good transit service. Overnight services have bad headway reliability numbers indicating that little or no attempt is made to operate these routes on anything resembling a reliable basis. As to whether they are on time, we have no way of knowing because this is not measured.
The TTC is working on new ways to measure service quality, but these have not yet been published. Regular riders know that subway service is not as good as the stratospheric rankings the TTC publishes, and using a flawed methodology undermines the TTC’s credibility when trumpeting its “achievements”.
On the bright side, the TTC expects to have a new “Customer Journey Time Metric” out sometime in the first quarter of 2014. This model includes various performance indicators including “headway regularity, average waiting time and passenger delay”. These are expected to contribute to a better understanding of problems with service and provision of “more reliable and consistent service delivery” according to the TTC’s Fourth Quarter review.
Scheduling can present many problems:
- “Average” conditions, represented by a fixed running time allowed between ends of a route, do not exist much of the time. Either the route has too little time, or too much, depending on many factors including weather, construction projects, accidents and passenger volume. If too little, chronic short turning ensues as I have shown in route analyses published here. If too much, vehicles dawdle and take extended breaks at terminals, breaks that come to be expected even when operating conditions don’t allow for them.
- Actual conditions vary with days of the week. Everyone knows that traffic patterns on highways are not the same each day, and the same is true of transit routes. However, routes use the same schedules Monday to Friday because to do otherwise would immensely complicate schedule creation and crew management.
- Route management strategies will vary across the system, and a supervisor must have a good sense of how a route behaves and which tactic is ideal for common circumstances. A supervisor used to looking after the Finch West bus will not understand the King car without some experience.
- One major issue, despite the TTC’s claim that it manages to headways, is that operators must be where they are scheduled to be at the start and end of their shifts, and for planned breaks. In part this is imposed by Labour Standards legislation, and in part by contract language that penalizes the TTC for a long-standing problem of operators getting off of their shifts late.
- Although the stated goal is to manage to headways, anyone watching the service will see bunching quite commonly, and little is done to break up packs of vehicles. Short turns and branching routes may not merge ideally, but analysis of operating data shows that little is done to monitor and even out vehicle spacing where this occurs.
- Service cuts to meet budget targets can actually worsen service not just because fewer vehicles are on the street, but because these vehicles are more crowded, more prone to the effects of minor delays, and more likely to run late simply because of delays at stops.
Finally, there is the question of transit priority.
Traffic rules give far too much precedence to non-transit traffic which has been building in parts of the city, especially in off-peak periods. Toronto is about to bring in new fines, towing rules and parking restrictions on major streets downtown that will, in part, reflect the fact that the “peak period” lasts much longer now than decades ago. This is only a beginning.
Offsetting this, there is a proposal to change “transit priority” traffic signals so that they operate only at certain times of the day, or when a vehicle is “late”. This shows a complete lack of understanding of what they are for. Transit vehicles can move along a route faster with priority, and on some routes, this extra speed has been factored into the schedules, if only as an avoidance of extra running time to deal with congestion. In any event, the concept of a vehicle being “late” assumes that this is the target for managing service when, in fact, the target is supposed to be vehicle spacing.
The problem is further complicated by diversions and short turns where the “on time” position of a vehicle is meaningless. If anything, diversions should get special priority because they add to a vehicle’s travel time. Many commonly used turns should have “white bar” transit call on signals, but these are comparatively rare.
TTC management must have a thorough discussion of how service can be improved. Some of this will trigger policy issues at the TTC Board and at Council, some will require new goals for management and metrics to truly reflect service quality, and some will affect labour costs and contract language. This is a difficult area because many issues are interrelated, and they cannot be fixed by a simple policy or management declaration.
Budgets and Subsidies
As I have written about the TTC budgets at length elsewhere, I won’t get into too much detail here but some items really deserve more debate than they get at the TTC Board or at Council.
On the Operating Budget, we know that the TTC took a subsidy cut in the first year of the Ford administration, went through two years of “flat lined” subsidies, and now is asking for an increase in 2014. Things are a bit more complex because of accounting adjustments. In particular, the “flat line” in 2013 was on a budget to budget basis, not in actual dollars spent.
2012 was a good year for the TTC with extra riding, stronger revenue and lower costs than predicted, and there was a “surplus” relative to the budgeted subsidy. (That “surplus” was money the City did not have to pay to the TTC.) In 2013, the TTC’s budgeted subsidy was unchanged, but there was over $40-million in headroom due to underspending in 2012. On an as spent basis, the subsidy went up in 2013 making the TTC look ever so efficient in the face of a budget freeze. This was nothing more than creative accounting, and any claim that the TTC absorbed the freeze is deeply misleading.
For 2014, the TTC is asking for $24-million in additional subsidy, but the budget passed by the TTC Board includes only $18m with a $6m unspecified reduction as requested by the City Manager. This was a spineless position for the Board to take in the face of a possible future cut to budgeted operations. After the meeting which approved this budget, Chair Stintz claimed in the media scrum that she would fight for restoration of the $6m, and CEO Andy Byford has also stated that he would work to get the $6m. Unfortunately, neither has been doing this particularly loudly, and we have no sense of what that $6m will cost in deferred maintenance or reduced service if the TTC doesn’t get what was in the original budget.
With the substantial special expenses the City has incurred for ice storm damage, any extra spending will be a hard sell at Council. At the very least, the TTC Board should have explained what the cut that they accepted will cost TTC riders, but instead they meekly voted for a lower subsidy than management wanted.
This is not just a question of accepting less service than we might otherwise see, or hoping that once again a major cost such as diesel fuel will come in lower than projected. A good deal of the day-to-day maintenance of the TTC system comes out of the Operating Budget, and cutbacks there ripple through the system in vehicle and infrastructure reliability, and a long-term decline in the system’s condition. We have been here before in the early 1990s.
Looking forward to 2015 and beyond, we have no sense of the operating subsidy requirements the TTC might have or the cost of options related to fares and service discussed above, let alone routine maintenance, utility and fuel costs.
On the Capital Budget, there are three major problems.
- First, the amount of funding available from various governments is nowhere near what is needed to handle the ten-year capital program. This is not simply a question of buying fewer buses or delaying the acquisition of new subway trains, it is also a matter of maintenance cutbacks beginning in 2014.
- Second, almost every project is classified as “State of Good Repair” and there is no distinction between the ongoing projects such as replacing worn-out infrastructure, and projects to address generational changes such as the introduction of a new, low-floor streetcar fleet, or the move to automatic train control on the subway.
- Third, budget lines are organized by department, not by function, and so several separate budgets that collectively make up one delivered project – new streetcars; subway capacity upgrades; new buses, garages and maintenance practices – are split into separate parts that only a seasoned budget reader will know are actually related.
The most detailed review of the budget actually is done by the City’s Budget Analyst who, for 2014, has recommended widespread cuts to bring planned spending into line with the City’s capital debt target. These changes were endorsed by the TTC Board with neither debate nor any explanation of the long-term effects.
We are not talking small change. The TTC’s “Base Budget” for capital is about $9-billion over the next ten years. This does not include the Spadina Extension, the Scarborough Subway, the Relief Line, or the Yonge extension to Richmond Hill. Nor does it include any of the Metrolinx projects to which Queen’s Park regularly points to show their support for transit in Toronto. We can reasonably expect various governments to shell out for signature projects, but what about the rest? As approved, there is only $6.3b in known funding to pay for the $9b in projected capital expenses.
In the “out years” of the budget from 2019 onward, the City share of required funding is roughly one quarter, Queen’s Park and Ottawa make up another quarter, and half of the budget is unfunded. This is simply not an acceptable situation, and it must be addressed by at least the City and Queen’s Park who have historically paid for ongoing capital maintenance. Hoping for money from Ottawa is nothing more than ducking the issue because the Federal Government is well known to fund on a project basis for major items such as new lines which are not even in the Base Budget.
New funding from the provincial “revenue tools” may help, but Toronto’s likely share is nowhere near what is needed to cover the historical 50% level of capital support from Queen’s Park. Meanwhile, the City must prepare to fund more of the TTC’s ongoing capital because a 25% City share is not likely to win support from the province.
While pitched battles were fought at Council over the technology and location of new rapid transit lines, an important growing part of the city was almost totally ignored: the waterfront. An area the size of the existing core area will develop over coming decades, but already would-be developers complain that they cannot market buildings without the promised transit access. A few buses on 6 Bay or 75 Sherbourne do not come close to the level of service once planned for the eastern waterfront with a streetcar/LRT connection to Union Station.
This project ran into engineering difficulties (and associated cost escalation) thanks to the difficulty of connecting the existing Bay Street tunnel to the surface of Queens Quay east of Yonge. This problem has still not been resolved, at least as far as any publicly discussed options. The route’s growing cost holds up an important project even though the money involved is a fraction of the cost of proposed subway extensions elsewhere in Toronto.
Under the Ford administration, the future of the Waterfront, especially of the Port Lands, has been uncertain. Would transit be a streetcar (or low end LRT)? Not likely with Ford in office, and we have seen proposals for a monorail and other schemes to serve the Waterfront lands. Anything to get those pesky transit vehicles out of motorists’ way.
“Transit First” was to be the watchword for development on the eastern waterfront, and yet the TTC drags its feet on commitment to anything more than the most basic service. Will riders have to make do with the now-and-then bus service for decades to come, or will we invest in better access to a huge parcel of land ripe for development?
Meanwhile, to the west of downtown, the TTC still nurses the idea of a Waterfront West LRT line, a scheme that has been around for over two decades. This route has major problems at several points along its proposed route from Union Station, west via Bremner and Fort York, through the CNE and thence along the south edge of Parkdale to a link, somewhere, with The Queensway. Would such a line actually be used by people along the route, and is it physically possible to build the line without severe incursions on various streets along the way? How would the line relate to a redeveloped Exhibition Place and Ontario Place, especially if the Relief subway line finds its way into the grounds?
The WWLRT may be an idea whose time has come and gone, at least as it has been presented by the TTC. The role, route and priority of this line should be re-examined so that it can either be formally part of medium-term plans, or dropped in favour of other links to target neighbourhoods.
Rapid Transit Plans
The rapid transit network has been the subject of much debate, and I don’t need to rehash this here. However, there are vital points that are often missed.
- Transit is a network, not a line. When construction priorities are driven by electoral math rather than overall planning, there is a good chance we will end up with bits and pieces of a system that don’t make a very good network.
- Lines that are really useful serve multiple purposes, not just a single peak period, peak direction demand.
- Neither LRT nor subways are the Devil’s work to be shunned in any “good network”. Each has its place. Planning that rejects either technology out of hand will not produce the best possible results.
- Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has a role too, but is important to remember that a bus on an HOV expressway lane or on its own private road is not providing a local service especially if stations are hard to reach. A right-of-way may be available (an expressway or a hydro corridor), but that is not necessarily the best place for a transit route.
- Commuter rail has an important role in handling travel not just from the 905 to the 416, but within the 416 itself. Queen’s Park must be more aggressive about building up GO Transit as an all-day rapid transit system, and GO fares should not create an artificial demand for local rapid transit to pick up long-haul trips from both the 416 and the 905.
- Passengers must be able to get to and from rapid transit stations. This is a particular issue for GO Transit where station locations are dictated by lines that were built primarily for fright traffic in the 19th century, not for 21st century commuters. Parking is an expensive way to subsidize riders, and it only works for the classic peak commuting patterns. All day service must also support counter-peak and non-auto based travel with good connecting local transit service at attractive fares.
- As GO Transit evolves to frequent, electrified operation, the distinction between GO and subway lines will blur. Full service and fare integration between all transit systems will be essential. Such integration does not require consolidation of all agencies, only an agreement about how to share revenue and subsidize the network.
- GO network capacity, especially at the major interchange at Union, threatens to limit the growth of transit for regional travel. If Queen’s Park is serious about reducing congestion on an ongoing basis, GO must be able to grow considerably over coming decades. Running out of room before The Big Move is completed is not an option, and we must think beyond TBM to even greater capacity in the commuter rail network. Electrification is an essential part of this evolution.
- The TTC must not plan its own rapid transit network in isolation from regional services and future growth. Regional demand should not be used to goose ridership estimates for local subway lines (as was done for the Scarborough Subway), and the combined effect of new GO and TTC rapid transit services must be examined for all new projects.
Last but not least is a cluster of issues related to accessibility. I do not speak for the community for whom “accessibility” broadly defined is provided, but the debates I do hear suggest that accessible transit is something that Toronto would prefer to keep to the minimal possible level, especially where funding is concerned. Meanwhile, Queen’s Park has legislated compliance by public bodies like the TTC with accessibility criteria, but has provided no funding in support of the needed changes. This is particularly challenging for the one subway system in Ontario, Toronto’s, where retrofits are quite complex and expensive.
Reliability is essential. Elevators and escalators do little good if they are out of service. A broken down bus or streetcar just means there is one less vehicle on the road. A broken down escalator or elevator makes the difference between access and a barrier to travel. These devices serve not just the disabled, but many riders for whom vertical travel in stations is difficult. It is not enough to turn them on in the morning – they must remain operational all day, something TTC availability statistics do not measure.
An elevator in a subway station is useless if someone cannot physically reach the station. A low-floor bus or streetcar is useless if someone cannot handle the walk to and wait at a transit stop, not to mention transfers between routes on their journey.
Accessibility is about much more than letting people in wheelchairs use subway trains. There is a wide range of requirements for accessible transit from people with a wide variety of limitations on their movement. The Wheel Trans service provides door-to-door carriage for those who require it and who qualify for the service, but it is no secret that there is an unmet demand. Other riders can use taxis, or even the “conventional” transit system provided that barriers scattered through it are removed.
TTC and City policy for several years has been to constrain the growth of van-based Wheel Trans service with a shift of more riders either to taxis or to the conventional system. What has not been discussed or studied (at least publicly) is the scale and character of the market for accessible services, and how this will evolve with demographic shifts in Toronto’s population.
What is the need for parallel transit services? What types of trips should the City be serving? What would this service look like if its scope were determined by demand, by the need to travel, not by the artificial constraint of budgets? I have never seen a policy paper about latent demand for Wheel Trans service and its evolution through coming generations, only repeated references to how Wheel Trans can be scaled back as the conventional system becomes fully accessible. What are the implications for future Operating Budgets if Wheel Trans stays at its current level or grows?
Funding for the one-time changes needed to make the system accessible must be found, and this should not compete against other priorities for essential work. Constraints in the City’s capital financing have already delayed the Easier Access program. Both Toronto and Queen’s Park have a role to play here, and pleading poor is a lame excuse when billions are rolling in the streets for new rapid transit construction.
A Few Closing Words
This has been a very long article covering a lot of ground. I have many open questions, and don’t pretend to have all of the answers.
That’s the role the TTC Board should be taking – asking questions, commissioning research, getting answers to difficult policy and financial problems so that Council, Queen’s Park and voters can better understand what transit needs, what it can do and how much this is all going to cost.
That is all part of my favourite activity – advocacy. We may not be able to do everything we want in a week or a year, but at least we should understand what we could do and what we need to do so that transit in Toronto can be much better than it is today.
Will the TTC Board take on this challenge, or are they content to sit out their term using poverty and the lack of wisdom in the Mayor’s Office to preclude any discussion. Can we prepare for a future with a Mayor and Council who really believe that transit is “the better way” to move people in Toronto?