So You Want To Be A TTC Commissioner (2023 Edition)

Our brand new City Council meets this week. After the requisite speechifying and back-patting typical of the inaugural gathering, they will get into the business of appointing members of various Committees and Boards, including the one that runs the Toronto Transit Commission.

There are two sets of Board members: Councillors and citizens, a.k.a. civilians who (in theory) are not politicians. Only the first group will be appointed at this meeting, and the citizen members will come up for review in the new year once the City goes through the motions of soliciting applications.

The choice of a TTC Chair is up to Council, although it’s hard to believe that a nod from the Mayor, even without any new powers, would be ignored.

On the past Board, the Council members were: Jaye Robinson (chair), Brad Bradford, Shelley Carroll, Cynthia Lai, Jennifer McKelvie and Denzil Minnan-Wong. Of these, Councillor Lai died just before the election, and Minnan-Wong chose not to run. The Chair’s job should go to someone with experience and a strong commitment both to transit and to making something of the position, not just being a seat warmer.

Oddly enough, none of the existing Councillor/Commissioners has asked to be reappointed. This could lead to turnover (good, maybe) but also the loss of institutional memory at the Board level. That works to management’s advantage, but an organization as large as the TTC needs experience at the top for policy and oversight, not just ribbon cutting.

The new Board, to be confirmed by Council today, will have Councillor Burnside as Chair, with Councillors Mantas, Holyday, Moise and Ainslie as members. The citizen positions will be filled separately in the new year, and current members remain in office until that occurs. I cannot say that I am enthusiastic abouy Burnside as Chair, and do not expect much advocacy from that quarter beyond a knife aimed at the budget, and hence the quality of transit service.

The new Board will face very, very serious problems affecting transit’s future in Toronto. As pandemic-era financial supports wind down, the TTC will simply not be able to afford to operate service without new revenues through fares or subsidies. Moreover, their capital plans vastly exceed available resources.

Since 2020, the struggle has been to just get past the crisis, but the TTC faced a bleak outlook even before the pandemic. I have no crystal ball or magical insights, but offer this article as advice to the new Board.

Listen to Riders

If there is one overriding message from riders in any survey, including the 2023 Service Plan consultations now underway, it is this:

Service matters: Reliable spacing, frequent service, uncrowded vehicles.

There is a growing problem with the quality of service. Vehicles run in pairs or worse, much worse. Some vehicles are missing and little effort is made to fill the gaps. “Not In Service” is far too common a destination sign. The actual frequency of service, as seen by riders, is considerably worse than advertised. Three buses every 15 minutes is not a “5 minute service”.

A simplistic political desire to eliminate short turns became an unwritten edict that they should not occur, coupled with scheduling that wastes vehicles and delays service. Line management is missing in action most of the time, and little is done to correct severe bunching problems, or to adjust for missing vehicles thanks to staff shortages. Management reports, to the extent they exist, disguise the severity of these problems.

Far too much effort goes to “marketing”, telling people how wonderful transit is, and even adding a few bells and whistles.

Look! We have WiFi! But you have to be on a bus to use that service, and seated to use the chargers.

Look! We are building commodious shelters at major transit junctions! Why, one might ask, would one need a shelter for a long wait if the service came as often as advertised? And, by the way, that palatial shelter is of no value when it is across the street from a rider’s stop.

Look! We have “express” service. But the buses arrive so unreliably that the time saving of an “express” trip can be outweighed by the wait for a bus.

Look! We have red lanes to speed buses on their way. But at the current implementation rate, most Board members, let alone riders, will not live to use them. Moreover, a red lane on Eglinton does nothing for service on the Dufferin or Finch buses, nor for the Queen streetcar. Signals designed to favour motorists first while transit gets the leftovers are cynical window dressing, not a transit first policy. Transit priority should be a city-wide policy.

The TTC has a long history of blaming all of its problems on external forces, a convenient ruse that absolves management of looking internally, or asking how well they adapt to real world conditions.

Understand the Budget and the Capital Plan

The TTC’s operating and capital budgets, and their longer term capital and real estate plans, are large and complex.

The new Board will be saddled with calls for “efficiency”, but if past history is any example, they will look in all of the wrong places.

Operations cost over $2 billion and even before the pandemic revenue, mainly fares, only covered about 70% of this. On the cost side, there is a big difference between marginal and fully allocated costs. Cutting service in half will not reduce the budget by 50%, especially on the subway where there are large fixed costs for infrastructure that are independent of how many trains operate. The proportion is lower for other modes, but the fact remains that saving “X” per cent of the budget requires a larger cut at the marginal level. That is the reason the cuts instituted by the Rob Ford regime saved far less than the scope of their effect on service, and even the pandemic cuts to service did not reduce total spending proportionately.

On the capital side, the TTC’s own projects, not including the Provincial takeover of major works like the Scarborough extension and the Ontario/Relief line, have a combined cost well over $30 billion spread over the coming decade and beyond. For many years, the TTC low-balled its capital plans based on what the City could afford to commit from expected subsidies and its own financing, but this hid the largest part of the capital “iceberg” from view. The Board needs to fully understand transit’s capital needs, the available and likely sources of funding, and ensure that spending goes where it is most needed.

Speaking of those Provincial projects, they will have a substantial, although as yet unknown, effect on the TTC’s budget as Metrolinx seeks to recover at least operating cost if not some of the capital cost of their programs. Yes, there will be improved service in affected corridors and some offsets from reduced bus operations. On a net basis, these will be a new charge on operations just as City-built rapid transit such as the Spadina extension and Sheppard line added to system spending.

There are, pardon the pun, many moving pieces. Although items may appear under different departmental or project headings, many of them are linked. A line-by-line reading of both budgets is a classic way to look for “efficiency”, but it does not reveal how cuts in one line could endanger delivery of other critical items.

Conversely, approval of a new project or policy can affect costs in multiple budget lines, but the total might not be immediately evident. This is especially true when political goals dictate that apparent costs be minimized to prove just how well the Board and their funding partners control the budget. The Line 1 Automatic Train Control project was beset by problems through piecemeal approvals and design, to the extent that some technology had to be replaced before it was installed and active thanks to technical incompatibility. The pending Line 2 Renewal project could suffer a similar fate.

The TTC used to have a Budget Committee. It met a few times, and then was never heard from again. Attempts to revive it failed due to lack of interest by the Board, a sad dereliction of their oversight duties. Budget debates are not just for the annual round of hand-wringing about fares or agonizing over whether special funding is available for some projects. They are all-year issues – debates today set the stage for budgets, financial plans and hopes for transit’s future.

If you are not interested in these details, you shouldn’t be on the Board.

Be Transparent About Options

Faced with proposals to improve something, anything, there is a political desire to make real improvements for riders. Classic responses from management include: we can’t afford it, we don’t have enough staff, we don’t have enough vehicles, we need more garage space, and it will take years to implement.

What is often absent is any quantification of the problem. Should political desire be to “make it so”, there is no plan, no basis for a decision or an implementation framework.

Many years ago, David Miller as a Board Member and later as Mayor pressed for a list of potential transit improvements together with their likely costs and implementation issues. This became the Ridership Growth Strategy. A key point in this document was to begin from “what might we do”, not from “what can we afford”. Oddly enough, some initiatives turned out to be much cheaper than thought. The overall plan gave a menu of options which the Board and Council could work from in framing system improvements.

The TTC has talked of a new RGS but already speaks of this in terms of affordability, not what could be achieved if the will and the resources were available. This hides major policy options from public debate. We never know what might be possible, how soon and at what cost. This outlook is visible in the 2023 Service Plan proposals which were all developed on a net-zero cost basis.

What could service look like if we wanted to spend more? That is a question some politicians don’t want to address. If you want to know, and are willing to demand answers, you should be on the Board.

The Knotty Problem of Fares and Service

TTC fares have not changed for a few years as a gesture of support for the challenges riders faced in the pandemic. Costs, however, have not been static, and the TTC now faces several years of cost inflation while revenue (even if ridership were at pre-pandemic levels) is flat. Getting back to 100%, let alone growing, requires hard choices about funding.

There are strong arguments for fare integration, whatever that might mean, with transit systems in the 905 and with GO, but who will pay for these? What will you do if there is a political imperative unmatched by new funding?

There is a fare study underway at the TTC that will report in 2023. Learn about it, and the many options we have in charging for transit service. Ask yourself if you are prepared to increase fare revenue, and if so, which groups should pay the most. Alternately will you work for better funding in an era when City revenues are falling?

Will you treat a decline in service through austerity as temporary, or will it be a “new normal” from which the TTC will take a decade to recover?

Most importantly, do you regard transit service and fares as something for “people who can’t afford to drive” or as an essential service for everyone in the City? If the TTC turns into a service for the poor, especially for the bus service in the suburbs, transit is doomed.

What Resources Do We Have?

Aside from money, a generic problem for any plan, there are key resources that limit service growth:

  • Staff to operate and maintain the vehicles
  • Vehicles – buses, streetcars, trains – to carry riders
  • Garages and carhouses to stable the fleet

Staff are a direct and immediate cost that rises and falls depending on that key target so beloved of financial hawks, head count. Once you make a decision to only hire “X” number of staff, you have, in effect, dictated the amount of service you can provide. (There is a parallel argument about union vs non-union staffing and outsourcing, but the same principles apply.)

Staff utilization can be affected both by work rules and by scheduling tactics, and this is a complex art well beyond the Board level. However, good labour-management relations are essential to making improvements in this area. One recent change, the shift to one-person train operation (aka “OPTO”) on Line 1 was not welcomed by ATU local 113, but it was fully implemented on November 20. It is already in use on Lines 3 and 4, although these are much shorter routes with smaller trains. Line 2 will not shift to automatic operation thereby reducing crew duties until about 2030 at best depending on funding of and progress on the Line 2 renewal project.

The TTC fleet is considerably larger than needed to field all of the currently scheduled service for a few key reasons:

  • Pandemic-era service cuts reduced requirements across all modes.
  • Changes in subway fleet planning related to automatic train control produced a surplus of older trains.
  • Streetcar fleet delivery and reliability issues caused the target for availability to be set lower than industry standards, and this has not yet been reversed. Additional cars are on order for delivery starting in 2024, but it is unclear whether the TTC will have funding to operate more service when they get here.
  • The bus fleet is considerably larger than required for current service, although it is not clear whether all of the official fleet is actually capable of operation. As with the streetcars, the challenge is that without funding and staffing, these extra buses cannot provide service.

The point here is that “we have no buses/streetcars” is not, as it has been in the past, an excuse to defer service improvements. On the subway, service is not yet operating at pre-pandemic levels and there is headroom to run more service both in the fleet and in the constraints of the signal system. In all cases, fleet limitations apply to peak service and nothing, beyond funding and staffing, limit growth in off-peak service.

The benefits of Automatic Train Control are seen on Line 1 mainly in the ability to squeeze in “gap trains” during key moments in the peak period, and for trains to move through choke points like Bloor-Yonge closer together.

A question must be asked about the target bus fleet size and garaging needs which in turn depend on plans for service. There could be a surplus of vehicles today, and this might even increase as new rapid transit lines displace bus routes, but what are the long term options? Is the TTC building in a limit to service growth by assuming a very modest rise in ridership for the coming decade?

This is related to the “Green” initiative of switching to battery electric buses. Current plans call only for a one-to-one replacement of diesels and then diesel-hybrids with eBuses. This will consume capital both for the more-expensive vehicles and for garage modifications, but will not add to service. Getting drivers out of cars and onto transit requires more service, not just a spiffy elogo on the side of the bus.

Demand Meaningful Measures of Service Quality

The CEO’s Report contains many charts purporting to show how the TTC achieves its targets for service quality. These charts have fundamental problems that I have discussed in other articles.

  • Service targets are based on “standards” that were poorly understood by the Board when adopted years ago, and which provide considerable leeway for bad service including bunching and missing vehicles thanks to a formula for “on time performance”.
  • Statistics are consolidated system-wide in most cases, and are averaged over many days’ operation. This hides route-to-route and day-by-day variations that riders must endure. Metrics should present the service from a rider’s point of view.
  • Even with generous service targets, the TTC fails to meet them regularly. Reasons such as construction, special events or weather are invoked to explain this, but there is no understanding of basic service quality when conditions are “normal”.

Service and mobility are the TTC’s key “products”. The past few years have focused on simply keeping the wheels turning, on providing service during very difficult times. Now, however, the challenge is to get back not just to “normal”, but to actively improve transit and gain new riders. This is, after all, a policy the City claims to hold dear, but never quite wants to pay for.

Do you want to sit on the TTC Board in order to limit calls on the City budget, on precious taxpayer dollars, or do you want to find ways transit can improve life for people across the city? Make up your mind, and pick one goal because you cannot have it both ways. “Subject to budget availability” is not a phrase that should be at the top of any transit advocate’s shopping list.

Don’t Try to “Go Home” Early From Meetings

TTC meetings can be long and tedious especially when the rabble, oops, I mean well-intention and well-informed members of the public show up for deputations on critical items.

I’m sorry, but that’s how democracy works in Toronto, at least for now. If you want quiet, infrequent Board meetings with no pesky interruptions, go to Metrolinx.

Transit will be a very difficult file for the next decade. You will not solve everything in your first 100 days. You will be hamstrung in any efforts by the limits of City budgets and declining Provincial and Federal support. You will not get to cut many, if any, ribbons. Your job is to make the best of a bad situation and advocate both to other pols, to the public and to your own management for the best we can achieve.

14 thoughts on “So You Want To Be A TTC Commissioner (2023 Edition)

  1. “The new Board, to be confirmed by Council today, will have Councillor Burnside as Chair, with Councillors Mantas, Holyday, Moise and Ainslie as members.”

    Do any of them actually use the TTC on a regular basis? I would like to see their records or alleged promises on public transit and pedestrians.

    Steve: Cllr Moise certainly, Ainslie some of the time.

    Like

  2. Excellent article as always Steve!!

    We do need people on the board who can understand what can be done, even with the service availability at present, if the system were to be run PROPERLY.

    Metrics that are so wide open that even the doofuses running the operation now can’t meet them, seems to indicate that we need a new gang in charge, that understand the words transit service are not mutually exclusive. Hopefully the new board reads the CEO’s report and recognizes it for the self serving crap that it is.

    Example: most escalator repairs never make it onto the TTC website – even for a 4-5 week disruption, but the report shows a 96%+ availability – I call bull on that one.

    The gang at City Hall that turned the TTC into a “social service” agency by not allowing them to remove the homeless occupying 4 to 7 seats at a time and in multiple places on the trains (and the obvious reluctance of anyone else to sit near them) is slowly eroding any gains from ATC on Line 1. Yesterday on a train south from Sheppard-Yonge at 6:10 in the morning 24 seats were so directly occupied, with the subsequent vacant seats around.

    Something has to give or people will stop riding due to panhandling in the stations and on the trains which is getting more aggressive and obnoxious.

    They have to find an answer soon before things explode.

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  3. Steve, what’s your take on the current city councilors picked for the TTC board for this new term? I’d like to see your view on them, and what you might expect from them. They don’t seem transit friendly, with the exception of maybe Paul Ainslee and Moise. I doubt the citizen members will be of any significance. Surprised Jamaal Myers is not on the board. It shows you how serious or maybe some hidden agenda they got going on.

    Obviously it would be great to have you on there as a citizen member, but I doubt they would want that kind of accountability and transparency, including someone that will know more than management. If I remember correctly, you addressed this last term (2018?) that you had no plans on applying? And at least with this platform, you’re able to be more vocal.

    Next big move is replacing Rick Leary, and filling the position of Deputy CEO and COO. Rumor is that Rick Leary’s contract is up in February 2023?

    Again you might not go for it, but I’ll try my luck. Please run for citizen member. Of you get denied it might expose council for not bringing on someone that actually knows what their talking about.

    Thanks Steve!

    Steve: I agree with your take on the new Board. They will be hamstrung by whatever subsidy the TTC does or does not get in 2023 and years following, and I expect they will spend far too much time counting paperclips. I expect Leary, who is rumoured to have the Mayor’s support, is safe from removal despite his many shortcomings.

    As for me on the Board, I can be far more effective from the outside through this blog and the advocacy/assistance I provide to community groups, media, politicians and professionals sometimes on a back channel basis.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Your knowledge and insights – plus your dogged willingness to continue sharing them – are one of the few things that give me any hope that Toronto’s transit can ever improve. Thank you.

    Like

  5. “If you are not interested in these details, you shouldn’t be on the Board.”

    The most important sentence in the whole post. Hopefully some will follow that advice.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A further consequence of ‘efficiency’ from the provincial government ie. fewer Councillors is that it has reduced how much time/energy even a caring and transit-using Councillor can actually give to oversight/involvement, along with the many other aspects of governance. It’s a physical impossibility. Too bad there’s at least one other fiscal impossibility – that those in ‘charge’ of all the less-good and ever-increasing plans will pay for the excesses and not the mere taxpayer or transit-user.

    What’s a few extra billion when it’s for a good cause – unlike nursing staff….

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Hi Steve,

    What would the TTC do if everyone in Toronto boycott paying fares for a period of time to protest against their bad service?

    Steve: Shrug, I suspect.

    Like

  8. Hi there, I would like to leave some comments and suggestions here. May be it would be useful for everyone.

    When I was using mainly TTC buses before having a car I realized that buses would come back to back to bus stops, if a rider could catch one of these buses, it would be great but if you can not catch this bunch of buses you definitely would wait at least half and hour or may be more. And also first bus would be arrive and collect all riders who are waiting on the bus stop then other 3 or buses wouldn’t collect anyone from bus stops. They are only follow the first bus without collect any rider. I would definitely say that I saw many times there are at least 3-5 buses back to back on the streets.

    There is a very easy solution either bus driver arrange herself/himself the distance with bus which is in front of his/her or there would be a GPS and this device automatically arrange the distances all buses which are following each other. If the bus would close too much with front bus and the driver would wait one of the bus stop and then continue on their route. Otherwise we are going to continue to see all buses like a train back to back on the ways which are useless.

    Steve: This is a common problem and has been for years, although it is getting worse. There is a fundamental problem at the TTC that the idea of headway management seems utterly foreign to them, and severe bunching is left to sort itself out, to the degree that drivers care, without central assistance. This is a huge black mark against management who always have excuses for why this happens, but treat the problem, to the degree they acknowledge it, as completely beyond their control.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Steve said:
    Service matters: Reliable spacing, frequent service, uncrowded vehicles.

    I hope they get this message. Traffic conditions will put service off schedule. It causes buses to bunch together. The TTC has modern tracking equipment and route managers can direct reliable spacing. There are basic management things like having enough operators scheduled, have buses leave the terminal on time and discipline the operators who dilibertly bunch up. (You can ask Steve, who they are, he can provide route history performance).

    Good execution makes a big difference. I believe some of the projects like red lanes are not necessary, if the route managers would do their job.

    Like

  10. “Traffic conditions will put service off schedule. It causes buses to bunch together.”

    You are inadvertently buying in to a TTC management falsehood. While it is obviously true that busy traffic conditions make it difficult to keep service on schedule and/or properly spaced, Steve has amply documented that TTC routes often run bunched even when there are no traffic problems. The only fix is for management and operators (but primarily management, since they have the needed information) to start doing their jobs properly.

    Steve: Yes, and when one compares headways at a terminal with various points further away, the bunching becomes more extreme. For example, for Queen cars leaving Neville, small variations in headways become larger seen at Coxwell and then at Broadview. This is a function of passenger load and of the operating styles of each driver.

    Like

  11. Has anyone ever approached the Union Local to seek co-operation of their members (Operators) to do such things as not operating through signalled intersections especially transfer points 2 or 3 buses per signal sequence? Especially in non-rush hours. A Pilot (something Toronto loves for anything and everything) .

    Other adjustments include leapfroging a full bus by a following almost empty bus regardless schedule time.

    When a heavily loaded bus (likely behind schedule) approaches a stop (especially between signals) and just one (or 2) person is waiting pass by without stopping IF 1st Operator can see a following bus close behind and likely near-empty due to 1st bus being down on its schedule. On a very rare occasion I have seen 2nd/3rd bus overtake the 1st bus to spread out load.

    Steve: Leapfrogging is tricky. If the service has branches, the bus that bypasses the stop might be an “A” while the one that stops, a “B”, isn’t the one passengers want. The edict against leapfrogging came from this problem and resulting complaints, a typical case of a TTC blanket injunction rather than a well thought-out selective implementation where every bus matters.

    Like

  12. I haven’t had to travel anywhere that requires a bus. Sometimes I’ll hope on the bus to my local subway station, but that’s for convenience (4 minute ride vs 15 minute walk). Such is the life of a “downtown elite.” Living within walking distance of the subway and streetcars (and walking distance to many places I want to go) is a nice way to live. But I remember travelling further out, including a few years of commuting.

    Streetcars are not unaffected by bunching and traffic, particularly on lines without a ROW, but buses can be so horrible as to negatively affect quality of life. I think of those poor souls trying to jam onto the bus at Dufferrin and Bloor or just about anywhere along Finch West. Knowing what I know, I wouldn’t live any place where those were my routes. I recall that the poor streetcar performance on King West (many years ago) meant I rejected several possible places to live as too much trouble. And if you’re out in the wilds of northern Scarborough or Etobicoke any trip that requires transferring buses becomes wildly unpredictable because of lack of reliability.

    Maybe what would actually make a difference to Tory and his cronies is if we worked on their developer paymasters and made them understand that a lack of decent transit makes it harder to sell their developments and they’ll sell for less. I suspect not, though. As long as they can point to a bus stop or a line on another fantasy transit map they’ll be fine.

    Steve: For all that we talk about housing to support transit, that is just a smoke screen. Compare locations where there is a large amount of development with the locations of nearby expressways. That’s the real selling point for the new buildings.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Steve: For all that we talk about housing to support transit, that is just a smoke screen. Compare locations where there is a large amount of development with the locations of nearby expressways. That’s the real selling point for the new buildings.”

    Damn you! Bursting bubbles and dropping truth bombs!

    Considering Tory committed the city to throwing away a billion dollars to realign a hunk of the Gardiner so developers could make more money, of course you’re right. What was I thinking? If you can afford to buy in a new development in this city, you can afford a car. It’s just the poors who base housing choices on transit availability (if they can afford to).

    Like

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