TTC’s Service Plan 2020-2024: Too Much Gloss, Not Enough Substance?

For much of 2019, TTC staff worked on a five and ten year service plan to address a basic political problem in our city – all of the focus for planning and spending looks to promises of new subway lines, or “better” versions of ones already on the map. While the subway and commuter rail networks may be the spine of Toronto’s transit, the skeleton and muscles are its surface routes of buses and streetcars without which vast areas of the city would be well beyond transit’s reach.

The TTC sought feedback from various stakeholders through public meetings as well as pop-up displays at locations around the city. Full disclosure: I attended and contributed to stakeholder workshops, and have refrained from publishing anything about the discussions because the plan was a work-in-progress. Some ideas found their way into the final report, others were changed or disappeared. Such is the nature of these processes. No, I was not paid to be there. We got free coffee, juice and cookies. People who came were there because they wanted to see a better TTC.

Two documents will be considered by the TTC Board at its December 12, 2019 meeting:

[Note: Both documents are published under the common name of the 5 Year Service Plan. For clartity, page citations refer to the glossy version as “Next Stop”. Note that this PDF is formatted two-up and so the page numbers are not the same as the sheet numbers in the file.]

The report is a mix of two separate items. One is the discussion of the multi-year plan, and another is a review of a grab-bag of service change proposals. Such proposals used to appear in annual reports to the Board and this was the standard conduit for route changes to be evaluated and approved (or not). This is a long-overdue return to a practice that seemed to have ended simply because there was never any money to pay for more service, so why bother to discuss the idea. However, many of the recommended proposals are still “subject to budget”, a constraint that undermines all the fine talk about the importance of transit in Toronto.

Right at the outset I must say that my reaction on reading the report, and especially the glossy version, was of disappointment at a lost opportunity. A theme at workshops, and not just from me, was that the TTC should “aim high”, that small-scale change would make little difference to riders and would have no effect on ridership or the system’s perceived worth. This was a time for advocacy, for a vision (and oh I hate that word) of what transit might be beyond political battles over subway routes.

The TTC has failed to advocate for substantial change. This is not unexpected, nor is it the first time. The political environment, especially for anything that affects operating costs and subsidies, is to spend no more, and if possible to spend less. Any report that shows what might be done, but which puts politicians on the spot to carry the torch for higher spending, or conversely to reject explicit improvements, is on delicate ground. Better to aim low at a target that might, possibly be met so that management and their political masters can get the publicity, the back-patting, the accolades that go with achieving a modest target. The TTC has been down this route before.

Probably the most telling point in the exercise is the cover of the “Next Stop, Even Better” glossy version of the report.

The Express Bus Network is a fraud perpetrated on the TTC Board and riders by management who gave the impression of change while, in fact, delivering almost nothing. The article Express Buses: Real Change or Photo Ops? includes a before-and-after comparison of the express routes showing how little really changed. In a separate article, I have updated this with current schedule information.

Almost all of the Express Network is nothing more than existing service (typically the “E” branches of routes) rebranded into the 900-series of Express services. Very little service was actually added, and in some cases there have been declines in service thanks to “reliability” changes in the schedules that stretched headways in order to give more running time at no added cost. Service is erratic, like many other parts of the TTC, to the point where waiting for an express bus to show up would cost more time for riders than they would save through its limited stop operation.

There are plans to add new express routes in 2020, but it is not clear whether these will actually add service or merely be the transit equivalent of a game of Three Card Monte.

Another problem facing the TTC is the inadequacy of service to meet demand, a widespread complaint among riders. There are Service Standards which set out average crowding levels, and the TTC claims to meet these in almost all cases. However, there are many problems:

  • The TTC has not published actual crowding statistics for its routes for some time, and there is no way for the public or the political representatives to monitor how “close to the line” existing service might be.
  • Some recent schedule changes have included pushing crowding beyond standards because the TTC cannot afford to run the service. This is not a question of peak fleet capacity because the TTC has a generous ratio of spare buses to service requirements. However, this can signal a trend which if not reversed will lead to the “standards” having no meaning or force because the real decision is made at budget time. [See page 8 of my recently published table of January 2020 service changes for details.]
  • Riding counts only tell us how many people are on the vehicles, not how many could not board or gave up trying because of crowding and unreliable service. The TTC publishes route-by-route ridership numbers in the City’s Open Data Catalogue, but this file has not been updated since December 2016. It contains no breakdown by time of day, only a full weekday count.
  • Irregular service with wide gaps makes crowding worse for most riders who tend to pack on the first thing that shows up, and can actually cause average load statistics to misrepresent demand because the half-empty following buses in a pack dilute the average crowding numbers. Averages do not show the conditions a typical rider, who is more likely to be on a crowded bus than an empty one, must face. The TTC has no measure of service reliability and its effect on rider experience.

There is no point in having standards if you don’t meet them, and especially if the fact that they are missed is not published in a widely-read document like the CEO’s monthly report. That report hides more than it tells by selective reporting and by averaging that masks the range of values in metrics. For example, we know whether ridership and revenue are tracking relative to budget, but we don’t know which routes have erratic service and overcrowding. These exist and cannot be wished away by a simplistic metrics such as end-of-line on time performance or a count of “short turns”, but the extent of these problems is rarely reported.

The report actually lays out very little detail of what might happen in coming years. There are five-year operating and capital budget projections, but few specifics as to what this spending will mean for riders on the street. Selling spending is hard work at City Hall, even with plans for new taxes because these are (a) often consumed for pet projects and (b) are currently only addressing the backlog in capital “state of good repair” spending, not day-to-day operating costs and subsidies which affect the amount of service riders actually see.

The goal is to increase customer trips by 35 million by 2024. That is on a base of 525.3 million projected for 2019, or a five-year increase of 6.67%. That is not a stunning goal especially with improved rapid transit services to come online during the interval.

Returning to past practice, TTC staff will report annually to the Board on requests for changes in the network requested by, among others, Councillors, community groups and employers, as well as changes triggered by events such as new rapid transit lines or staff-proposed area restructuring (such as the recent updates to routes in the Junction).

There is a backlog of such requests, and the main report contains a long section detailing them. I will deal with this in a separate article. Continue reading