Toronto and its transit system face a long climb back to conditions before the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdown of much activity across the city. On June 17, the TTC Board will act on a report with several recommendation for the recovery path. Like so much in Toronto, the future is uncertain, but the TTC has a range of options on the table.
Compulsory Masking and Safety on Board
Anyone within the TTC system will be required to wear a mask or facial covering effective July 2 with only a few exceptions:
- Children under two
- People with an underlying condition that prevents wearing of a mask
- People who are unable to put on or take off a mask without assistance
- TTC employees working in non-public areas, or behind a physical barrier or shield such as in a collector’s booth
- People who must be accommodated under the Ontario Human Rights Code
The TTC will have a supply of one million masks to be distributed free of charge. This will be concentrated in lower-income areas of the city. The TTC will not bar access to those without masks, although social pressure from other riders may have an effect.
All vehicles are cleaned and disinfected overnight. Surface vehicles are disinfected at mid-day, and Wheel-Trans buses have added cleanings after carrying Covid-19 positive riders. Stations are cleaned and disinfected, especially commonly touched surfaces, two to four times daily depending on usage.
Vehicle updates under consideration include hand sanitizers for passengers, as well as ultra-violet disinfection and improved air filters in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Effective July 2, front door boarding on buses will resume including payment by cash, token or ticket. Riders will still have the option of using rear doors, although this practice may be discontinued eventually. Such a move has a “catch-22” because stop service times will increase if all riders are forced to load through one door.
The TTC will distribute free Presto cards in areas where usage to date has been low, although this does not address the problem of how riders will load their cards given the scarcity of suburban locations to do so.
Presto Credits for Monthly Passes
For those who bought a March or April 2020 monthly pass, there will be a refund based on actual usage between March 18 and April 30. This will be applied as a credit on the Presto account by August 21 where it can be used either toward the purchase of a September pass, or for pay-as-you-go rides. This option allows for riders who will not, by September, be using the TTC enough to justify buying a pass.
It is recommended that a pro-rated PRESTO credit be provided to March and April pass holders based on their daily usage from March 18-31 and April 1-30, 2020. The pro-rated credit for March and April will calculate the daily rate based on the entire value of the pass, and will provide the credit based on the days the pass was not used. This recommendation ensures that requests are being responded to fairly to our customers, while also considering the current financial constraints the TTC is facing. [p 36]
There will be no refunds for May and beyond as, by that point, riders would have been well aware of their changing travel needs and had ample time to cancel any pass subscriptions in effect.
The net cost of lost ridership and revenue projected to Labour Day is up slightly at $300 million due to new expenses such as the pass refund, offset by savings in energy costs, accident claims and health benefits. This does not include added costs for:
- Hand sanitizer on vehicles,
- HVAC changes with UV disinfection MERV-13 filters on bus HVAC systems,
- Further changes to support and encourage greater physical distancing amongst employees, nor
- Other measures that may be required or recommended by government officials.
Although the TTC planned to lay off about 1,000 employees as part of its service cutbacks, about 300 of these have been retained to provide extra service as needed on key routes and additional shuttles to cover an accelerated capital program.
Depending on the scenario for returning ridership through the fall, the total Covid-related deficit for 2020 would lie between $463 and $586 million depending on how much transit demand and fare revenue recover. The more riders, the lower the deficit, but the more crowded the vehicles.
Overtime costs are down mainly due to the reduced level of service across the system, but this is partly offset by additional costs (e.g. shuttle buses) for accelerated maintenance work.
Fare inspection will ramp back to its usual level in stages:
- “On June 1, Fare Inspectors resumed proof of payment customer education on streetcars in order to remind customers of good tapping behaviour.
- “In July, Fare Inspectors will resume proof of payment inspections, educating and issuing warnings to riders who haven’t paid their fare.
- “By August, the full range of inspection and enforcement activities will resume and inspectors will apply discretion while considering the diverse needs of all riders including those who unable to pay. Responses will include education and tickets. A zero-tolerance (no warning) approach will still remain for fraudulent concession card use (e.g. Child or Youth PRESTO card).” [pp 36-37]
The TTC is contemplating some reduction in rents to its commercial tenants, but this is the subject of a confidential report. Revenue from retail operations is about $5 million annually.
On the capital side, some projects are ahead of their original schedules and spending plans because the light demand gives more flexibility for shutdowns and diversions, and some capital projects have been deferred.
Among the works that have been accelerated are:
- Easier Access Program: Instead of doing elevator retrofits within a working subway station, the TTC will close stations to speed up the process. Current plans are for Chester (now in progress to June 23), Royal York (possibly in August), Lansdowne (October), Yorkdale (two closures for escalator installations in late 2020 and early 2021) and Keele (spring 2021).
- Subway special trackwork and/or switch machine replacement at Davisville, Lawrence, Finch and Broadview.
- Other subway infrastructure work including ATC installation on Line 1 (there has been no revision yet in the planned cutover dates for the remaining phases of ATC).
- Power rail heating circuits to counteract icing during cold weather.
- Streetcar stop rail replacements (this work is typically done in the fall after all of the major track projects elsewhere on the network are complete).
- The number of streetcars out for warranty repairs at Bombardier has been increased from 7 to 12 at a time.
About ten per cent of the TTC’s workforce are administrative staff whose jobs can be performed from home. Although the TTC hopes to begin shifting them back to their regular workplaces, this will depend on the health and safety rules in effect as Toronto moves through its phased rollback of Covid restrictions.
Employees in maintenance and front-line positions cannot work remotely, and this brings challenges especially for those with public-facing jobs, mainly the operators. TTC management have made a 180 degree shift in their position on PPE. In the early days of the pandemic, management discouraged or forbade employees from wearing protective ear, typically masks, for fear of alarming the public. Now this is an essential part of the recovery process together with keeping staff isolated behind barriers.
Fare inspection teams will be equipped with masks, eye protection and gloves.
In June 2020, the TTC is operating at about 80 per cent of its normal capacity although this varies across the city. Demand to the financial district is down more sharply than to suburban work places because jobs downtown lend themselves more to work-from-home arrangements.
Ridership bottomed out at 14 per cent of “normal”, but has since recovered to 18-19 per cent overall. The strongest recovery has been on the bus network which serves suburban work places and shopping trips that are more than walking distance. The bus network is at 29.1 per cent, streetcars are at 15, and subways are at 16.5.
This places the bus system overall at the upper limit the TTC can handle allowing for physical distancing on vehicles. On some routes, the recovery is stronger than the average, and TTC service is stretched to handle demand with allowances for physical distancing.
The TTC has plans to resume normal service probably in the fall on the assumption that the combined effect of school and work trips will drive up demand. However, the restoration will take into account the level of demand in various parts of the network.
Bus routes will likely the first to see full service because of their stronger demand. High ridership routes will be the first candidates, and the 900 series express routes will also be restored. Special peak services for downtown-bound trips such as the 140 series premium express buses and the 176 Mimico GO shuttle will remain suspended.
Full streetcar and subway service would follow later as demand into the core area builds up.
The combined effect of full service and increased loading standards would give the TTC about half of its usual capacity. This will require using most of the seats on vehicles, and that makes increased safety for riders through masking essential. However, this level of crowding could deter some riders.
The four levels of vehicle crowding standards are illustrated in the charts below.
Presto taps have been trending upward through May 2020 showing how riding has returned to the system.
Since the pandemic began, Wheel-Trans service has been curtailed and limited to essential trips. Only one passenger is carried per trip and special arrangements are in place for those who are or may be Covid-19 positive.
Wheel-Trans trips have primarily been for personal journeys, shopping and medical visits, but the proportions changed since mid-March with hospital trips now topping the list. Riding is at 17 per cent of the pre-Covid level as of June, but this is expected to grow to the 25-35 per cent range through the summer and fall as more destinations open up. Limited ride sharing is projected to resume in September.
Higher Wheel-Trans demand brings challenges because the TTC is midway through a transition to its “family of services” model where trips are made partly on regular TTC vehicles if possible. This could be challenging under pre-Covid circumstances, but the difficulties are compounded by reduced capacity on surface vehicles and uncertainty that a WT rider can actually board to make the non-WT portion of a journey.
The stages of Wheel-Trans’ gradual return to normal operations are shown in the chart below.
One key challenge the TTC faces is the effect of unexpected delays on subway crowding when stations and trains can go from part full to packed very quickly. The TTC is working on various responses to such situations so that their reaction is swift, passengers can be moved out of stations and alternate service provided. That service is always a problem even under ideal circumstances because subway demand quickly overwhelms the capacity of streets for loading zones and buses to carry riders.
There is a fundamental problem that the TTC cannot have emergency staffing and replacement buses everywhere on a moment’s notice. Even closing a station takes some effort and cannot be one by the usual small complement of TTC staff on duty. A related problem is that the TTC is notoriously bad at telling the resident staff what is going on in an emergency, and in turn information to the public is spotty or confused.
The TTC plans to increase both the number of run-as-directed (aka “gap”) trains and buses so that service delays can be filled and shuttle buses are available on fairly short notice. The problem remains that there are limited places to store and insert RAD trains, and clusters of shuttle buses cannot be everywhere on the system. Those vehicles also represent an extra cost that has been a target of past budget cuts, and they consume vehicles and operators that could otherwise be providing service on regular routes.
The TTC plans to provide Covid Ambassadors as described below:
To increase TTC presence at key stations, approximately 100 temporary COVID-19 Ambassadors are being recruited to start on June 21st. COVID-19 Ambassadors will be deployed at Union, Bloor-Yonge, St. George, Kipling, Finch, Sheppard, Eglinton, and Dundas stations and to key bus and streetcar platforms, including Pape, Main Street, Kennedy, Union, St. Clair West, Broadview, and Dundas West. Primary functions of the ambassadors will include acting as a front-line representative to assist and direct customers, provide station information, point-of-interest (POI) wayfinding to customers, managing customer movement and throughput in stations, assisting with unplanned events and incidents as directed and supporting closures and diversion activities. [p 24]
If this is simply an increase of the Red Smock brigade in the subway, it will not be very successful. The current staff do not have communication gear and they never know what is happening in an emergency. They cannot “manage” anything unless they know what is going on and are directed by someone with an overall grasp of emergency activities at their station. A particular issue is that although the actual emergency event such as a disabled train might be at one station, say Bloor northbound, but the backlog of passengers quickly affects many stations further south each of which requires its own emergency co-ordination.
Where Do We Go Now?
The timing of Ontario’s and Toronto’s staged recovery from Covid-19 is not yet clear. Even as some activities return, “normal” as we used to know it is a long way off, almost certainly after there is a reliable vaccine and cure for the disease and large scale public activities can resume. Restaurants, offices and schools may be “open”, but not in the same sense or with the same level of transportation demand. Sporting, entertainment and cultural events that draw large crowds are months away, probably longer, and with them the transit demand to get people to and from large venues. Tourism cannot resume until people feel safe travelling outside of their immediate surroundings and there is something to actually visit at a destination.
The TTC and Toronto are faced with rising transit demand and lower vehicle loading standards during the middle stages of the recovery. Whether “full service” actually resumes, or if a return to former service levels is constrained by budgets remains to be seen. From a decision-making viewpoint, whatever service the TTC will operate after Labour Day has to be decided by early July so that appropriate work arrangements are in place two months later. There was quite a scramble to get the May 10, 2020 service changes in place, and the fall schedule changes need more breathing room if there is going to be a widespread return to 100 per cent service levels across many routes.
None of this is simple, and there is still no word from either the Provincial or Federal government about financial relief to municipalities and their transit systems. Finger pointing between the two levels is less than helpful as are announcements about big ticket capital projects that contribute nothing at all to the short term operating budget crisis.
We are living in very “interesting” and unpredictable times.