Is the TTC Really Number One?

Monday, June 26 saw Toronto’s media all cluster at Union Station for “a matter of importance to the TTC”. What, the assembled scribes wondered, could this be? The TTC brass on hand were an unusual group to see behind the podium with reps from all areas of the organization.

The news turned out to be [pause here for trumpet fanfare] that the American Public Transit Association (APTA) had given the TTC its 2017 award as “Outstanding Public Transportation System”. There is actually a separate category for large transit systems, and this means the TTC is competing against the likes of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta (who won in 2016), but not New York City because they are not APTA members.

Not that the New York transit systems are in shape to compete for awards except, possibly, the greatest frustration for riders. If anything, New York is a cautionary tale for Toronto about what can happen when you just make do and cut back on funding for maintenance and operations.

TTC CEO Andy Byford made a point of giving credit to his management team and the TTC staff for making this award possible. Yes, a little credit where credit is due is definitely in order even if none of the front line folks were actually there to share in the photo op. That oversight has been corrected on the award’s web page¬†which notes that:

None of this could have been done without the passion, professionalism and commitment of the 14,000 employees of the TTC

Byford reiterated this sentiment both in his public remarks and in private comments to individual reporters afterward. The award is important to the people who actually move the TTC every day under sometimes trying circumstances and less than complimentary dealings with riders.

APTA’s Acting President and CEO Richart A. White is quoted in the press release:

The TTC’s successful implementation of a five-year modernization program demonstrates that it is a leader in the public transportation industry and a role model for other public transit systems.

Byford made a big point of the transformation his five-year plan brought, and looks forward to the next such plan now in the works. That plan will take the TTC through its centennial year in 2021, provided that Queen’s Park isn’t bone-headed enough to legislate the organization out of existence.

This was very much a self-congratulatory event, and riders might be forgiven for asking “Number One … really?”

The problem here is that APTA is rewarding the TTC for achieving (or at least being well on the way to) a plan that does not reflect a lot of day-to-day experience on the system. Things may be improving, but horror stories come often enough to undermine the award’s credibility.

Byford wisely guarded against the TTC becoming an awards junkie, a fate that befell it in the 1980s when the TTC actively sought out every award it could get as a way to prove management’s worth to the Board. The last thing Toronto needs is to aspire to win more awards per year than any other city.

The accomplishments cited by the TTC are a mixed bag, and include items Byford acknowledged were started during his predecessor’s term such as the soon-to-open Spadina subway extension to Vaughan and the orders for new streetcars and subway trains. These were not really part of a five-year plan, but rather works-in-progress that were rolled into Byford’s list of goals. His achievements lie in getting these projects on track, wrangling with dysfunctional project design and management, and going head-to-head various suppliers and contractors.

Included in the list are service increases implemented, grudgingly, by Mayor Tory once he discovered just how bare the transit cupboard was after Rob Ford’s cutbacks:

  • Increased service on more than 40 routes, operating all day, every day and 52 routes now operate every 10 minutes or better
  • Increased service on the Blue Night Network so that 99 per cent of Toronto residents now live within a 15-minute walk of overnight bus and streetcar service

Certainly, getting many of the Miller-era improvements restored after Tory had run on a platform claiming they were not necessary was a worthwhile feat, but it reminds us that some of the “achievements” consist simply of getting Toronto back to where we were. Issues still remain with service capacity across the network, and that comes directly from making do with subsidies that do not keep up with the combined effects of inflation and hoped-for ridership growth. Indeed, the TTC goes into plans for its 2018 budget year facing yet another demand to reduce subsidies from a Council that cares only about keeping down taxes, not providing better service.

In the same vein, another achievement claimed is:

  • A more accessible TTC with the addition of external announcements on buses, subways and streetcars and more fully-accessible subway stations

Again, the question comes down to whether the service provided for accessibility actually meets the need. In that regard, legislation forces specifics on the TTC both in terms of passenger movement, information and availability of service, a situation not shared by the general riding public. Many accessibility features exist not because the TTC chose to implement them, but because they were forced on it by devoted advocates.

And please can we be spared the marketing:

  • Underwent a brand revitalization moving the brand from one of a utility to what it really is: a critical part of Torontonians’ everyday lives

Lines like this really undermine the TTC’s credibility. I cannot help remembering how often style ruled over substance in Byford’s early days under the Stintz/Ford administration. The TTC’s “brand” is defined by what it does, not by what it claims to be.

The most important line in the press release is that “there is still much to do”. The TTC is making changes internally that should bear fruit in better management, but the central issue of service quality requires strong leadership on two counts: one to gain political support not just for a few big-ticket extensions, but for better-funded service overall; the other to continue the fight to make “TTC culture” truly responsive to service and rider needs. This includes avoidance of success metrics that validate the status quo, that measure service via a standard so lax that merely showing up with a bus now and then is likely to win a gold star.

Advocacy is a difficult role for a CEO in a politically charged environment. Speaking his mind cost Byford’s predecessor, Gary Webster, his job. Going into an election year, the TTC needs to advance a strong plan for improvement, one that may challenge the “fiscal realities” politicians speak about except when their pet projects are on the line. The TTC cannot become the Nirvanna of transit systems overnight, but it must try harder.

An award for best sustained commitment to and delivery of excellent transit would be worth winning.