John Tory’s election campaign had a single focus: his SmartTrack plan for service on GO Transit lines to link Markham, Scarborough, Union Station, the Weston corridor and the Airport. With the election over, Tory has been briefed by senior staff in various agencies including the TTC, and to his credit is now looking beyond SmartTrack at the larger system.
In his State of the City address today (November 27), Tory spoke quite openly about the damage to the transit system through funding cuts imposed during the Ford era in 2011 and 2012. (Full video of Tory’s remarks is available from CP24.)
To his credit, he wants those cuts reversed, subject to the usual caveat of whether Toronto can afford to spend more. That, of course, is as much a question of what Toronto wants to afford as we have seen through both the elimination of the Vehicle Registration Tax and the levying of the Scarborough Subway Tax.
I wrote recently about the crisis in service capacity, but for the benefit of the Mayor Elect and the incoming Council, a refresher course about what might be done with transit service.
Links to previous articles:
- The crisis in service capacity (August 2014)
- Service changes for February 2012
- Original proposals for service changes in January 2012 (revised in February)
- Service changes for May 2011
It’s a joy to hear those service cuts — proposed by Rob Ford and implemented by his puppet TTC under Karen Stintz — described as damaging the quality of transit for riders. The problem now is how to restore service quality. The debate needs more detailed background than we have heard from Tory and from the TTC. This is not the time for half-measures, for giving away what we might have for fear of terrifying the Mayor Elect and Council about the cost of repairing the system.
Myth: We cannot improve service because we have no spare vehicles.
The bus and streetcar shortage applies only to peak services when everything that runs is pushed out onto the street. However, many of the 2011 and 2012 cuts affected off-peak services and there is no constraint on the fleet outside of the peak.
The problem for the TTC lies with the budget they are given to operate service including the “headcount” for staff. Some budget hawks have a fetish for headcount and ignore the fact that you cannot run a bus without a driver. More service needs more drivers even if the vehicles are sitting available in yards. There are problems today because of a shortage not just of working vehicles but of operators to drive them.
If the debate is hobbled by the assumption that “we can’t do it”, the question of staffing levels and appropriate budget never gets on the table. This must change.
Going back to the Ridership Growth Strategy’s (RGS) loading standards affects various types of service in different ways. For example, there was little effect on streetcars from the Miller-era standards because there were no streetcars available then for better peak service. Only off peak services saw an improvement, and even then, only services that ran infrequently.
On the bus network, the off peak changes varied depending on whether a route had “frequent service” (better than every 10 minutes). Infrequent routes moved from a standard of “seated load plus 25%” to “seated load”. When this was reversed in 2012, the change was more drastic because, by then, the fleet was mainly comprised of low floor buses that have comparatively little standing room. The off-peak standard for frequent bus service today is only slightly lower than the peak period standard, and buses are crowded all of the time.
Another management problem for the TTC is that the size of vehicles operated does not always match the schedule. On streetcar lines, one may find a standard sized “CLRV” attempting to carry the load of the 50% larger “ALRV”. On bus routes with 18m articulated buses scheduled, one may find a 12m standard bus filling in for an artic. This is a question of vehicle availability, and transit operations are compromised by these inconsistencies.
Peak service improvements will be a bigger challenge because of the need for more buses and streetcars. On the bus fleet, Toronto hobbled itself by delaying a bus purchase a few years ago as well as start of construction on a new garage in Scarborough, a project that is now subject to complaints by abutting residents and could be further delayed.
On the streetcar fleet, deliveries of new cars are well behind the original schedule, even allowing for Bombarier’s strike. Toronto is long overdue for a clear report and strategy from the TTC on just when and how quickly the 204 car order will actually arrive. Andy Byford’s now talks about a transitional plan to keep more old cars in service to beef up capacity on routes as new cars are received, but a detailed proposal has yet to appear. This plan and its budget implications are an essential part of responding to service pressures. We should not hear something like “we would love to run more cars, but we don’t have enough budget room for drivers”. Shortages should not be planned into the budget.
Restoring Hours of Service
The 2011 changes affected lightly used services on 41 routes. These had received 18 hour/day service as part of RGS on the premise that the network should exist all day, not just when the TTC thought a critical number of riders could be found. Some of the cuts encountered opposition both because of disputes about actual riding levels, and because of the effect on neighbourhoods that became quite distant from transit service.
By definition, these were off-peak changes and fleet availability has no bearing on the ability to operate these routes.
Revising the Blue Night Network
One of the August 2014 TTC proposals involved a review of the Blue Night bus and streetcar network for additional service on existing lines and some new routes. One very badly needed change is the implementation of strict time points for night routes so that riders know when to expect vehicles and can even plan connections. (A similar change is required for infrequent off-peak services in general.)
Night services are now among the lowest ranked for headway reliability of TTC routes, a difficult situation to understand during periods when that TTC touchstone, traffic congestion, has little effect on most routes.
The Unmet Need
While the TTC and Toronto have spent four years arguing about the best place to put new subway lines, what has been lost is any continuity in planning for general ridership growth. The system as a whole is gaining riders at about 3% annually with more of this falling to surface, off peak riding, the very service we have strangled in the name of “efficiency”.
Peak demand exists as well, but the TTC barely keeps up with demand and already has deferred or rolled back some improvements because it lacks the resources to serve that demand. This is not going to be fixed with one bus order or one new garage, and Council must face up to a realistic plan to expand surface operations on the TTC.
How many more buses and streetcars do we need, and when should they be operating? What are the implications for operating and capital budgets?
A further complication is the declining reliability of the “hybrid” bus fleet that could force premature retirement of hundreds of buses just when the system needs to be expanding.
No News is Bad News
The Karen Stintz era at the TTC was all about good news, something to smile about, to bring cheer to a system that was falling apart around us, and, eventually, to prop up a mayoral campaign.
That should not be the function of one of our most important civic agencies.
John Tory, as Mayor Elect, has already told Toronto some hard facts about the situation we are in, and he has the opportunity, early in his term, to correct the sins of the Ford years. This is the time for laying out all of the problems, embarrassing though they might be, and looking hard at the budgets — real budgets, not fictions designed to hide future costs “below the line” of beyond the 10-year planning window. We will not like what we see, and Tory may be tempted to settle for much less than we need in the name of restraining growth in taxes and fees.
That would be the wrong approach. At a very minimum, Toronto must see just how bad the problem is (and the TTC isn’t the only agency with big problems). Only then can we decide how quickly we wish to address the situation, and what tactics we might use. If we choose to “go slow”, then accept what this means for services and recognize just how bad transit will become before it gets visibly better.