Fifteen

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.

15 thoughts on “Fifteen

  1. I would like to thank you for your long and continuing public service. Very few are as dedicated to the public good or as generous with their time.

    All the best to you – and your fellow Torontonians – in 2021.

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  2. The average life span of a swan would be 12 years. Congratulations on beating the average.

    Steve: Hardy Canadian Swans!

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  3. As a long time reader, I’d like to thank you again for your blog writing. Your work is very important to the discussion of transit in the city and will inform future generations and other cities on what ‘good transit’ means.

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  4. I did some time travel on the site to see what we were talking about pre-2010. I saw those DRL discussions in 2008 “Where Would a Queen Subway Go?”. Great to see that at least a DRL no longer belongs on a fantasy map even if it’s coming 60+ years after the original study.

    Steve: Of the many things this site has accomplished, I am proudest of the discussions in the comment threads that bring out details and other points of view. It feels as if I have been host of a long-running salon, although the “guests” have to supply their own snacks and drinks. Santé!

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  5. Thank you so much for your tireless work, advocating for a better transit system and, in turn, a better city and region. I know I’ve learned a lot about how we could make this city an even better place to live than it already is. A salute to 15 years of the blog, and to at least 15 more!

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  6. Realistically what do you think is the most likely date that the Ontario line will open?

    Steve: Much depends on the tendering process and responses, the fiscal situation of the Province, and who is in power at the time.

    The south tunnels, rolling stock and maintenance yard contracts are now in the RFP stage, but financial close (signing the contracts) is not planned until fall 2022 according to Infrastructure Ontario’s latest update. As for the north tunnels, they don’t even go to RFP until fall 2022 with financial close in spring 2024. A lot can happen financially and politically between now and then.

    The next Provincial election is planned for mid-2022, and the big question is whether the Crosstown line will open while the current crew at Queen’s Park can cut the ribbon.

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  7. Based on the information you have, Can you do an article on the McNicoll Garage and what routes will be from that garage, and buses are planned to be allocated there?

    Steve: No, I do not have the final list, although it must exist by now as schedules for the March changeover will already be close to finalized. There is a list of new garage allocations in the CPTDB Forum on McNicoll, although it dates from August 2020 and may have some fine tuning yet to come. I will not get the official list of service changes until mid-March, but I am sure there are readers “out there” who know what the draft looks like and might email them to me (hint hint).

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  8. Given an attested allegiance to “belief in facts and science,” where are the facts and where is the science about any purported unhealthiness of public-transit travel? Can you prove that a bus, train, or streetcar of a certain percentage value’s occupancy will give someone coronavirus? What is that percentage value, and what are the comorbidities, if any, of that someone?

    Steve: I have no idea, but there is little evidence to date that public transit per se is “unhealthy”. That has to be taken with a grain of salt because quite obviously this depends on crowding factors. Also, nobody knows what circumstances will “give” someone the virus, only that it is more likely under certain conditions than others. Being a knuckle-dragging, mask-refusing, loudmouth Republican/Conservative may be a strong indicator, but there are many other variables, and not least is one’s personal health. Do you honestly expect me to answer that question?

    We engage in many activities in these difficult times, and the absence of public transit in huge swaths of Canada and the world has not prevented the spread of disease. It is a question of understanding how it works, as best we can, and managing risks and exposure in all settings of which public transit is only one.

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  9. Steve,

    Congratulations on another year of Transit advocacy. I look forward to your concise and balanced evaluations of Toronto’s transit picture for many years to come.

    Stay safe and keep holding “the powers that be ” to account.

    Best wishes on another 15.

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  10. Congrats from me, too!

    I am astounded at the depth of your understanding of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the engineering and the politics; also your energy in pursuing it all.

    So – yes, please, continue with all the good work, and let us hope you can inspire others to follow similar paths in analysing and understanding the networks of our complex world.

    Cheers!

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  11. My first year here, but very glad to join the discussion, and super appreciative of the archive of knowledge and info that you have provided over the past 15 years. From a new reader, thanks Steve!

    As a rider I’ve often found the surface service levels to be *on average* pretty good. However, I noticed patterns of bunching, idling in stations, inconsistent driving speeds which occasionally seriously degraded the service. It seemed that some routes weren’t managed at all, and no one ever talked about it.

    Finally I found this blog. You’re the first person with a platform that I’ve seen talk about the simple and nonsensically poor management of service routes that can occur, which can completely ruin a trip. That’s given me hope that the problem can be fixed. I wonder how regular citizens such as myself can help?

    Steve: One thing that has been particularly rewarding in the years of writing this blog is the gradual improvement of “transit literacy” and of seeing demands for better transit grow beyond a few die-hard advocates to community groups, and an understanding by politicians and media that the gospel according to the TTC is not always as enlightened as it might be.

    Complain regularly to both the TTC and to your Councillor, and if this is a regular occurrence, keep track of how often. Times and locations are important because this allows a retrospective review of what was happening rather than simply appearing to be a random photo/complaint of a packed bus. Basically, it’s important to keep their feet to the fire so that these events cannot be dismissed as rare problems. Don’t let the TTC gaslight you with claims that overall there is little or nothing actually happening. Also, hook up with community groups so that your experiences are pooled and verified by sheer volume rather than being a lone voice.

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  12. Happy Fifteenth Steve.

    And here’s to many more (if you want…transit blogging can be…frustrating…some days).

    Moaz

    Steve: Thanks! It keeps me busy and in touch with many people, an especially important consideration these days!

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  13. Steve said: I just want to help make the city a better place and especially its transit system.

    Steve has applied his talents and boundless energy to the goal of good citizenship. So few of the municipal politicians elected by citizens, share this goal.

    Thank-you, Steve.

    Steve: You’re very welcome!

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