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.