TTC Board Meeting: May 12, 2021

The TTC Board will meet at 10:00 am on Wednesday, May 12. The agenda is short, but contains a few major items.

After the Board meets, I will update this article based on their discussions and staff presentations.

CEO’s Report / COVID-19 Response and Recovery

These two reports are combined here because there are overlaps in the issues they address.

The CEO’s report contains the usual sets of charts on which I commented in detail last month. The problem remains that too many of the quality metrics are consolidated at a monthly and system (or at least mode) level thereby obscuring problem areas or events.

Ridership

Ridership continues to fall below projections thanks to the “third wave” and associated lockdown now facing Toronto. When the budget was prepared in late 2020, there was more optimism about a gradual reopening through Spring 2021, but this has not materialized. The hope now is that with vaccination well underway, there will be a return of some activities such as commuting to work downtown, in-person teaching across all levels, and some degree of leisure activity. The chart below shows the actual, budgeted and typical pre-pandemic ridership numbers.

Expressed as boardings (unlinked trips) as opposed to rides (linked trips), the relative importance and strength of demand on the bus network is clear in the chart below.

Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs) have been installed on almost all buses, and will be installed on half of the streetcar fleet over the next three years. Crowding conditions are included in the data feed to two smartphone-based apps, although the data are not yet publicly available for historical analysis. (I’m still asking without success about this so that variations in crowding could be reviewed together with headway data.)

Loads on TR subway trains (lines 1 and 4) are estimated from their weight (via the suspension system, not with weigh scales on the track).

The counts are summarized in the table below from the Covid Response report.

A breakdown of the lost ridership is provided in the Covid-19 report in the form of a “waterfall” chart:

Financial Effects

Fare revenue is, of course, running behind anticipated levels, and is well below pre-pandemic values.

A further problem the TTC and City face is that some of the recovery funding is time-limited to the period of the funding government’s budget. Money allocated for spending in the federal fiscal year ended March 31, 2021 must be spent within that year. The feds may announce $100 million in subsidies, but if the TTC can only spend $75 million of that on eligible pandemic-related costs, then the remaining $25 million goes back into the pot and appears as a “saving” on the federal books.

This timing effect bedevils budget planning at both the operating and capital levels, especially where a “stimulus” program is involved. The idea of stimulus is to “spend it now”, and ideally spent the money on things that create jobs and/or advance government policies. This leads to the problem that many types of spending simply are not “shovel ready” because they (and the local funding component) were planned for future years, and/or they simply cannot be ramped up fast enough to spend the special subsidies while they are available.

For this reason, “stimulus” usually translates to major repairs and asset replacements that can occur quickly (like buying buses), not projects that take several years just to get beyond the planning and engineering phases.

In the case of Covid relief, it is budgeted as a current expense to address problems today, not something to hold over to future years as a “rainy day fund”. Any relief the TTC hopes to see for quarters 2 through 4 of calendar 2021 must come out of federal allocations for their 2021-2022 fiscal year. (There is a similar issue with provincial funding “commitments” that can evaporate at the end of a fiscal year.)

When the 2021 budget was passed, the TTC faced a shortfall of $74.5 million. However, this has grown through two factors:

  • $31.8 million in “Phase 2” recovery funding that was not used before March 31, 2021
  • $20.0 million in additional net costs projected for 2021.

When the 2021 budget was struck, the estimated revenue pattern to the end of 2021 was based on a gradual recovery starting in Q1. This has not materialized as shown by the red line in the chart below.

The shortfall is detailed in the chart below.

The actual results for Q1 show a surplus of $12.2 million, but this is because savings in expenses exceeded the unexpected loss of revenue. This will not happen in the balance of the year as the TTC adds service to compensate for growth and staffs up in anticipation of full service.

There is also a provision in the budget for 235 additional positions and $3.9 million for pre-opening costs and training on Line 5 Crosstown.

Eglinton Crosstown LRT

These resources are required in late 2021 to complete training requirements in advance of the anticipated opening of the new Eglinton Crosstown LRT in early 2022. These positions mainly consist of front-line employees such as operators, supervisors and customer service agents.

Source: TTC 2021 Budget: New & Enhanced Service Priority Actions

It is not clear whether the TTC will be able to defer this cost from its 2021 budget depending on how late the Crosstown will actually open. It is probably a matter of some delicacy with Metrolinx and the Premier’s re-election ambitions that a late opening be confirmed, but at some point the TTC must make a go/nogo decision on staffing.

Expenses will rise, but revenues will not go up to cover this, and the profile for all of 2021 is shown below.

The chart below shows the components of the loss over the year. Note that this is a table of losses, and so an “over” variance represents a larger loss than expected.

Vehicle Reliability

There is little new in the reliability charts in the CEO’s Report. Many of the values are clearly capped because the values do not change from month to month. The TTC may be hitting its target, but we cannot see how much the actual values change or what kind of trend might be happening.

For example, it is simply not credible that the Hybrid bus fleet achieved a mean distance before failure of exactly 30,000 km in each month January through March, or that the clean diesel fleet achieved exactly 20,000 km in each month of the same period.

One case where we are seeing an improvement is in the streetcar fleet, although with only two thirds of the fleet actually in operation, it should not be hard to field only the best cars. We will not know the real situation, probably, until early 2022 when, in theory, all major repair programs should be complete, and the streetcar network is all back in operation.

Adjusting Service

The TTC has not operated “full” service, by historical standards, since March 2020.

Weekly Vehicle/Train Hours of Service OperatedRegularConstructionTotal
January 2020186,2227,068193,291
March 2021173,7318,229181,960

The proportion of the fleet in use is even lower than these numbers might imply because there is very little “peak” period, and the service that is operated tends to be out for much of the day. Fewer buses and streetcars are required to accumulate the same number of vehicle hours because the average vehicle in service runs more each day than in pre-pandemic times. The TTC has headroom in their fleet to run more vehicles, but not the staff to operate them. This will be a budget issue for 2022.

Some service is provided on a “Run As Directed” (RAD) basis, but these vehicles do not appear in the regular schedules. They do, however, contribute to the total vehicle hours reported.

The TTC plans to “optimize” service in various ways:

  • Optimize capacity by rebalancing service levels;
  • Improve route productivity and performance by modifying schedules
  • Implement service changes in Scarborough East
  • Restore most Express bus services; and
  • Improve weekday schedules by reflecting actual operating conditions.

Rebalancing is already in progress with service changes implemented on May 9, 2021, and more will likely follow later in the year. Some routes and periods of operation see service trimmed, while others gain service.

Route productivity can be improved by schedule changes to remove excessive running time that is not required under current traffic and demand conditions on some routes. There is a philosophical tug-of-war on this subject because the padded schedules allow “on time” and “short turn” stats to look very rosy, but at the cost of running more vehicles than are needed to provide service.

The Scarborough East changes have begun as of May 9 on 116 Morningside and 905 Eglinton East Express, and they will continue later in the year.

Microtransit

Microtransit is much loved by Queen’s Park politicians who have the notion that if only transit could be provided by the private sector, preferably with much-lower-paid staff, the cost of transit would plummet. Even Uber has concluded that this is a false assumption for systems on the scale of the TTC, but this does not stop the TTC from being roped into a pilot project in Rouge Hill. This will also involve automated vehicles, another piece of technology nonsense that will divert attention from the basic problems of running a transit system.

The TTC notes:

In response to the change in ridership due to the pandemic, TTC staff reassessed Microtransit opportunities using August 2020 ridership and service-hour information. All routes were assessed against Microtransit criteria as well as any planned changes in the 2021 Annual Service Plan, and the potential for ridership to overwhelm Microtransit during Toronto’s recovery from COVID-19. The assessment revealed that there were no opportunities for Microtransit to replace low performing TTC routes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has lowered demand for transit, it also created the need for public health social distancing protocols (less customers per vehicle). Once the demand triggers the same number of vehicles than the fixed-route service, the savings are lost and it is more cost effective to run a fixed-route service.

The basic problem for microtransit advocates is that TTC service standards already set a minimum demand above a level where microtransit is cost effective. There may be outlying parts of routes which, at certain times, are very lightly loaded. That is the nature of a transit network, but connectivity and reliability are key elements. Nibbling away at the edges is a recipe for fragmentation.

Fare Policy and Presto Updates

This section combines two related issues on the agenda.

The Presto Update is short because most of the information is in a confidential section dealing with legal and financial negotiations between the TTC and Metrolinx. The current status, shown in the public report, implies that a settlement of outstanding items (including non-Presto disputes between the two agencies) is nearing completion.

The Settlement negotiations between the TTC and Metrolinx for PRESTO matters commenced in late 2019. Unresolved issues related to additional operating TTC expenses resulting from construction of Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West rapid transit projects, are also included in the Settlement negotiations.

The joint TTC and Metrolinx working groups finalized a financial and Settlement proposal, which was reported to the Board in September 2020 with a further update provided in February 2021. The Joint TTC and Metrolinx working groups continue to finalize Definitive Agreements and Settlement Minutes to resolve the outstanding PRESTO matters including:

• Metrolinx commitment to deliver all outstanding contractual Business Requirements;
• Metrolinx to compensate the TTC for lost fare revenue to date related to PRESTO equipment failure;
• The commencement of a Service Level Agreement for the PRESTO system, consistent with the Business Requirements included in the TTC/Metrolinx Agreement; and
• Metrolinx commitment to upgrade TTC PRESTO card readers to allow them to process Open Payments and to address current system performance issues.

It is telling that this dispute includes basic items of contract performance that Metrolinx, in its typical arrogance, once dismissed. That stance is a very dark cloud over plans for any new fare system in the GTHA where we could well see a force majeure from Queen’s Park (regardless of the party in power) to adopt whatever system Metrolinx deems to be appropriate.

This places the lengthy and very informative Fare Policy Update report in an odd context: many important issues of policy, technology and implementation are discussed, but there is no guarantee that any of this will bear on whatever Metrolinx rolls out.

The report is actually in three sections:

  • an overview report by TTC management,
  • a consultant review of the offerings of many vendors and the technical issues of fare collection, and
  • a consultant review of experiences in a selection of North American systems who have been through a technology implementation and migration.

The management review is unusually refreshing for TTC reports in that it provides a detailed overview and does not foreclose options early in the process. The consultant reviews are both worth reading especially the one on experiences in other cities.

TTC management plans to report on “viable fare collection models” to the Board in July 2021, and proposes demonstrations to the Board, beginning with System Integrators (those who offer a complete fare collection system rather than individual elements). This process is fraught with challenges as, putting it quite bluntly, a salesman will say anything, and the lobbyists will have a field day behind the scenes. Unlike electric buses, we cannot implement a head-to-head test to validate vendor claims and performance, and any new fare system, warts and all, will be with us for years to come.

The report contains an interesting note about equity and accessibility:

The Fare Policy and Collection Strategy will include reviewing and addressing various fare options as well as ensuring all forms of fare media are readily available and accessible to TTC customers. A key component of the fare policy review is to understand the current barriers and gaps that exist, and help the TTC develop fare policies and a collection model that is equitable and addresses the needs of all customers and equity-seeking groups.

In Phase 1, the TTC has committed to engaging key stakeholders, including ACAT as well as customers through a public survey and focus groups. The focus group sessions allowed customers to voice their concerns and highlight their transit needs. This helped to inform the development of the TTC’s fare policy goals that will lay the foundation for developing fare options and fare collection models as we move into Phase 2 of the project. We will continue to engage key stakeholders in Phase 2 through additional focus groups, a second public survey, and a virtual public town hall.

The TTC continues to work closely with ACAT as well as the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Office to support the implementation of the 2019-2022 Poverty Reduction Strategy, which includes public transit within the city. Key stakeholders from this office have also contributed to Phase 1 and will continue to be engaged through workshops with TTC staff for the project’s entirety.

Consultation, real meaningful dialogue, is a foreign concept to Metrolinx for whom the word roughly equates to “you get what we give you and like it”.

An important distinction here is that using the fare system is not simply a matter of “is the card reader in a location all riders can reach” but a much wider set of issues about obtaining fare media and managing one’s account. There is a great deal of bias in many systems against those who do not have, are not comfortable with, or cannot use the latest in portable device technology. Moreover, access to fare media and account reload options can be biased by the choice and location of third party vendors (e.g. the Shoppers Drug Mart deal with Metrolinx).

The TTC has been studying what riders want in a new fare policy, and several important points emerged:

• The extra cost of crossing a fare boundary can be a financial burden;
• The existing fare structure for cross-boundary trips is confusing and inconsistent;
• Extra fares for premium services like the TTC’s downtown express routes are not justified;
• Distance-based pricing would be beneficial for short trips. However, a flat fare is more equitable for customers who make long trips across the city;
• The two-hour transfer helps make trip chaining more affordable;
• More customers should be eligible for fare discounts for equity reasons;
• Frequent customers chose transit as their primary choice of travel because it was the most cost effective based on fares, travel time and service frequency; and
• Less frequent riders thought they would take transit more if fares were lower and service frequency increased.

Fare policy is a separate issue from technology, although these will interact because technology can limit the options available for policy development. A vital issue here, one that cannot be overstated, is that technology should enable new functions, not dictate them. For far too long the TTC has been hostage to the technical limitations, and limited ambitions for improvement, of Presto and Metrolinx.

The current PRESTO system was implemented based on existing fare structures and limitations of the PRESTO technology. The TTC did not have a comprehensive fare strategy at the time of its 2012 PRESTO Agreement. There have also been delays in implementing critical functionalities, including Open Payments that have further limited customer fare choices and the implementation of new fare policies.

As PRESTO develops its recovery plan to achieve Open Payments including the modernization of TTC’s PRESTO devices, TTC staff have been coordinating the findings of Phase 1 with PRESTO modernization to ensure that the final outcome of Open Payments is driven by fare policy and not dictated by legacy systems and/or previous technology limitations.

A common theme in the technology review is that modern fare systems use an account-based design where fare transactions and history are all conducted in “back office” systems. By contrast, Presto and other “stored value” cards, depend on fare calculations at the point where a card interacts with a reader. This introduces complexities for system upgrades and builds in limitations on the sophistication and flexibility of fare offerings.

Presto already stores a transaction history (anyone can look up their travel history online), but the actual fare calculations occur between the cards and the readers. In an account-based system, the trips would still be tracked centrally, but the fare structure and administration would be in a central location where change could be made easily. Moreover, functions such as loyalty discounts (the equivalent of passes for “frequent flyers”) and other incentives could be based on a rider’s cumulative trip history rather than be decided at each tap of their card.

Fare equity affects both the question of who should pay how much for which types of journey, as well as ensuring that technology access is not a pre-requisite to features of the tariff. (Imagine, for example, if monthly passes were only available to riders with smartphones.)

The debate over reduced fares for many groups is a separate issue, but is often tangled into fare collection policy because any new tariff must be implemented today within the Presto limitations. However, a much larger issue, one that the report only hints at, is the “financial sustainability” of any scheme.

  • What proportion of system operating costs should be recovered from fares?
  • What do we mean by “the system”? The TTC? All GTHA operators? GO Transit?
  • Should cost recovery targets be the same for all member systems?
  • How much money will governments make available to support operating budgets?
  • Should “new money” be spent on improving service, on stabilizing or reducing fares, or both?
  • What service standards should be implemented to ensure that transit is really available to all who would ride, not merely to those close enough to major corridors to be served at lowest cost?
  • What philosophy should we use in deciding among groups deserving of subsidies?
  • Should subsidies be based on a general status or condition such as age or being a student, or targeted to those with financial needs?
  • Should subsidies be delivered directly to riders through reduced fares or indirectly via tax credits or other social support schemes?

These are not simple questions, and this list does not exhaust the complexity of the debate to come. There is a danger that hidden financial agendas will make any proposal a “nice to have” rather than a “must have”.

For example, for many years Metrolinx pushed a fare scheme that would have shifted longer trips (starting at roughly 10km) on rapid transit lines to fare by distance. The extra revenue would be used to subsidize cross-border travel mainly between Toronto and the 905 region. This scheme was designed to be revenue neutral so that no added subsidy would be required from Queen’s Park. Although Metrolinx appeared to drop this idea, it is not dead, and fare by distance could emerge again from an agency not exactly noted for its tact in policy implementation.

Within Toronto, the “Fair Pass” program extends a discount to low income groups. The rollout of wider eligibility has been delayed by fiscal constraints at the City although there is hope to see this resume in 2022. An obvious question here is whether discounted fares will compete for the same limited funding pool as new service and recovery from the pandemic era.

A key recommendation from the peer system review is to “focus on fare policy before designing a technological solution”. It is tempting to hold a photo op with a smiling vendor and press releases touting a brave new world of fare collection. However, if we have not addressed the policy questions, we will not know what we want or might offer in a future tariff. This is rather like announcing a bold program to electrify trains and buses without a detailed plan and a clear commitment to improving and funding the service they will provide.

I will update this article based on discussions at the Board meeting.

Accessibility Update

The TTC’s projects to improve accessibility include many components totalling $824.1 million. Over half of this has already been spent.

A small component, important but unlikely to bear fruit in the near future, is a the “Phase 4 Study” to examine redundant elevators at key subway stations where the loss of individual units can affect large number of riders.

The initial EA4 study is evaluating the priorities for providing additional accessible paths, including secondary elevators, new accessible entrances, and/or other accessibility features at key subway stations, and will serve as the basis for a future feasibility study funding request. The prioritization study will be completed in 2021.

Currently, four subway stations already have a secondary accessible path, while the future Line 5 and planned subway modernization and expansion projects will provide more. The planned EA4 Feasibility Study will review the top 20 stations with no present plans for additional elevators. Building on the data and analysis from the initial EA4Prioritization Study, the Feasibility Study will look at high-level constructability, property, utility and community issues and prepare order of magnitude estimates to help the TTC determine how to proceed.

Completion of installation of elevators at all stations except Islington and Warden is projected by the legislative deadline of 2025. Those two stations are subjects of proposed redevelopments which are unlikely to finish by that date. The TTC will likely construct a temporary accessible bus loading area, something that will be required in any event during reconstruction of the existing terminal and any new buildings above.

Completion of Spadina, King, Lawrence and High Park Stations has been pushed back to 2024 due to design issues and the complexity of work involved.

New elevators received the lion’s share of attention in past years as they are key to providing physical access, and their construction is both expensive and disruptive. However, there are many other issues and facilities involved in providing “accessibility” to the TTC. These are described in detail in the report and summarized below.

By analogy to the discussion of fare policy in the previous section of this article, “equity” and “access” are intertwined on issues such as the degree to which the existing and planned transit system will actually address rider needs. Some elements of the overall plan are:

  • Accessibility at stops.
    • The streetcar islands on Roncesvalles will be retrofitted to match the ramp height on the Flexity streetcars in 2022.
    • Between TTC and City projects, about 700 bus stops will be improved by 2025.
    • Existing stops that are supposed to be accessible will be audited in 2021 to ensure that they meet current standards or should be upgraded.
  • Expansion of Community Bus services was put on hold because of the pandemic, but the first phase of planned changes should occur in coming months (2Q2021). Details are to be announced.
  • The TTC, at the province’s behest, plans to experiment with automated transit vehicles and microtransit as a pilot program for “last mile” service provision. It is unclear just how “accessible” this will be especially for those who require assistance in boarding and alighting from vehicles.
  • A new trip booking app, now under trial by members of ACAT, will be introduced later in 2021 to improve the Wheel-Trans trip booking process.
  • The range of bus and streetcar routes integrated with Wheel-Trans for “family of services” travel will be expanded in coming years. This involves designation of specific transfer points between WT and conventional services for trips by those who can use the conventional system for part of their journeys.
    • A related initiative is the provision of Accessibility Hubs where riders can await connecting services protected from the weather
  • As noted in the previous section, the eligibility for the Fair Pass will be expanded in 2022 subject to budgetary limitations.
  • A new accessible TTC website will be launched soon (2Q2021).
  • Signage and wayfinding improvements are in various stages of trial or implementation including:
    • Platform edge modifications to eliminate vertical and horizontal gaps at train doors.
    • Improved signage and tactile wayfinding is under trial at York Mills Station.
    • The beacon system now in use at St. Clair station will be evaluated for possible expansion in the network.
  • Design standards and the entrance connection policies will be updated to ensure that links built both by the TTC and others conform to the needs of riders and meet current best practices.

5 thoughts on “TTC Board Meeting: May 12, 2021

  1. Thanks very much for all of this detailed analysis Steve. Once again, invaluable to all.

    But I do wish we’d manage to set transit costs in the context of automobility costs, where yes, cars are subsidized as well, with that classic stat from Vancouver of $2700 per vehicle each year, c. 1996. The costs of automobility are diffused and obscured through multiple budgets, but transit tends to be out-front. One clear and important factor especially now is that transit is normally incredibly safe whilst moving; the costs of car crashes is in the billions, usually paid for by individuals/victims and some insurers, and the province, who are pressing for more $ from the federal level whilst not really taking road safety so seriously.

    The road safety is especially important now with hospital capacity maxed, but to have a more strict regimen/enforcement seems uphill. Maybe Steve’s nose and mind for good research and stats could ferret out pre-pandemic contribution of cars to hospital loadings, and what it is now.

    Though one might hope some media types could explore this; but we’ve tended to have ‘carservative’ media as well with the ever-present car ads.

    Like

  2. With the $hortfalls however, I suppose it’s quite beyond the capacities of the system/pols to be curtailing those costly-to-us over-done subways and extensions that actually lose bigger sums for the TTC/us? The Sheppard stubway subsidy is c. $12M I think, and the cost of ridership of the Sorbara subway extension beyond York U is c. $25 each rider maybe, so if we can’t do a VRTax or tolls or say, a 10% property tax hike, should we be limiting these subway operations?

    And another concept/fantasy is having the TTC Commission and/or Council ask the province to AVOID signing any costly tunneling contracts eg. in Scarborough and burying the Eglinton W LRT – squeezing the billions isn’t possible, right?

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  3. And not that one wants to give much help at all to the Ford Cons, but given what is happening with the hospital backlog as per tweet of Scarborough Civic Action Network (SCAN) today “@ScarboroughCAN 3h
    It will take three-and-a-half years to clear the backlog of surgeries, and more than three years to clear the backlog of diagnostic procedures, the report says.” – burying a few billion in a big tunnel project isn’t in the public interest, not really.

    Steve: But they will have a subway station right outside the hospital. What more could they possibly need?

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  4. It’s galling to me that a private developer built a new entrance to Lawrence Station on the NW corner just a couple years ago, and the TTC didn’t insist that it include an elevator to the mezzanine at least. Half that project could be done already!

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  5. Unless there has been a recent change, the streetcar stop at The Queensway at Parkside Drive can only be accessed from stairs from under the Parkside bridge. Are there plans to make this stop accessible? I saw no mention of the stop in the TTC accessibility report.

    Steve: No this stop will not be made accessible.

    Like

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