In a previous article, I wrote about the crisis in system capacity across all modes – buses, streetcars and subways – and the danger that Toronto may face years without meaningful improvement in transit capacity.
This is a campaign issue, but one that is embraced only by one major candidate, Olivia Chow, and even then, not very well.
Full disclosure: Early in the campaign, I was approached by the Chow team to advise on what became her better bus service plank, but I certainly didn’t write it for reasons that will soon be obvious.
Her transit plan includes support for LRT lines, GO electrification and the first stage of a Downtown Relief subway line. It also includes this commitment regarding bus service:
A better transit plan starts investing now, with buses. Because 60% of TTC rides involve a bus and as the TTC says, the only way to expand transit now is with buses. So Olivia will invest to boost bus service right away, investing $15 million a year.
When we stack a paltry $15m up against the billions in rapid transit plans, it looks rather puny and gives the impression we are trying to get more service on the cheap. How can small change by transit budget standards stack up against the massive spending schemes of rapid transit networks?
Where did the number come from? Back when the Ford/Stintz crew started to dismantle the Miller-era service standards, the anticipated saving was only about $14m/year. However, reversing the cuts is not quite as simple.
When you cut transit service, you can reduce costs simply by letting old buses wear out and not replacing them, by reducing the operator workforce through attrition, and by cutting plans for a new bus garage (needed for a bigger fleet) out of the capital budget. That’s precisely what happened.
To undo the damage, we need more buses, more garage space and more operators. Some, but by no means all, of the cost will come out of the $15m, but there is much more involved.
McNicoll Garage has a pricetag of $181-million (of which only about $80m has been funded as of 2014), and it is required simply to handle growth in the bus fleet with no provision for better service standards. Yet another garage will be required to support better service, although in the short term one garage will do for both purposes. Also, by 2020, some bus services will have been replaced by rapid transit lines, but we don’t really know how much because the future of various schemes is uncertain.
(Some of the chaos in fleet planning dates from the cancellation of Transit City, and still more from shortsighted cutbacks of the last few years.)
New buses cost about $700k apiece. With current peak service at around 1,500 buses (not including those used for construction service), a 10% bump in fleet capacity means 150 new vehicles at a cost of $105-million.
At the very least, in the next few years, the TTC would face the following capital costs over and above what is already committed:
- $100m to fully fund McNicoll Garage
- $105m to purchase 150 buses
Moreover, the McNicoll project must be accelerated for completion before 2019, the current schedule. The idea that Toronto would see no additional peak service for five years is a disgusting testament to the ill-informed folly of the Ford/Stintz era.
Can We Improve Bus Service While Awaiting New Buses?
When I advised the Chow campaign about buses, two factors were included in the question of short-term availability:
- Can some of the existing fleet scheduled for retirement in 2015 be retained at least long enough for new vehicle deliveries in mid-2016 (likely the earliest an order placed in the new Council’s term could arrive)?
- Do known, planned reductions in construction activity in 2015 (due both to the Pan Am Games and the completion of major projects) give Toronto a one-year window where the number of “construction buses” can be reduced from recent levels?
The TTC is adamant that the old buses cannot be kept alive, but I have to scratch my head and wonder whether the real problem is reliability of the newer fleet, notably the hybrids. Toronto needs some straight talk about the condition of its bus fleet and whether buses can be kept rolling into mid 2016.
Some have argued that keeping the lift-equipped buses running would be a disservice to the disabled riders. Without question, riders who encounter those vehicles would be at a disadvantage, but – even more so – all riders suffer when there isn’t enough capacity for anyone to board a vehicle. Any move to keep these buses in service must be accompanied by a guarantee that they will be withdrawn as soon as possible and used only as rush hour extras, not for all-day service.
As for construction, we know that some projects will be finished or winding down: the Queens Quay renewal ends next month, the Spadina subway extension will reach a point where delays thanks to torn up station sites such as Finch West should be over, the Metrolinx Georgetown South project will be done. Finally, the TTC has no major track projects planned for 2015 that require service replacements with buses (unless they have changed the plan published as part of the 2014 capital budget).
It won’t be easy, but the TTC should do more than shrug its shoulders and say “we cannot run more service because we have no buses”.
Service Improvements Within The Existing Fleet
Two changes are possible immediately: better off peak service, and better PM peak service.
The TTC has already proposed a return to the pre-Ford loading standards in its Opportunities to Improve Transit Service report.
Better peak service means a bigger fleet, but only in the AM peak because there are 85 fewer peak buses scheduled in the afternoon than in the morning. (The AM peak includes school and work trips in the same time period, whereas in the PM these are spread out.) Afternoon peak service could be improved immediately, at least to the point of matching AM fleet requirements.
Off peak improvements, of course, require no additional vehicles, only the will to fund the service. The TTC’s estimate of reduced off-peak crowding is about $11.9m/year, although this does not take us all the way back to pre-Ford levels.
The TTC report includes other proposals such as the creation of a core network of 10-minute routes, another off-peak change that requires no additional vehicles, with an annual cost of $13.6m.
What About Streetcar Routes?
Although they are over a year late arriving, the new streetcars have finally made their appearance and the fleet should build up in coming months now that the strike at Bombardier has been settled.
The TTC’s original fleet plans called for old streetcars to be retired at least as fast as new ones could replace them, but the plans were flawed on two counts:
- ALRVs (the two-section cars used mainly on Queen and King) are the least reliable, and would be the first to go. The published fleet plan would have actually seen fleet capacity go down even while new cars were entering service because the plan made no allowance for reassignment of the smaller CLRVs to take over the work of larger ALRVs.
- The implementation plan contained no provision for improving service on routes that were later in the rollout (e.g. King, Queen, Carlton) until new cars finally went into service there.
Fortunately, the TTC may have seen the error of its ways and a revised fleet plan is expected in the 2015 budget. (See page 25 of the August 2014 presentation on the low-floor streetcars.)
The problem with streetcar route capacity is compounded by schedules that do not give cars enough time to make their trips under today’s conditions. The King car recently saw extended running times, and changes are likely needed elsewhere in the network. Longer trips require more vehicles if service is to remain at the same scheduled level.
There is no reason that the TTC could not begin improving peak streetcar service in 2015 as the new fleet increases total system capacity. This will require work to keep older cars running for a few more years, but providing service is the TTC’s job and they need to figure out the best way to achieve this goal.
As with the bus network, nothing prevents the TTC from improving off-peak services.
Where Do We Put The Vehicles?
An issue raised by the TTC is that they have no garage space, indeed that their current fleet strains the capacity of the system. If old vehicles are not retired or if new ones arrive faster than space is available, supplementary space will be needed.
The question for the TTC is whether they should lease land or use city-owned space (including commuter parking lots) for bus storage. Wherever this is done, the extra space must be near existing garages to simplify servicing, fuelling and dispatching.
An attitude that “we can’t do anything” dooms Toronto to declining service and is an abdication of management’s responsibility to make the best of a bad situation.
What Must Be Done
At its August meeting, the TTC Board passed a motion asking staff for information on the requirements to run more service. The text of this motion comes from a deputation I prepared for that meeting (in case anyone wonders why it aligns so closely with the sort of thing I have been recommending).
This information will be vital to inform the debate about what can be done, and how soon Toronto can see improvements.
The next requirement is quite simple: there must be a will both by TTC management and by Council to actually work as hard as possible to improve service, especially in the short term when there will be challenges thanks to fleet constraints.
All in, capital and operating, this will cost more than $15m/year, and Toronto should be prepared to pay more. We sit through interminable shouting matches with candidates who happily draw multi-billion dollar maps as their “solution” to our problems. We can only dream of future decades when riders might see better service. That’s not a pro-transit platform, but simply a game of smoke and mirrors to buy votes.
Any mayoral candidate who is serious about improving transit has to start with a program that will improve transit now, not after one or two more election cycles. Rapid transit is important, but without better service on the existing system, as soon as possible, the credibility of transit as a real travel alternative will wither, and political support for any improvements will evaporate.