The TTC CEO’s Report: Old Wine in New Bottles?

The April 2021 TTC CEO’s Report came in a new format, and with that a hope that the long-promised improved content had arrived, not just better graphics. The new report looks good, but it continues to over-simplify key details and omits measures of major system components.

Back in January, I reviewed the then-current version in Measuring and Reporting on TTC Operations: Part I and planned a Part II that would look at how metrics used in other cities might be applied in Toronto, and what they would reveal. That article has been sitting in rough draft for a while. Building alternate views of the TTC requires some data crunching I just have not brought myself to do yet.

I recommend that earlier article to readers if only to avoid reiterating the shortcomings of past reports here.

A key point is that the report tells us what the TTC did, not what it might do if its assets were fully utilized. For years the combined tropes of “we have no buses” and “we have no garage space” were used to rebuff calls for more service when the real problem was underfunding on both the capital and operating side. More service means not just more buses, but hiring enough drivers to take as many buses as possible out of garages and onto the streets.

The CEO’s report tells us how successful the TTC was at fielding scheduled service, but is silent on the constraints that prevent the operation of more.

In the pandemic era, it is not enough to say that the TTC provides “98% service hours for 32% ridership” when social distancing fundamentally changes how we think about system capacity. As ridership returns, there will be a balancing act between providing more space (i.e. more service, more seats) and changing crowding standards. We are likely to see a period when the social comfort riders hope to see will exceed the space the TTC can provide due to both financial and fleet limitations. Already service is being shuffled between lower and higher demand routes to address crowding without extra costs.

The eagle-eyed readers will note that the cover photo on King looking east from Yonge includes a 514 Cherry car (a route that was replace by the 504A King to Distillery service in October 2018) and a CLRV (a vehicle retired at the end of 2019).

An important improvement is the presence of a “Hot Topics” section to focus attention on key items of note. That said, a few potential problems come to mind:

  • How does a topic get on this list?
  • What happens when a topic remains “hot” for an extended period?
  • Is there an upper bound to the hot topic count?

Most of the “hot topics” in this report belong in the permanent lists as they represent standing issues, not monthly flashes. If the “hot topics” really are “hot”, they should appear sooner than three-quarters of the way through the report.

The report has no tracking of infrastructure reliability even though, for example, track, power and signals are responsible for interruptions of subway and streetcar service.

Averages vs Details

A common problem throughout the TTC’s presentation of various metrics is the degree of averaging, of consolidating data and thereby missing its variability in time, space and effect on riders. If something “works” 90 per cent of the time, that may sound good, but that other 10 per cent can have a disproportionate negative effect. Moreover, as discussed here many times, it is not enough for “n” vehicles to show up every hour. They must be reasonably spaced to give predictable wait times and crowding levels.

By reporting on average values, the TTC ignores the day-to-day, trip-to-trip experience of riders.

Corporate Views vs Rider Views

Corporate plans look at the world from a corporate view, but the TTC’s job is first to serve riders and move people around the city.

The “core metrics” are now aligned with the corporate plan’s strategic objectives and, in theory, demonstrate how the TTC is advancing that plan’s goals. This approach consolidates metrics that are most important to riders in one category, and shuffles some key ones into an appendix.

There is a particular problem that accessibility issues do not get their own grouping because this is not one of the TTC’s five corporate objectives. Given the TTC’s long history of underserving these needs, metrics of accessibility should be reported as a group and tracked together rather than being scattered through each section of a corporate view.

This does not mean hiving Wheel-Trans off into its own section, but recognizing that there are many aspects to accessibility that affect users of both WT and the “conventional” system, especially now that riders are encouraged to use the “family of services” as much as possible.

Metrics should include items from the capital budget, not just strictly “operating” statistics. Ongoing plans and progress on key projects that will affect system capacity, safety and accessibility should be included even though they may be in the capital budget. It does not matter (and riders do not care) how various parts of the system are funded, only that system improvements are tracked in one place.

This would not preclude the quarterly Financial Report from going into more detail, but the absence of “one stop shopping” in the CEO’s Report weakens its value.

There are five strategic areas plus a group called “Hot Topics”:

  • Ridership
    • Revenue rides (linked trips)
    • Customer boardings (unlinked trips)
    • Wheel-Trans passenger trips
  • Financial
    • Fare revenue
  • People and Diversity
    • (Metrics to be announced)
  • Safety and Security
    • Lost time injury rate
    • Customer injury incidents rate
    • Offenses against customers
  • Customer Experience
    • Customer satisfaction
    • Customer service communications
    • On-time performance (subway)
    • On-time performance (streetcar and bus)
    • On-time performance (Wheel-Trans)
    • Accessibility: Escalator and elevator availability
  • Hot Topics
    • Wheel-Trans contact centre wait time
    • Customer mask use
    • Bus occupancy

Of the three Hot Topics, only customer mask use might be considered as a “topic of the moment” although it will be with us as long as the pandemic and infection are a concern to riders.

Problems with Wheel-Trans booking systems have existed for years. Measures of availability and response time deserve a permanent spot within an Accessibility group.

As for bus occupancy, this is fundamental to the perceived quality of transit service. This has been a pressing issue for years, but is a particularly hot topic in the pandemic era . We often hear about “run as directed” buses, but never see stats to support the benefit they might provide at key locations rather than as a system average. With Automatic Passenger Counters across the bus fleet, the TTC should report regularly on crowding at a granular level including problem routes, locations and times of the day.

Continue reading

$33 Billion and Counting (Part II)

In the first article in this series, I reviewed the Capital Budget and Plan that covers the years 2019-2033 for the TTC. There are three reports on the January 24 Board agenda related to this subject:

This article concentrates on the “Making Headway” report which is a glossy overview of the 15 Year Capital Plan. It is a generally good report, although there are annoying omissions of detail that would flesh out its argument.

This report deals mainly with “state of good repair” (SOGR) projects that involve rejuvenation of existing infrastructure and expansion necessary to handle growing demand. New lines are not, for the most part, included in the report although plans for them are reflected in SOGR planning where they trigger expansion of existing capacity. Leaving out new projects like the Richmond Hill extension may be a political decision, but this means that the context for some recommendations is incomplete. A useful update would be to produce a consolidated plan showing the “new” projects and the time-critical events they trigger (such as fleet expansion or replacement and station capacity issues).

For many years, the TTC, the City of Toronto and its so-called funding partners have been content for the official SOGR backlog to stay out of sight. This has the triple benefit of reducing the projected borrowing TTC projects will require, making the benefit of capital funding the TTC does receive (mainly from gas tax) appear larger than what is needed, and avoiding difficult questions about spending on new projects in the face of a gaping hole for existing maintenance. This must stop, and the “Making Headway” report certainly puts the TTC’s needs in a different, and far more critical, light.

A backlog of deferred maintenance has grown, putting the safety, accessibility and sustainability of our transit system at risk despite the need to move more customers more reliably than ever before. [p. 7]

One cannot help remembering the soothing words of TTC management in the early 1990s when recession-starved governments cut back on transit maintenance, and the TTC said they could get by on the money they received without compromising the system. Then there was the fatal crash at Russell Hill and, bit by bit, Toronto learned just how badly the TTC’s condition had fallen. The CEO at the time (a position then called “Chief General Manager”) went on to become a Minister in the Harris government that slashed provincial transit funding completely. Things appear to be different today with the TTC calling out for better funding, although at a time when the last thing any politician wants to hear is a plea for more spending.

One page should be burned into the souls of anyone who claims to support transit’s vital role:

It is easy for the need to invest in our base transit system to be overshadowed by the need to fund transit expansion. But investing to properly maintain and increase the capacity of our current system is arguably even more important.

Population growth and planned transit expansion projects such as SmartTrack, the Relief Line South, the Line 2 East Extension to Scarborough and new LRT lines on Eglinton and Finch West will add hundreds of thousands more customers to Toronto’s transit network.

The result will dramatically increase pressure on a system already grappling with an aging fleet, outdated signals on key subway lines, inadequate maintenance and storage capacity, and tracks and infrastructure in need of constant repair.

Without the investments outlined in this Plan, service reliability and crowding will worsen, as the maintenance backlog grows and becomes more difficult and costlier to fix. This is the fate now faced by some other major transit systems in North America that allowed their assets to badly deteriorate.

Our customers, our city, our province and our nation can’t afford to let that happen. [p. 8]

This is not the message recent and current leaders in Toronto and Ontario wanted to hear, and they collectively are to blame for the mess we are in today.

Although some items, particularly those in the second decade of the plan, are not fully costed, the items are included to raise awareness that they exist.

Given the scale of the investment required, however, it would be irresponsible to delay conversations about funding until estimates are exact. [p. 9]

There is a mythology about transit assets, particularly subways, that they last a century. This is nowhere near the truth, and those who push such claims as a justification for subways as a preferred mode are flat out liars. Only the physical structure lasts many decades, and even that requires ongoing repair. Components such as trains, track, escalators, electrical systems, signals, tunnels, pumps and station buildings require repair and replacement at regular intervals. The Yonge subway, now over 60 years old, is on its third set of trains, and the Bloor-Danforth line on its second. All of the track has been replaced two or three times. Stations do not have their original escalators, and the ones now in place are coming due for major overhaul or replacement. The list is endless. A subway is not a “build it and forget it” project any more than a new car or a new house.

When the existing system is asked to carry far more riders, more is needed than a new coat of paint. More trains and bigger stations are just a start, and the analogy would be trading up to a family SUV or moving to a bigger house. If Toronto were a stagnant city with little population or job growth, this would be less of an issue, but Toronto is instead a booming area facing problems of growth it cannot serve or chooses not to serve adequately.

The chart below shows how many aspects of a transit system are linked together. We cannot simply say “buy more buses” or “run more trains” and think that every problem is solved. This problem is compounded when any “improvement” we make vanishes into the black hole of deferred maintenance, making up for what we should have done years ago.

Seen from a high level, the $33.5 billion plan breaks down like this:

Of the “funded” portion, about one third depends on assumptions regarding available funds from various sources in the second decade of the plan, and the remainder is based on the current known commitments of various government. This is less than certain with provincial plans to take over ownership of the subway system and responsibility for funding its capital maintenance. Note that in the chart above, 65% of the total is subway related. This would leave Queen’s Park on the hook for $22 billion over 15 years, and that does not pay for system expansion.

(For clarity, some of the spending included above is on works in progress such as the ATC signalling on Line 1 YUS, and the delivery of new streetcars. Only the costs in 2019 and forward are included in the figures here.)

Funding vs Financing

This report deals with the funding needs of the transit system. The distinction is often blurred between getting the money (funding) and paying for it (financing). The distinction is that if you buy a car, somebody (you, or more likely your bank) pays for the vehicle. The dealer and the automaker are happy, but you now have a debt. That’s “financing”. A slightly more creative scheme would be for you to rent the car so that someone else (a leasing company) actually owns it, but this is still “financing”. Real money changed hands somewhere, although the leasing company would get a better price on a fleet purchase, and they have tax write-off opportunities that you probably don’t.

Money could come from outside investors who may simply provide financing secured by future revenues (taxes on new development, for example), or might build or buy and even operate assets on our behalf. But one way or another, we have to pay for them unless new money with no strings attached appears out of thin air. That’s how one-time grants for major projects like subway extensions work. Governments give the TTC money with which to build new lines, but the cost stays on the government’s books and is not a future charge against the transit system. That’s a system the province doesn’t like one bit, and that is why Ontario wants to own and finance projects if only because the accounting looks better without that “gift” to Toronto.

There is a great debate over where we will find $33.5 billion, but there is no way to make that number vanish short of simply not undertaking the projects it will fund.

Continue reading

TTC Board Meeting: November 30, 2016

The TTC Board will meet on November 30, 2016 at 1 pm in the Council Chamber at City Hall. This is not a budget meeting, but the agenda contains a number of items of interest.

  • CEO’s Report for November 2016
  • Purchase of Air Conditioning Parts for T1 Subway Cars
  • Purchase of land to expand bus storage capacity
  • Reports related to the Hillcrest Complex including a review of property usage, approval of new equipment for Duncan Shops, and approval of a new Streetcar Way Building.
  • Expansion of Davisville Carhouse
  • St. Patrick Station Easier Access Elevators

Continue reading

Cherry Street Day One

The first day of revenue service was beautiful and warm, ideal for tourists and photographers, although service on the 514 Cherry was quite spotty at times with cars running bunched and off schedule.

For anyone trying to find a 514, there was the added challenge that the TTC export to NextBus has not been set up correctly, and the “main” route appears to be from Queen and Broadview to Dufferin Loop with a spur down Cherry Street. This fouls up predictions for stops on the “spur”, and the clever rider must know enough to look nearby on King to see when a car might show up. Then there is the small matter of the claim that the car goes to “Cherry Beach” which I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

An additional issue was the absence of a low floor car among the five scheduled vehicles, although 4421 was running as an extra all day. The problem appears to be that the TTC neglected to flag crews for this route as requiring Flexity training, and so the operators generally can only drive the older high-floor cars. With 4421 running as an extra, it does not appear on NextBus and anyone needing an accesible vehicle faces an indeterminate, long wait while the car makes its 80 minute round trip. This extra will also be crewed with operators on overtime, rather than as a piece of work integrated into the normal schedule.

Yes, we all know there are not yet enough Flexitys to flesh out all of the service, but like 509 Harbourfront, the 514 could be operated with a few cars sprinkled in (well spaced, please) between the CLRVs as a first step. The TTC made a big point of flagging this as a new accessible service, but have been back peddling saying “when we get more new cars”. That’s not what Chair Josh Colle said in the press release two days ago:

“The 514 Cherry Streetcar will reduce congestion and provide more frequent service along the central section of TTC’s busiest surface route, the 504 King. The new route will be served by the low-floor streetcars, which will provide a more comfortable experience for our customers, and add a new east-west accessible route.” – TTC Chair Josh Colle

4421 was the first car out of Dufferin Loop providing an early trip at about 7:30 am, while 4044 was the first car from Distillery Loop at 7:45.

Another aspect of the route that is not working is the “transit priority” part of the signal system. Yes, there are transit signals, but they cycle through whether a streetcar is anywhere in sight or not. This is particularly annoying at King & Sumach which is a multi-phase signal that now includes eastbound and northbound “white bar” call ons for streetcars. These operate whether they are needed or not, and steal green time that could be used for King Street itself where the 504 cars spend considerable time awaiting their signals.

Although the TTC took several stops served by the 514 (and 504) out of service on June 19, they did little to flag this situation at the stops. Old pole cards, some falling off or visible only from one direction of approach, were all that told people the stops were not in service. The usual TTC signs for out of service stops, so commonly seen for construction projects and diversions, were nowhere to be found, and many riders were waiting at the stops (which were served by considerate operators). Some of the streetcars continue to announce these stops, and they remain in the stop list on NextBus and on the TTC’s schedule pages.

Finally, the shelters installed on Cherry Street are of a smaller type that was supposed to have been discontinued as they provide no “shelter” at all. An example is in the photo at Front Street below beside the former Canary Restaurant.

A lot of this may seem like small change, but collectively there is a lack of attention to detail especially on a new route’s launch where current, accurate info should be the easiest to provide. These are the details that annoy riders because the system and its “customer service” cannot be relied on.

The line is quite photogenic, and the real shame is that there is so little of it. When or if the planned Waterfront East streetcar and the link of Cherry under the rail corridor and into the Port Lands will happen is anyone’s guess.

Finally, there has been some discussion on Twitter about the absence of a stop northbound on Sumach at King. The reason for this is evident when one looks at a Flexity sitting where the stop should be: the sidewalk lip is some distance from the car and does not provide the sort of platform one would expect. This creates a safety hazard were this used as a stop, and probably interferes with operation of the wheelchair ramp. In the absence of a stop (and without a sympathetic operator), north to eastbound transfers (514 to 504) must be made at the next stop west on King at Sackville. This is not the most intuitive arrangement for riders, and the configuration of the sidewalk at Sumach should be corrected as soon as possible.

TTC’s 2016 Customer Charter Reviewed

The TTC has released the 2016 version of its Customer Charter listing a number of areas in which they promise improvements through the year.

First Quarter:

  • Ensure that 510 Spadina is served by fully accessible streetcars: Mostly done already with a few of the high-floor ALRVs still in service but the majority of runs operated with low-floor Flexitys.
  • Apple Pay at collectors’ booths: In progress.
  • Reduce streetcar short-turns by a further 20% over Q1 2015: New schedules on 501 Queen effective January 3 make a big contribution to this coupled with the milder winter weather.
  • Start subway service at 8:00am on Sunday: Done effective January 3.
  • Add service to Line 1 (YUS) during off-peak: Not done yet, but the schedules going into effect at the end of March have not yet been announced. (Note 1)
  • Establish a Local Working Group for Donlands Station second exit project: Done.
  • Add five new express bus services: Planned for late March.

Second Quarter:

  • Wifi at 22 new stations (Note 2).
  • Roll-out of new fare gates with Main Station as a pilot: Work at Main in progress.
  • Improve bike parking at 5 stations.
  • Add 20 bike repair stops at subway stations: Subject to outcome of a pilot.
  • Install notice boards in 12 busy stations to inform passengers about planned/unplanned closures.

Third Quarter:

  • Ensure 509 Harbourfront and 511 Bathurst are served by low-floor streetcars: With delivery of new cars, Harbourfront is already planned to ramp up beyond two assigned Flexitys in mid-February. Delivery rates for new cars are supposed to be up to 1/week by the end of March and this should make conversion of 511 Bathurst an easy task provided Bombardier manages to stay on track.
  • Pilot high capacity bike parking at one station.
  • Replace T1 trains on Line 4 (Sheppard) with 4-car TR sets: The order for these cars is in progress at Bombardier with delivery expected later this year.
  • Improve 28 Bayview South and 101 Downsview Park routes to be part of all-day, every day service. This will bring services to two park-based areas. The Bayview South bus serves the Brick Works from the west (Davisville Station), but service from the east (Broadview Station) will still be operated by a free shuttle bus.
  • Add 3 trains to Line 1 (YUS) to improve AM peak service. It is unclear whether these will be “gap” trains used to supplement service when things go wrong, or an attempt to slightly shorten the average headway over the entire line. Gap trains generally make a bigger difference for situations where holes in service at peak times and direction need to be filled because the extra train is used specifically where it is most needed.
  • Add peak service to 25 busy bus routes.
  • New streetcar service on Cherry Street: (Note 1) This service could most easily be implemented by converting the 504 buses now scheduled from Dufferin to Parliament back to streetcars as a Dufferin to Cherry operation. Peak vehicle requirements would probably go down, but the off peak service on Cherry would be a net addition. This change is related to whatever modifications the TTC will make to the 72 Pape and 172 Cherry bus routes.
  • Begin revamping the east parking lot at Finch Station.

Fourth Quarter:

  • Widen 25 bus stop pads to improve accessibility: Locations TBA
  • Install external route announcement system on all vehicles: Work in progress.
  • Add two new elevators at Ossington Station: Work in progress.
  • Install customer info screens at Union Station mezzanine and platform levels: An overdue follow-up. This work should have been an integral part of the station renovation.
  • Install customer info screens at Dufferin, York Mills and Lawrence stations.
  • Install transit signal priority at 15 intersections: Locations TBA
  • Complete PRESTO roll out to the entire system: Bus fleet conversion in progress; new fare gates will finish PRESTO subway access as they are installed.
  • 10 additional WiFi stations: Locations TBA (Note 2)
  • Lengthen 10 bus pads for compatibility with articulated buses: Locations TBA
  • Start construction on a bus queue jump lane: Location TBA
  • Introduce a new Wheel-Trans qualification process: Details TBA
  • Install new, “more informative” stop markers at over 3,000 surface stops.
  • Review schedules on 32 bus and streetcar routes to improve reliability and travel times.
  • Reduce subway delays by 10% (counted as both incidents and minutes of delay). See What Causes Subway Delays?
  • Consult with riders and other stakeholders to revise service in three neighbourhoods around routes 40 Junction, 54 Lawrence East and 116 Morningside.

Note 1: Some items in the Charter are not yet funded in the City’s budget. Whether they will actually operate depends on the TTC’s ability and desire to squeeze money out of other parts of their operation.

Note 2: The WiFi rollout in the subway is limited to internet access only because the major telcos – Bell, Rogers, Telus – will not provide service over the incumbent provider’s network. Even the internet access has its problems due to login requirements recently introduced that require signon to a sponsoring site such as Twitter. This state of affairs can be traced to a bad system and contract design by the TTC who appear not to have contemplated the difficulties of the “big” players refusing to come onto, and thereby financially support, the network.

I cannot help feeling that a lot of this “Charter” is a shopping list of the low hanging fruit, things the TTC planned to do anyhow, but repackaged in a “look at us” format where green tick marks will gradually fill up the boxes. What is missing, and this is as much a political discussion as a managerial one, is a “what could we be” dimension and aspirational goals that might not be achieved, certainly not in a one-year timeframe.

Of course, when there are members of Council and the TTC Board who would rather count paperclips than address fundamental issues of just what  “good transit” really is, this situation is almost inevitable. Good news, but as cheaply as possible, and so we aim low.

TTC Budget Meeting: November 9, 2015 (Updated)

Updated November 10, 2015 at 6:00 pm:

The Budget Committee meeting was not the best-organized or well-informed of TTC meetings thanks to a combination of factors. It was held in the boardroom at TTC headquarters which is no longer configured suitably for such events and cannot handle a large presence by the media who were out in force anticipating a story about 2016 fares. Almost all of the material was presented by one person who, unfortunately, trusted to memory rather too often and got the odd fact wrong as the meeting wore on. Moreover, there simply was too much material to absorb in the manner it was presented.

Committee members, for their part, tended to view the situation through their personal lenses of which hobbyhorse needed attention. This did not necessarily make for a broad view of TTC issues, and many erroneous assumptions, often uncorrected, crept into the debate.

We will go through this and much more all over again at the November 23, 2015 meeting of the full Board when we can also expect a very long parade of deputations on the subject of fares.

The entire exercise of having a Budget Committee has been useful, up to a point, in that some Commissioners have been exposed to the gory details, but they remain confused, and we have yet to see an actual philosophical discussion of just what the TTC should be as a basis for the budgets for 2016 and beyond.

The following motions were approved by the Committee:

Continue reading

TTC Board Meeting of May 28, 2014

I have been remiss in completing my coverage of the TTC Board meeting on May 28 as other issues and activities have drawn my attention.

The big issue was the $47-million so-called surplus in the 2013 operating results which I addressed in an earlier article. Let’s just say it was one of the less well-informed debates I have seen in my years watching the TTC.

Another issue of note was the matter of eliminating stops on the streetcar system, an issue also covered elsewhere on this site.

Continue reading

Toronto Deserves Better Transit Service Now! Part 2: What Can Be Done

The first part of this article reviewed the evolution of transit service and riding since 2006. In brief:

  • System riding grew by about 22% from 2006 to the projected demand in 2014.
  • The bus fleet, after increasing by about 22% early in that period in part for the Ridership Growth Strategy (RGS), has not grown since 2009.
  • The capacity of the bus fleet has dropped by about 6% as the remaining high-floor fleet was replaced with low-floor buses.
  • Although RGS improved crowding standards to encourage more riding, these changes were reversed in 2012 to fit more passengers on existing vehicles.
  • The streetcar fleet size has not changed at all, and peak service improvements, such as there were any, came from redeploying vehicles from routes shut down for construction projects.

Changing the level of TTC service on a broad scale is not something anyone can do overnight.  More service means more buses and streetcars, more operators and more garage capacity.  All of this takes more operating and capital subsidy, and a sustained commitment that lasts longer than a campaign sound-bite.

Continue reading