At its December board meeting, the newly-appointed Toronto Transit Commission board had little new business to discuss on its agenda. The heavy policy debates will come in January with the 2015 Operating Budget and the 2015-2024 Ten Year Capital Plan.
The board is a mixed bag of old and new faces, and there is no real sense yet of how this group will react to calls for improved service and the reversal of cuts for which some of them were responsible during the Ford/Stintz era. Josh Colle is now the TTC Chair, a position held by his father Mike, now an MPP, from 1988 to 1994. He is hard to read, and like so much of the new John Tory administration, uncertain as to whether holding the line on taxes takes precedence over the quality of service. Until the budget debates, Toronto will not know whether Colle is a new “transit champion” in name only, or if he and his board members will fight for TTC riders at Council.
The so-called citizen members of the board (four of the eleven seats go to non-councillors) have been carried over from the previous term, and will sit until their replacements are appointed early in 2015. The choices made by the Civic Appointments Committee, itself dominated by Tory-sympathetic Councillors, will give us a sense of just how independent the Mayor and his circle want the TTC Board to be.
To set the stage for the new term, CEO Andy Byford presented a TTC Overview under the title “The Road to Modernization”. There is nothing particularly new here, but it gives a sense of Byford’s focus. The title is somewhat ironic, the sort of things one would have expected half a century or more ago, not a call-to-arms for a system that prides itself for its reputation in the transit industry.
The makeup of the TTC’s customers has been reported before in the quarterly polling data on rider satisfaction, but the information is worth repeating for politicos and pundits whose view of transit’s purpose starts and ends with home-work commute trips.
- 57% of all riders are women
- 64% of riders are employed with the remainder being students, retirees and unemployed
- There is a wide range of income levels among riders, and the system cannot be thought of as serving one demographic
- Less than half of TTC trips (44%) are for work
- The majority of riders use the system regularly, but one quarter (27%) are on the system once a week or less
- 70% of riders believe that the best way for the TTC to improve is to run more service, while only 15% feel that the best option is a fare freeze
This presents quite a challenge for the Board in setting priorities and arguing where money might be spent. The peak period commuting crush is well-known and the bane of transit riders. It is the legacy of too many years of making do, of saying that “efficiencies” are all Toronto needs to absorb growing demand. The mood of riders is that better service is what they want, not a fare freeze, the populist politician’s glib substitute for a real action on transit.
The TTC network is based on transfers, on a (mainly) grid network with the trunk rapid transit lines fed by on-street routes. The importance of the bus and streetcar networks cannot be exaggerated — 51.5% of TTC riders begin their trips on a bus route and a further 10.6% start out with a streetcar. Of the bus riders, two in five do not transfer to any other mode. Only 28.6% of riders are subway-only users.
Any plan to improve service that ignores the surface system is doomed to fail, and yet political debates rage over subway fantasy maps, not over buses or streetcars (except to the degree that these are disdained by some politicians and motorists).
Of the TTC’s 10 top routes for weekday ridership, only three are bus lines, and these were all in areas proposed for LRT conversion in Transit City.
On the basis of passengers per service hour, six of the top 10 are streetcar routes, no surprise given both the vehicle capacity and the high turnover of passengers along the streetcar lines. An often neglected component in route comparisons is average trip length, and routes that serve many short trips will show higher “efficiency” on this measure.
Actual service is provided based on occupancy — peak load — not on boarding counts. A bus might carry 50 passengers for 10km, or it might carry 10 of them each for 2km. The average load will be quite different, but the boardings per hour (or km) values will be the same.
The Capital Budget and Ten Year Plan are a major headache for the TTC because roughly one third of the planned projects have no identified funding. Contributions from Queen’s Park and Ottawa look good on paper, but far too much of this comes as project-specific money, not as an ongoing allocation. As the 2014 Capital Budget report stated:
Most of the projects on the unfunded list are precisely the type that have received very significant Provincial or Federal government capital support in the past. The project-specific upper-level government funding that has been provided in the past either has been or are nearly completed. [2014 Capital Budget Report at page 2]
The Spadina subway extension and the Scarborough Subway project are additional to the “base budget” of $9.3-billion, and they have their own dedicated funding. When the TTC talks of “expansion” within the base budget, it does not include these two major projects.
For the Operating Budget, one quarter comes from City subsidy. (Note that this amount includes about $90-million of provincial gas tax revenue that Toronto dedicates to TTC operations.) In discussions about fares, there is a delicate balance between what riders will accept, and what would counterproductively drive riders away from the system. The relationship is not linear in that small fare hikes have little or no effect, but a bump of 20¢ is expected to reduce demand by 1.3%, and a bump of 40¢ would cause a 3% drop.
An important component in the reaction to any fare proposal is that riders need to feel they are getting what they paid for. In that regard, TTC management now describes the 2011 service cuts as doing “tremendous damage” by adding to crowding, reducing service quality and creating long-term problems of restoring the system to its former state, let along making improvements. Sadly, when these cuts were pushed through “for the greater good” as former chair Stintz claimed, few voices on the TTC board or in management opposed them. The miraculous conversion is a little hard to swallow.
The TTC’s subsidy/trip is the lowest of the GTA region’s systems and in comparison with other major Canadian and U.S. cities. Toronto talks a good line about being a “transit city”, but when it comes to paying the bills, politicians are hostage to the “no new taxes” brigade, and have been for years. The Scarborough Subway tax is a notable exception, but its benefits, such as they may be, won’t be seen for nearly a decade.
Byford’s report trots out charts we have seen before comparing TTC’s subway network to other world systems. However, this information is fraught with limitations of the source data on two counts. First, assignment of revenue to a specific route in a flat fare system is very difficult and can be skewed depending on how this is done. There is no “right” way, and each methodology produces its own distortions. Second, there are substantial variations in accounting for maintenance costs from system to system notably in the split between capital and operating budgets. Historically, the TTC has preferred to maximise the use of the capital accounts because they attract a higher subsidy.
The report reviews the past few years’ achievements, and talks of “laying the foundations” for rebuilding the TTC. Part of this was simply a question of credibility both that TTC management even would acknowledge the system’s problems, let alone be willing to fix them. A major change was the recognition, publicly, that the TTC was no longer a first-tier organization, and that acceptance of mediocrity had become the norm. In part, of course, this was the result of years of underfunding going back well before the Ford era, and a “make do” attitude this engendered.
However, a more insidious problem at the TTC is the tendency to place blame for almost everything on external factors, an attitude that is very deeply rooted and difficult to change. Stir in departmental silos and rivalries and you have a classic challenge for organizational renewal. That’s the situation Byford inherited when he unexpectedly replaced Gary Webster at the head of the TTC two years ago. That abrupt handover is now far enough in the past that it is now the “Andy Byford” TTC, and the responsibility for results lies on his shoulders.
A major problem in the Byford era has been what I would call a concentration on the superficial — cleaner washrooms and simplistic good news stories. This was in part thanks to the era of Stintz and Ford. One regarded the TTC as little more than a springboard for her own political aspirations, while the other cared about transit only to the extent that it underpinned a “subways, subways, subways” mentality. Whatever did happen at the TTC, it tended to be small scale and cost little, or even ideally, save money. Squeezing “efficiency” out of the organization was the key goal.
TTC management has two audiences, two markets so to speak, for the work that they do. One is Council, and behind that the larger mass of voters many of whom have little use for spending more on public transit. The other is that vast horde of long-suffering TTC riders who want to see real improvements in their service. By 2014, especially after Stintz’ departure from the Chair’s Office, the focus began to shift more to service issues and to the challenges — managerial and financial — of delivering real improvement on the street.
Byford is not there yet, and this isn’t a “just around the corner” situation — years of rebuilding are needed that will require changes within the TTC and strong support from Council both on financing and on reordering priorities for the use of space on busy transit corridors. This comes at a time when the system is struggling with a legacy of underspending:
- The subway signal system passed its “best before” date years ago, and is an ongoing challenge to reliable operations.
- Some subway track structures (the original Yonge line’s open cut sections) date from its construction over half a century ago. The track and ties have been renewed over time, but not the foundation in which everything rests causing ongoing issues with track stability and signal circuit operation.
- The elderly streetcar fleet is overdue for renewal, but this process has been delayed by a variety of factors, some technical, some political. Meanwhile, there has been no significant increase in peak capacity on the streetcar network for two decades because there are no spare cars. Even off-peak improvements are limited because there are no spare “budget hours”, a value that translates into headcount for drivers. There may be spare vehicles, but no money to pay someone to drive them.
- The bus fleet’s size was artificially constrained both by a change in loading standards in the Ford era, and by a decision to postpone capital projects (bus purchases and a new garage) to trim capital requirements.
This is compounded by basic operational problems that the TTC is only starting to address including:
- Changing subway scheduling and operations to improve terminal operations and as-operated (as opposed to scheduled) line capacity.
- Changing surface operations to reduce the need for short turns by the use of gap-filling vehicles, schedules that reflect actual operating conditions, and line management that concentrates more on providing a regular headway than keeping operators strictly “on time”.
When we see the 2015 budgets, we may get a sense of the options management is placing before their Board and Council. Some information may come out in advance at meetings of the TTC’s own budget subcommittee, but there is no schedule for its operation on the TTC’s site. As and when this is available, I will update this article.
The behind-the-scenes question is whether Mayor Tory really wants to hear the hard truths about what needs to be done, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. We have already seen his reaction to the August proposals for system improvements brought forward by Andy Byford. During the campaign, Tory’s first reaction was that Byford was irresponsible in bringing such issues forward without a funding strategy (even though that’s Council’s job, and now his own as Mayor). Moreover, it is no secret that the existence of this report riled those in Tory’s inner circle who saw it as favouring a rival candidate, Olivia Chow.
For his part, Byford has stated publicly (at a TTC Riders meeting in early December where he received a “Transit Champion” award) that if Council wants to fire him for doing his job, he will leave to work somewhere else. That Byford would say this shows it’s not just a minor tiff, and that “Team Tory” risks losing a hard-to-replace CEO of a key organization. Imagine the challenge of recruiting a new CEO after losing two in a row to political meddling. (That was also the reason Toronto lost David Gunn years ago.)
There is more to running a transit system than drawing a few lines on a map. The Mayor and Council must accept that transit has become “their problem”, something a mere wave of the hand and vague edicts about doing things better won’t solve.
For his part, Andy Byford has moved into the hard parts of “Modernization”, those requiring real change in his organization and in Toronto’s transit political environment. Will he be allowed to achieve anything, or will better transit be something for those “better times” that never quite arrive?