Here we are at the end of January 2021. The days are getting longer. There is a vague sense of hope in the air for the spring to come not just with flowers and warmer weather, but a more civilized political climate and the beginning of the end of the Covid pandemic. That, at least, is an optimistic view.
January 30th is this blog’s birthday. A year ago none of us had any idea of the year to come and how much the landscape would change.
Each of us has been affected in different ways. The social and economic effects will be with us for many years, not just from the disease, but from the acceleration of changes that were already well underway. The context for many debates has shifted, become more urgent, and the future of our city does not lie in “business as usual” approaches.
In Toronto, transit continues to operate at a reasonable capacity level, although not without problems, because various governments regard this as a critical service. Riders in many cities are not so lucky. Less certain is the future when special subsidies evaporate and Toronto must make hard choices about what transit we need and how much we can afford.
The shift in travel patterns puts this question in a very different context than in years past. The TTC contemplated a multi-year service plan with quite modest demand growth coupled with the opening of a few new rapid transit lines. The plan was not “aspirational”. It did not ask “how much better could transit be and how can we achieve this”.
Such an outlook is rare in Toronto’s transit planning because the starting point is always “we can’t afford it”. This in a city and province happy to commit billions to road and subway construction of dubious merit. Better bus service? Not so much.
“Better” has a new meaning in 2021, and this includes:
- The ability to board buses without fear of overcrowding.
- Reliability of service to ensure travel is not delayed.
- Coverage of service to areas beyond the classic core-area office towers.
- Provision of service for work hours beyond the classic 9-to-5 pattern.
These have always been present, but they take on extra meaning for public health. Ridership beyond the core has always existed, but transit’s big job was that peak commuting demand. With that stripped away, the shortcomings in what remains are more evident.
Demand on the TTC’s bus network fell back from about 50 per cent of “normal” to just under 40 in the last quarter of 2020, with comparable drops on other modes. Compared to pre-covid times, streetcars and subways have consistently run below the bus network because work-from-home shifts affect their service areas much more. GO Transit, whose market is almost exclusively the core area commuter, sits at 5 per cent.
In this context, the plans for massive network expansion have a surreal quality, and yet they are still discussed as if the economic crisis we now face does not exist.
From one point of view, forging ahead with plans for growth is essential if only to make up for lost time and to provide badly-needed headroom when riding returns to “normal” levels. Whether it will, and how quickly this will occur in various markets, remains to be seen.
For many years, “normal” on the TTC meant overcrowded service where cost containment took precedence over real provision for growth. That is not a condition to which we should aspire. We should aim higher.
GO Transit’s challenge is more difficult because of its narrower market. The very people that have kept the TTC busy – workers in industry and essential services – are not GO Transit’s base. Even if commuter demand returns, growth on that network is hamstrung by the entrenched park-and-ride model used as the primary “last mile” access for GO customers. Local transit might assist, but this will be compromised by auto dominance and spending priorities in regions outside of Toronto, coupled with a Provincial attitude that local transit service is not their problem.
Last year, I wrote:
There is finally a recognition at Toronto Council that transit simply cannot get by on the crumbs that so-called inflationary spending increases produce. There is a huge backlog of spending required that, for many years, the City and TTC kept hidden from view lest the borrowing it would trigger frightened passing financial analysts.
But that is only half of the problem. Surface routes both inside Toronto itself and in the GTHA beyond have long been neglected as a vital part of the transit network. We cannot move everyone everywhere on a handful of commuter rail and subway lines.
[A] bigger challenge than getting a new rapid transit line, regardless of the technology, is to get money for better service everywhere, not just on whatever new bauble we manage to open once a decade.From: Fourteen, January 30, 2020
Every government is entering a period where there will be calls to spend for recovery, but there will be limits, some political, some financial, to how much money is really available. Toronto is lucky to have a “City Building Fund” already baked into its taxation plans for the next five years, but that would be a harder sell today now than when Council approved the scheme to fund some of the transit and housing capital shortfalls.
There is no plan for new revenue to support day-to-day operation and service. For now, the City and TTC are propped up by very large provincial and federal subsidies. These will not last forever, and they might not last through 2021. Toronto has a “plan B” to get through the year, if need be, with reserve draws and trimmed capital spending, but that is no permanent solution.
I will not attempt to foresee what awaits us later in 2021 and beyond. However, without a substantial return to transit riding as we once knew it, the momentum for continued improvement will be hard to sustain. This has a compounding effect. If people stop believing in transit as a viable way, indeed the only reasonable way we can handle travel demands on a metropolitan scale, political support for better transit could evaporate.
Changing hats from transit, and looking at my own life, 2020 was a difficult year, but not critical for me as a retiree. Many have lost incomes, or must continue to work in dangerous circumstances, while managing family needs and an uncertain future.
The Internet, for all its wealth of resources, is not the same as being at real events be they a night at the movies, a play in a theatre, or a concert in a large hall surrounded by a living, breathing audience and artists. I long to be there again when it is safe, and fervently hope that as many organizations and venues survive as possible.
The performing arts community is in a deep recession. For all the joy that they bring, they are not “essential” in most political calculus. This is only one example of how the economic landscape had changed, and is unlikely to return to “business as usual” soon. There are many more, and they are all part of the city’s economic activity and drivers of transit demand.
Where do we go from here?
Much depends on the speed with which we collectively wrestle the pandemic to a manageable level if not to extinction. Only with a renewed economy and lifting the burden of extra health and social service costs can a city like Toronto start to think beyond just getting by.
Absent a major shift in government policy, I do not expect to see much change in spending plans. Big construction projects are bound up with a lot of political ego, and are hard to alter in the best of times. Today, they are sold as essential for economic recovery. Whether they build what is the most needed is quite another matter. Digging the hole takes precedence over where and why.
For 2021, I plan to continue my dogged pursuit of service quality. The TTC has a lot to answer for in the mismanagement of service reliability and in the under-utilization of its fleet. The gap between ongoing rider complaints and sunny management tales is too persistent and too wide to be ignored.
I also do not expect much change in support for the boring-but-necessary day-to-day transit service. We will get by somehow, but any capacity increase will be consumed by latent demand.
Few will run on the slogan: “Toronto deserves better bus service”.
Toronto deserves better politicians.
With luck, we will all be back here a year from now still recovering from a wild New Year’s Bacchanal. There will be real optimism, the sense of a better future after a dark past.
We will get there through the efforts of many people in the front lines who keep the wheels turning in so many aspects of our city, people we often take for granted. We will get there thanks to a combination of technological near-miracles, belief in facts and science, and the dedication of thousands whose lives we depend on.