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.

13 thoughts on “Is the TTC Really Number One?

  1. I’m guessing that the TTC is the best of the worst. And only in North America.

    Compared to the rest of the world, the TTC still has a long way to reach the top. But then the rest of world transit agencies get much better financial support for operations, either from the higher levels of governments or subsidies (leases) from their real estate holdings (office buildings, residential) which the TTC is forbidden to do.

    Steve: Actually, it’s not a question of being forbidden from getting revenue from the real estate, but that much of the property is owned by the City which reaps any income.

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  2. Let’s not pretend this is some independent body. TTC pays for membership to this body that no one has heard of before today. Also they may need to pay to be considered each year for this award. Why they are paying to be a part of the American association is another question. They should focus on improving. Not seeking awards.

    Steve: APTA is hardly a body no one has heard of, certainly not in the transit industry. There is also a CUTA (Canadian Urban Transit Association), although the TTC really is something of a big frog in a small pond there given its size compared to most other Canadian systems.

    I agree that improvement should be the TTC’s focus, and it would be a disaster (as it was decades back) for them to fall into seeking out awards, no matter how meaningless, to “prove their worth”. The great Toronto example of this was the UP Express which managed to get awards from a self-serving industry group for a few years running before it even carried a passenger.

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  3. I must take issue with Mike Mcdermid. APTA is certainly not unknown and being a member of an ‘industry association’ does allow participants to learn from others and make the kinds of contacts and connections that are so useful (as with any professional or social organisation.)

    Whether the actual award means anything is certainly more questionable but Byford, Upfold and their team HAVE made huge improvements over the past 5 years so (as Edward Keenan says in today’s Star) “Most Improved” might be more appropriate. (A bit like the National Geographic saying a few years ago that the St Lawrence Market is the best market in the world. (A great place for sure, the ‘best in the world’ – well, no.) The problems arise if the politicians think that we do not need the ‘best transit system in North America” and, continue to starve it or if it is a ‘farewell gift’ to Byford – who really needs to stay around for a few more years (frustrating though it must be for him!).

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  4. This reminds me a lot of those Skytrax awards that Air Canada boasts about all the time. A 4 star airline in North America might means not getting beat up (like Dr Dau on United Airlines), but it is hardly a sign of approval. Every time I fly Air Canada, I always worry about my luggage being delayed. This does not happen on other 4 star airlines like ANA and JAL. Skytrax is rigged in the sense that airlines paid to be in that organization and rated. APTA is a paid membership so it is hard to say that they are unbiased. Something like the Michelin Guide to Restaurants are unbiased as restaurants do not pay to be rated.

    The TTC might boast about their award, but for the person waiting for the next King tram to appear will think otherwise. Even though it says FS on the schedule, but when one waits more than 10 minutes to see one, that award does not do much.

    The TTC needs to wake up and face reality. The Beer Store is now starting home deliveries at selected locations. Amazon just purchased Whole Foods which means people might need to visit supermarkets less. Combine with the proliferation of kick scooters, bicycles, Uber and other transportation services, people might use the TTC less in the future. Riders need to be gained by good service.

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  5. “Outstanding Public Transportation System”? I almost laughed out loud when I read this. Unless they mean outstanding in a negative way, but unfortunately that won’t be the case.

    I lived in several cities around the world and TTC is by far the worst I have encountered so far. If I had the time, I would have to write them a complaint every day, it’s really that bad. But even though I don’t have much time, I probably sent them about 50 within the last year, because I couldn’t take it anymore. Several times last summer, I was walking from Roncesvalles at Queen to the Humber Bay and was faster than TTC. There is definitely a lot wrong with TTC.

    What bothers me the most is the lack of motivation to improve the situation. And I can even feel that frustration from some of the drivers when I talk to them. A lot could be done with not much effort from the city and TTC, if they only would work together. But instead of taking action, they waste a lot of time like with the King Street pilot study.

    Andy Byford is the wrong person for the job. He is British, and England is well known within Europe for the worst public transit of the continent. Certainly not the guy you want if your goal are the high standards they have in Europe. British transit systems get advice from the public transits in central Europe, mainly Germany and especially Switzerland. Maybe TTC should get some advice from people who really showed how it’s done as well.

    Regarding the comment from Benny Cheung, public transit is the future and the only future for a city like Toronto. Unfortunately, Torontonians today have to suffer from the poor decisions and planning that the city and TTC made in the past. The subway network should be at least triple of what we have now. Unfortunately, it was not developed when it was still affordable.

    There is some improvement in sight, also thanks to mayor Tory, but there is still a lack of ambition and innovation that is desperately needed to solve the transit and traffic issues of the city.

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  6. Fake news! At least now Byford can go on his way with a feather in his cap to brag about. Ought to help with negotiations for his next job once rumoured to be in Australia.

    In any event, much more to be done overcoming the old guard TTC that spends more time and effort not making changes/improvements than they do finding ways to make it happen.

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  7. BobR said: Germany and especially Switzerland. Maybe TTC should get some advice from people who really showed how it’s done as well.

    They really should. However, if we tried to get a German or a Swiss to be TTC’s CEO, they would probably quit in six months, being flabbergasted by the lack of government support and coordination for local transit compared to their home countries. Over there, “transit fare unions” (i.e. fare integration areas) spanning multiple jurisdictions are commonplace. It even works seamlessly in Switzerland, where your average canton (equivalent of a province, but with even more autonomy) is the size of the average regional municipality in Ontario, and where anything of note is decided by a referendum. Here we have problems crossing the 416/905 boundary, whereas in Switzerland it’s no biggie to have a part of the Schwyz canton within the Zurich canton fare integration area, because people from that part gravitate towards Zurich for jobs and shopping.

    Therefore we need a CEO who is used to navigating more dysfunctional transit systems and political environments. A Swiss CEO would just pull his hair out and leave.

    We also have to be fair to Britain here – it is miles ahead of Canada on the public transit file. Look at Crossrail in London – a massive investment for new underground rail corridors, while the major project in the GTA is…GO electrification? Not to mention the noticeable build-out of LRT systems outside of London in the past decade or two.

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  8. RobR: I am not saying that the TTC should be replaced. When transit consistently under delivers, people look for alternatives. I am not an avid cyclist by any means, but it took me 30 minutes to bike from Yonge/Eglington to the St Lawrence Market. If I have to wait 10 minutes for the 504 tram, my bicycle is faster. What electric kick scooters, bicycles and other personal transportation device do is offer reliability. Transit does not offer that all the time. Once one has the reliability of arriving on time by bicycle, will one gamble with transit arriving on time? I want the TTC to succeed, but they are not helping themselves.

    Awards do not mean anything. The actual soft and hard products matter the most. Both GO Transit and VIA Rail won many awards. They are hardly world class by any stretch. No matter how many awards received, the Canadian train will always be delayed somewhere. GO’s Train Bus will mostly arrive late due to traffic.

    When car manufacturers build a new car, they always benchmark themselves against something. When Ford built the Mondeo, they benchmarked it against other European competitors like Volkswagen and Opel. What does the TTC benchmark themselves against? Tokyo Metro has a 99% on time arrival. In Toronto, one medical incident on a train will ensure many trains are late on the line.

    The TTC is many decades behind in building up rail transit. If Line 5 is built using monorail technology, it could be running by now. Tunnel boring might make the street looks better because there are no concrete support columns everywhere, but it takes a long time to build. Canada is a victor nation in WWII, we defeated Nazi Germany in 6 years. But, we cannot build a few transit lines in a decade.

    Steve: I would suggest that building a monorail down the middle of Eglinton Avenue would not be the mark of a “world class” city. Intersections would vanish under the station structures. Not just a little amusement park ride for the level of demand this line will have.

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  9. It is very convenient for Byford to be on the move when his contract expires at the end of the year … that way he does not have to take the heat for Presto, nor does he have to fix it. TTC should force an extension of about a year — to see how he grapples with it. It happened on his watch.

    Steve: Well yes, sort of. The TTC was forced to adopt Presto before Byford became CEO, and I know he’s not happy with how things have turned out. “Fixing it” is another matter because for many things he is at the mercy of the vendor, Metrolinx, who for political reasons put the shiniest possible smile on any news about their system. It’s the curse of in house development. There is no real “vendor” to chase for non-performance, and making the boss look good requires ignoring a lot of the problems.

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  10. Byford’s effusiveness about the importance of APTA and hence of this reward when he spoke to the media about it made me chuckle. There’s a very sharp contrast between Byford’s attitude towards APTA now and in 2015: in March 2015 he dismissed APTA’s report on how to rectify the delays in the TYSSE (the APTA report said the fault didn’t lie with TTC management but, rather, with the contractors, who weren’t giving clear deadline-related info to TTC managers). Instead he sided with Bechtel’s report, which recommended replacing TTC project management.

    Here’s the chronology, in brief. Byford fired Sameh Ghaly and Andy Bertolo on March 19. On March 25 he presented two options to the TTC board: that the TTC continue to manage the TYSSE (but he didn’t tell board members that he’d already fired Ghaly and Bertolo) or that an outside company be hired to take over management of the TYSSE. Byford recommended the latter option, and noted he already had a company in mind. The board approved this and so did the city council (with councillors only given one day to review the relevant info before voting on the matter). Then in April the TTC board met in an in-camera session and approved a $150-million contract with Bechtel, without even putting the contract out for bids.

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  11. Benny Cheung said: “Combine with the proliferation of kick scooters, bicycles, Uber and other transportation services, people might use the TTC less in the future.”

    People who think Uber is a TTC replacement are people that either 1) are very wealthy 2) don’t ever actually take the TTC but drive around / take the cab most of the time or 3) never take transit for more than a few stops, i.e. a 10 min journey tops.

    An Uber ride – one way! – from downtown Toronto to Etobicoke or Scarborough – a daily commute for tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people – is $25-35. That is NOT an alternative to TTC’s $3.25 fare, no matter how bad the service is. People who can afford to spend $50-70 per day to commute mostly already don’t do so on the TTC.

    Uber is primarily competition for taxicab services – it takes customers away from cabs, and makes a cab accessible to people who could otherwise not afford it. I would never – except in the utmost emergency – take a cab from downtown to Etobicoke, because the thought of paying $60 for that is ludicrous to me. I do take Uber on very rare occasions (about 3-4 times a year) though, since I can bear the $30 cost late at night when I’m really tired, etc. Uber is secondarily competition for private car ownership, but only for a section of the population which rarely used their cars but had to spend tons of money on parking for example.

    No ridesharing service is going to be competition for the BD subway from Kipling to Bay, or whatever. Period.

    Scooters, bicycles, and so on, are also not things someone will ride from Mississauga to downtown Toronto. Even for those who are far closer to their destination, weather conditions for at least half the year are very inhospitable to such forms of transportation.

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  12. Number one in not having diamond lanes for buses. Number one in price. Number one in owl (blue night) buses not showing up. Mind you overnight service may have gotten better in the few years since I rode them but at the time some of the routes were hot _garbage_. 310 Bathurst you stink! (Stank? Stunk?)

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  13. @RobR: The subway network should be at least triple of what we have now. Unfortunately, it was not developed when it was still affordable.

    So part of your rant is that we should have built subway lines everywhere in Toronto in the past. To where would the planners of the past have built these? We’re not New York, Seoul, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow, or even Chicago; we’re Toronto, and there wasn’t (and still isn’t) enough density in ages past to be building subway lines to nowhere. If the people of the past had done what you and others wanted, we would’ve had misjudged white elephant lines to nowhere similar to the Sheppard STUBway that’s costing a ton of money to run and barely makes a profit (I’m thinking of this station in particular). If that’s your grand plan for Toronto’s transit, then I’m glad that the people of the past never built it the way you think that they should have built it-it would have been a colossal waste of money and time as well as being a white elephant that goes nowhere to places that might not have the development for said lines (and please don’t give me that bullcaca response about ‘if you build them, there will be development’ — that’s barely happened on Sheppard, with just a little development where the Canadian Tire and IKEA stores are around Leslie.)

    Like it or not, RobR, the people of the past planned the subway system as well as they could plan it; they didn’t have crystal balls or precognitive telepaths that could see into the future and help the city’s leaders plan what’s needed now. Any planning for a gazillion subway lines that you wanted them to do could have been disastrous; we need light rail in the affected parts that need transit, not subways. We almost had that (Transit City), but a silly electorate afflicted by subwayitis with a touch of New York envy derailed it leading us to still having transit woes. So crying about Byford and this award is just you being a big whiner (you and others here should learn to be glad for small successes that are recognized by others and accept them even if they’re not what you and others immediately want). Great change/recovery from a bad period takes time — it can’t be solved by waving a magic wand as you and others seems to want it (to paraphrase a great saying about Barack Obama somebody made, Byford went to the University of Leicester, the University of London, and the University de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, not Hogwarts or some other magic using school).

    People need to read and learn about how transit’s planned and not be coming up with schoolkid howlers like you, other voters, and Mayor Tory have been coming up with, and ease up on the whining — you’re lucky to be living in a place that has public transit and not a backwater that has none at all.

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