Although month after month of service reductions to fit the available budget dominate transit debates, the TTC forges ahead with their “5-Year Service Plan & Customer Experience Action Plan”. The intent is to develop priorities and strategies for the 2024-2028 period.
Also underway is work on the 2024 Service Plan. This will focus on issues arising from many construction projects.
The work will take place until October 2023 in various stages beginning with a survey available online (it is also available by mail on request).
The elephant in the room through all this is, of course, the future funding status of the TTC and the level of service they can hope to operate with whatever money comes their way. Part of the survey asks which aspects of service should be enhanced or trimmed depending on the availability of funds.
The objectives of the plan are described with this text:
“We consider two major objectives when planning transit services in Toronto:
- Maximize mobility and satisfy changing travel needs by ensuring public transit is provided in the right places, at the right times; and
- Ensure all TTC transit services are efficient and cost-effective (and therefore affordable).
As we work towards these objectives, we strive to balance the benefits of transit services with the cost of providing them.”
This says quite clearly that money will rule the planning, but what has consistently been missing in TTC plans is a sense of advocacy. “Cost effective” is a term that depends very much on the frame of reference. Service convenience, speed, reliability and comfort all have a value as part of an overall push to move people to transit from cars. It is pointless to trumpet a move to greener buses if those buses provide poor service, or worse, sit in the garage because there is no money to operate them.
“We can’t afford that” is a common response when people ask for better service, but too often we are not told what improvements might cost. We might not have the money today, but good political debate should be informed on the options.
Twenty years ago, an essential part of David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy was to say “don’t tell us that we cannot do anything, tell us what our options are and what they will cost”. The decision should be up to politicians and their constituents, not pre-empted by management. Of course, if plans are built under direction to avoid spending more money, then management does what they are told.
Parts of the survey could use more granularity. For example, the response to construction and diversion requirements is very different depending on which part of the city one talks about. Where there is a fine-grained street grid, it is much easier to keep service near its normal route than in areas where through streets are widely spaced.
There is no recognition that service reliability interacts with service frequency and speed. There is no point in spending great effort on transit priority schemes only to reduce service and ignore reliability. Travel time savings on paper can be offset by unpredictable wait times, not to mention longer walks to stops.
The survey recognizes the importance of communications. I wrote recently about problems in navigating the TTC’s website and confusion in presentation of updates. A related problem is that that riders have different needs for accessing information. In some cases, it will be “what should I do tomorrow” planning, but a lot of access is for “where is my bus right now”. Finding accurate info quickly is vital whether this is via a smartphone app, an in-shelter next vehicle display or a poster hanging by a string from a stop pole.
The challenge is to get from recognition to implementation, a big problem in an organization that has too many information silos and no apparent single point of responsibility.
“Customer experience” is a slippery term that has, in the past, revealed a lot about how some at the TTC regard what might entice riders to the system. The emphasis has been on nice-to-haves like WiFi (only recently elevated as a safety issue), elaborate waiting stations at transfer points and shops in subway stations. The most basic part of the experience – the wait for and crowding on board vehicles – is rarely discussed. As extra service for the pandemic era winds down, this is the central debate.