As the TTC ponders the future of transit service through a 5 and 10 year outlook, they seek public input on where transit should be going in the years ahead. The focus of this plan is the surface route network which is too often overlooked in the debates, political gamesmanship and pitched battles about rapid transit expansion. The City and Province routinely debate expansion projects with multi-billion dollar price tags, but invest little in the surface system that is essential to transit’s overall success.
There are 1.2 million people using the TTC’s surface transit (bus and streetcar) network every day. That’s 70% of the 1.7 million total number of people who take the TTC each day. [TTC website]
Many targets for improvement are included in the TTC’s work, but the basic provision of more and better service does not get the attention it deserves. For many years, thanks to tax-fighting limits on TTC growth going back to Mayor Ford and beyond, the TTC’s surface fleet grew slowly if at all. Fleet growth has gone, in part, to increasing the pool of spare buses for maintenance. Much scheduled service growth has been directed to replacing streetcars with buses and making allowance for slower traffic speeds and long-running construction projects such as the Crosstown.
|AM Peak Service||Buses||Streetcars|
For many years, the fundamental problem facing any call for better service is “we have no buses, we have no streetcars” compounded by “we have no garages”.
The political situation, historical and current, does not excuses total inaction. There are issues both inside and outside of the TTC that deserve debate: the relative importance of transit, motorists and other users of road space; the management of service so that riders receive something close to the quantity and quality advertised in schedules. However, there is no “magic bullet” that will improve transit painlessly without extra cost, management effort and realignment of transit’s political importance for more than big construction projects and photo ops.
The Plan will be developed in consultation with customers and stakeholders and:
- Identify key opportunities to improve transit services
- Evaluate and prioritize network-level service improvements
- Outline a five-year service-focused business plan
The Plan will also continue the TTC’s corporate focus on preparing transparent, multi-year plans and will:
- Set the foundation for future annual service plans
- Identify and link service-related operating and capital cost requirements
- Bridge the gap between the TTC’s near-term planning with long-term City and Provincial plans [p 1]
These are laudable goals, but there is a challenge for both TTC staff and for the Board: does the political will exist to produce a plan that aspires to a stronger role for transit complete with the costs and trade-offs this will require, or is Toronto afraid to contemplate anything beyond “business as usual” planning?
This is not simply a question of buying vehicles and building more garages, but of recognizing that the compound effect of population growth and more service will drive up costs faster than inflation. When the political goal is to limit fare, subsidy and tax increases, the TTC is challenged to maintain the existing service, let alone improve to address latent demand and the widespread sense that transit is not “The Better Way”.
The transit wish lists among existing riders and those who use other modes is not the same for obvious reasons. Riders want a better travel environment and service, while non-riders want fast, cheaper ways to get around. However, both groups agree on five targets: reliability, crowding, wait time, trip duration and affordability. That list says something about the quality of what is now on offer.
Far too often, calls for better transit meet with the response “we can’t afford it”, and this precludes even a study to determine what might or might not be possible. That was the strength of the Ridership Growth Strategy of March 2003. That study provided a menu of possible system improvements together with costs and potential benefits. Simply having that menu told us all what might be done should resources become available. Without such a strategy, asking for transit changes is akin to walking into a restaurant where your dinner order must await a study to find out what might be available.
In August 2014, the TTC report Opportunities to Improve Transit Service in Toronto proposed several changes many of which are now in place, most recently the two-hour transfer.
The 2019 work will “… focus on near-term improvements that can be delivered within five years that enhance the TTC’s core-competency, mass transit …”. [p 1]
Five “opportunities” for improvement are:
- Improve surface transit schedules
- Prioritize transit on key surface transit corridors
- Enhance the customer experience at key surface transit stop areas
- Provide new connections with new higher-order transit services
- Accelerate integration with regional transit agencies and complementary modes of transport [p 2]
A troubling omission in this list is explicitly the provision of better transit service. Improving schedules and providing transit priority can bring better efficiency to provision of transit, but there is no actual goal to increase transit capacity. “Customer experience” at major stops will improve, but there is nothing here about their experience once on board a vehicle.
The TTC’s Corporate Plan includes five critical paths including “Move more customers reliably”. However, it also includes “Transform for financial sustainability”. These are competing goals especially when just keeping the lights on may require decisions to cut or constrain growth plans.
This competition is made explicit by two sections side-by-side in the report.
The Plan will continue the TTC’s corporate focus on preparing transparent, customer-facing, multi-year plans that:
- Set the foundation for future annual service plans that will outline, in-detail, service improvements for the upcoming year;
- Identify and link service-related operating and capital cost requirements over a five-year period which will provide the public, the TTC Board and elected officials with a transparent blueprint; and
- Bridge the gap between the TTC’s near-term transit planning with long-term population and employment growth projections, rapid transit plans and the Official Plan.
The Plan will also strive to be realistic in the actions it identifies to ensure what is being planned can be delivered. This includes planning within the constraints of the TTC Operating Budget and Capital Budget. As such, the Plan will be developed noting the following key financial assumptions over the next five-years:
- Operating Budget: The TTC 2020 Operating Budget will increase to account for the annualized cost associated with implementing new service in 2019 only. Between 2021 and 2024, multiple funding scenarios will be prepared to account for a range of possible funding scenarios from a -1% to +1% change in the Operating Budget.
- Capital Budget: The availability of fleet including buses, streetcars and subway trains and facilities will generally align with the TTC Capital Investment Plan, noting that vehicle requirements across all modes are predominantly unfunded and any new procurement for buses, streetcars and subway trains cannot be achieved beyond 2021 based on current available funding. [pp 3-4]
If the opening premise is that costs will grow by at most 1%, then “we can’t afford it” becomes a filter that will screen out options before they even reach the discussion phase. To put this in context, the two-hour fare was estimated to have a $20 million effect on the TTC’s operating budget. That is over 1% of the gross budget of $1.9 billion, and over 3% of the $622 million operating subsidy. A two-hour fare would be knocked off of the table if a 1% filter decided which options were even considered, let alone proposed for implementation.
It is telling that the two-hour fare was finally introduced in part as an inducement for riders to switch to Presto, but the comparable change in operating cost for opening the Vaughan subway extension was never an issue during budget debates.
The gaping hole in this report is an aspirational view of transit. What might it look like if only there were the will to make it better? If there is a cost, at least let everyone know what it might be and what will be needed to bring about improvement.