Presto’s Geographical Confusion

The CBC reports a problem from two Presto users who were billed wrongly for trips miles from their actual location on a different transit system. Specifically, riders who boarded the subway at Wilson Station, and then transferred to the 52 Lawrence West bus using Presto cards with TTC monthly passes were billed for a MiWay trip at Westwood Mall.

Source: CBC

Problems with Presto placing a rider or charging wrongly for trips have been known for quite some time. Some cases are due to GPS errors, and others due to limitations of a rule-based system for calculating fares.

Before the TTC moved to the two-hour fare in August 2018, riders could find they were billed for a new fare in cases where they made a legitimate transfer connection. This could occur for two reasons:

  • The connection occurred at a location that was not defined as a valid transfer point between routes within the Presto system. Typically this happened when vehicles were short-turned or diverted and the transfer happened at a location Presto was not programmed to recognize. Transfers between cars of the same route could trigger a new fare charge.
  • The vehicle did not accurately “know” where it was at the time a card was tapped because of a GPS error, and so Presto misinterpreted the transfer as a new trip.

Riders using passes on their Presto card were not affected by these problems because they paid a fixed charge, but pay-as-you-go riders would be charged a fare they should not have paid. Unless riders checked their transaction history, they would never notice the problem.

With the two-hour fare, the controlling factor is the time, not the location of the tap, and so the whole transfer point issue disappeared.

However, recently Presto extended its functionality so that TTC riders could use their card on neighbouring systems such as York Region Transit and MiWay, and this created a new way that Presto could fail. If a TTC bus reports its location in a “foreign” location, Presto could assume that they were on a different transit system, and charge for a trip there.

The specific case reported by the CBC is particularly interesting because Westwood Mall is a legitimate location on the 52 Lawrence West route. TTC buses run outside of the City of Toronto on some routes and riders can use their Presto cards to pay the outside-city fare on a TTC vehicle. However, it is clearly impossible that someone could get from Wilson Station to Westwood Mall in 6 minutes.

This brings us to the problem of how Presto deals with bad GPS data.

The plot below shows GPS data from the 52 Lawrence route taken from the TTC’s vehicle tracking system. There are 10,000 vehicle data points included here, and they clearly show the geography of the route, its branches, and the garage trips to and from Mount Dennis Garage. The blue dot at the northwest end of the route is at Westwood Mall.

However, the plot looks somewhat different if we zoom out to include all data. The cluster of dots in the lower central part of the plot is the main part of the route, but there are many dots far away from the route. When these are plotted on a map, locations range from Wasaga Beach to the middle of Lake Ontario. What does Presto do when it “sees” a tap at such a location? Does it try to map this to the nearest point that is legitimate for the route? Would a tap far northwest of Toronto be mapped to Westwood Mall, the nearest point on the 52 Lawrence West route?

There are two major issues for Metrolinx here, and this is not the trivial problem the agency presents.

First, GPS errors happen and Presto needs to deal with them. This is not a problem with the TTC, a favourite whipping boy for Metrolinx, but with GPS systems generally. This will become more important as riders whose “home” systems with local fare discounts such as monthly passes or two-hour fares regularly cross boundaries to other systems. Even with some sort of fare integration (a rat’s nest of policy and funding problems in its own right), there will be challenges if the tariff involves zones or some distance-based charge. There must be a reasonableness check built into the system to detect travel patterns that don’t make sense for a rider. Even so, things will go wrong.

The second problem is that Presto needs to acknowledge that these problems do occur and clean up its Customer Service practices. Only after this incident became a media issue did Presto actually do something, three months after it occurred. Indeed, their original advice to the riders was that they should contact MiWay to get a refund even though (a) they were on a TTC bus and (b) the fare system is Presto’s, not MiWay’s. Evading responsibility should not be the first response to a customer complaint.

Transit has a hard enough time fighting for riders. It should not be hobbled by systems and procedures that work against good service.

TTC Service Changes Effective November 24, 2019

The TTC will make several changes to its services on November 24, 2019. These fall into three main groups:

Construction Projects Ending

The end of work on many bus route will trigger removal of extra running time, some headway adjustments and a return to normal routings:

  • On Midland between Danforth Road and Lawrence: Routes 20 Cliffside and 57 Midland
  • On Brimley between Progress and Huntingwood: Route 21 Brimley
  • On Danforth Road between St. Clair and Danforth Avenue: Route 113 Danforth
  • On Huntingwood: Route 169 Huntingwood
  • On Pape north of Danforth: Routes 25 Don Mills, 81 Thorncliffe Park, 925 Don Mills Express
  • At Jane Station: Routes 26 Dupont, 35 Jane, 55 Warren Park, 935 Jane Express
  • At Queen & Kingston Road: Routes 501 Queen, 503 Kingston Road, 22 Coxwell, 322 Coxwell Night
  • On Coxwell north of Gerrard: Routes 22 Coxwell, 322 Coxwell Night, 324 Victoria Park Night

The consolidation of 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road will continue on a trial basis.

Service Reliability

Service reliability improvements continue to be implemented across the network. Typically these changes involve making running and recovery times longer and stretching headways without adding vehicles. The result is that service worsens for riders, especially considering the TTC’s lacklustre headway management across its bus network. Affected routes with this round of changes are:

  • 22 Coxwell
  • 25 Don Mills and 925 Don Mills Express
  • 56 Leaside
  • 60 Steeles West
  • 68 Warden
  • 121 Fort York-Esplanade
  • 125 Drewry

121 Fort York-Esplanade is particularly hard hit in the afternoon peak when its headway changes from 15 to 26 minute and round trip times, including recovery provisions, rise from 75 to 130 minutes with no additional vehicles. Low ridership in this route is used to justify wider headways, but changes on this scale will only accelerate the problem.

Seasonal Changes

Extra service will be provided in the early evening to serve the Distillery District Christmas Market:

  • Service on 65 Parliament will be doubled (4 buses instead of 2)
  • Two extra cars on 504 King will operate between Spadina and Distillery Loop
  • One extra bus on 121 Fort York-Esplanade will operate between Union Station and the Distillery District

A shuttle service will operate between Meadowvale Loop and the Zoo on Thursday through Sunday evenings to serve events at the Zoo. This will continue to April 2020.

CLRV Retirement (Dates corrected)

To celebrate the retirement of the CLRV fleet, six extras will operate on weekend afternoons on 501 Queen between Sunnyside Loop and Woodbine Loop between Sunday, November 24 and Saturday, December 21. Special CLRV service is planned for Sunday, December 29, but the details have not been released yet.

CLRV peak period trippers have been removed from 506 Carlton as the proportion of new cars on the route grows.

511 Bathurst remains officially a CLRV route, but new cars will appear there as available.

Planned Overcrowding

The TTC continues to add periods of service on routes when loads will exceed the Service Standards. This is not a question of a shortage of buses (the TTC has a spare ratio of better than 20%), but of budget constraints that are also at the root of “reliability” changes that involve widening headways.

Toronto talks a good line about the importance of transit, but strangles its ability to serve more riders through limits to operating subsidies.

A table showing the cumulative effect of overcrowding is included with the list of service changes linked below.

The Details

The file linked below contains the detailed changes for November including a few miscellaneous updates not listed above.

2019.11.24_Service_Changes

Downtown Premium Express Routes Move To King Street

With the schedule change coming on Sunday, November 24, 2019 (for which details will appear in a separate article), the routing of the Downtown Premium Express 14x series will be shifted off of Adelaide and Richmond Streets to the King Street Transit Corridor.

New stops will be created eastbound along King at Peter, Simcoe (west of University), Jordan (west of Yonge), George and Parliament. The one exception will be that the 142 Avenue Road service will stop for unloading only eastbound on King farside at University, the streetcar stop.

New westbound stops will be at George, Yonge, York, and Peter.

All of the stops for these routes will be separate from those used by streetcars to avoid confusion between local and express services.

Services from the east (141 Mt. Pleasant, 143 Beach, 144 Don Mills) will loop via Spadina, Adelaide and Charlotte with a stop southbound on Charlotte at King.

Services from the west (142 Avenue Road, 145 Humber Bay) will loop via Sherbourne, Front and Berkeley with a stop northbound on Berkeley at King.

The 141 Mount Pleasant bus will jog east via Adelaide to George before continuing south to King where there will be an inbound stop. Outbound service will stop on Jarvis north of King.

The 143 Beach and 144 Don Mills services which come through the Richmond/Adelaide interchange east of Parliament Street will turn south from Richmond via Parliament with a stop at King. Outbound services will turn north on Power from King Street to reach Adelaide. (As a matter of historical interest, the original name for the spaghetti junction east of Parliament was the “Duke and Duchess Interchange” after the names of these streets in the old town.)

The 145 Humber Bay service will enter downtown via Adelaide Street from Bathurst, but will turn south to King at Charlotte using the common stop with services from the east. Outbound buses will continue west on King to Bathurst, then turn south.

The 503 Kingston Road bus will continue to operate on King Street looping via York, Richmond and University.

With all of these bus routes and a new set of stops on King, cyclists will find the transitway somewhat more challenging and motorists will have to deal with buses blocking the curb lane at stops. Turning movements at Spadina could be challenging as there is no priority for streetcars when they turn off of King, let alone for buses. This will add to delays that are already a problem at this location.

It is also unclear what the effect of these routes will be on the ambience of the curb lane cafe spaces along King should the operation last into the good weather in 2020, nor how these arrangement would be affected by the TIFF diversions.

There is no end date announced yet for this trial, nor for the outcomes on which it will be measured. I will continue to track the speed of streetcar operations in the corridor to determine whether the additional buses have an effect on streetcar service.

Toronto’s Auditor General Exposes Many Presto Problems

At the TTC Board meeting of October 24, 2019, Toronto’s Auditor General, Beverly Romeo-Beehler presented a detailed report on the problems faced by the TTC with the Presto farecard system.

For clarity: In this article, where text is directly quoted with an indented block and a page citation, these are the words of the Auditor General’s report. Where there is emphasis within a quoted section, this is taken from the original report, not added by me. Otherwise, comments here are my own with, in some cases, paraphrases of the report. Page numbers cited are within the linked PDF of the report, not necessarily the page numbers shown in the document because numbering restarts within it.

This is a long article, but nowhere as long as the 123 page report on which it draws. It begins with an overview and then continues with detailed reviews of various aspects of Presto and of the relationship between Metrolinx and the TTC. The sequence is slightly different from the Auditor General’s report in order to group related sections and comments together.

After the Introduction, the Audit Findings section delves into the detail. There is a lot of detail because there is a lot wrong with Presto. The Auditor General’s report is an indictment of a failed project and bad management primarily from Metrolinx, but the TTC does not go unscathed.

If anything is missing, it is a historical review of how the system came to be in its present state. However, that is beyond the remit of an investigation into whether the TTC is getting what it pays for from Presto, and whether shortcomings affect the revenue the TTC should receive through that system.

TTC management has accepted all of the Auditor General’s findings, and their remarks can be found in Appendix 1 beginning on page 110 of the report pdf.

Summary: TTC accepts all of the Auditor General’s recommendations. Most of the recommendations are consistent with TTC management and actions to date and ongoing efforts to address and resolve the issues as identified in the recommendations.

Metrolinx’ response to the findings are generally positive and acknowledge many shortcomings including missing or broken processes that should be in place by both parties. How well this will be sorted out remains to be seen. Probably the most important part of the letter is the view forward to the next iteration of the Presto system, and the recognition that what we have now can be improved for everyone’s benefit.

As you know, PRESTO is embarking on modernization plans that are enabling us to focus even more on delivering exceptional services. This work will result in new offerings that will remove customer pain points and give them new ways to pay, while offering transit agencies valuable features to drive ridership and fare revenue. Consultations with the transit agencies on new payment forms and other improvements included in the roadmap have been underway throughout the summer, including with TTC, and we look forward to their participation in shaping the future of PRESTO.

We are also preparing to retender our current supplier agreement with a view to opening PRESTO’s ecosystem to more market participants, which we will leverage to improve our overall performance. Recommendations stemming from your audit of the TTC will inform our future approach as we go to market for these services.

As with all reports from the Auditor General, there will be a follow-up in a year’s time to report on the progress achieved on her 34 recommendations.

Introduction

This is “Phase Two” of a detailed study of TTC fare collection that began with a review of fare evasion. I reported on this in February 2019. See Fare Evasion on the TTC: The Auditor General’s Report. That review raised questions about the unreliability of Presto equipment as a source of revenue loss and frustration for riders who could not always pay their fare properly.

A central issue here is the length of time Presto has been in place and the number of unresolved or even unacknowledged issues surrounding the system.

In November 2012, TTC contracted with Metrolinx to integrate and operate the PRESTO fare card on its transit network for 15 years, plus options for renewal. As of the end of 2016, PRESTO could be accepted for fare payment across the entire TTC network.

The Master E-Fare Collection Outsourcing Agreement (Master Agreement) stipulates that Metrolinx manage all PRESTO equipment on TTC’s properties, on board TTC vehicles, and where necessary on the street. This includes the design of the hardware and software, and the installation and maintenance of the machines. In return, Metrolinx is compensated with 5.25 per cent, inclusive of HST, of the gross revenue collected through the PRESTO system on TTC. [pp 33-34]

The Auditor General’s office conducted a field study of Presto equipment, looking at real machines on real buses.

In reviewing the functionality of PRESTO fare equipment, we conducted a bus device audit for two days in June 2019. Over 100 TTC operators representing all seven bus garages drove 168 buses and noted any PRESTO issues during their shift. Of the 330 PRESTO issues noted, nearly 300 (91 per cent) of them were frozen PRESTO card readers.

A frozen PRESTO card reader is when a passenger taps their PRESTO card but the reader is stuck and does not always accept the tap. Not only does this result in revenue loss if the passenger doesn’t tap on another reader successfully, but the device may be captured as “in-service” rather than “out-of-service” in the availability calculation and the availability rate could be overstated for this issue. [p 24]

They also dove into the murky world of contracts between the TTC, Presto and vendors who provide services within the Presto system. The results were not pretty, certainly not with the rosy confidence we often hear from Metrolinx/Presto spokespeople making claims of a robust, near-perfect system. Moreover, there is a wide gap between the services actually provided by Presto and those for which the TTC has contracted and is paying through its service fees.

There is a very long list of findings from the audit, and it reveals a complex web of ownership and responsibilities for provision, operation, monitoring and maintenance of the Presto system. One cannot help feeling that these arrangements grew like an unweeded garden where functions were cobbled together on an ad hoc basis to provide new or extended features. If Metrolinx has any desire to consolidate all of this into a new iteration of Presto (we already have “Presto Next Generation”, and so a new name is really required here), this will not be a simple process. Moreover, as noted by the Auditor General, both Metrolinx and its client transit systems must have a clear set of requirements for any new system rather than taking whatever Metrolinx management thinks they will accept willingly or not.

The appalling status of the entire contract is summarized in one paragraph in which we learn:

PRESTO card readers need to be available greater than 99.99 per cent as per the service level identified in the Master Agreement between TTC and Metrolinx. Given SLAs [Service Level Agreements] have not been set up, what goes into the calculation of the service level has not yet been defined or agreed upon. Metrolinx staff have advised us that “they do not have an agreement with TTC on the device service level commitment calculations, nor the consequences for non-performance”. [p 25]

One might reasonably ask why an SLA is not in place after all these years including a penalty mechanism, but given that it is Metrolinx who benefits from this situation it is hard not to assume that they simply do not want to take the responsibility and potential, publicly identified cost that might go with it.

There is more than a little irony that a report exposing bad project management and a difficult relationship between the TTC and Metrolinx should appear just before City Council was asked to approve a much more complex arrangement for the funding, expansion and operation of the rapid transit system.

The greatest problem between the two parties is the political aversion at the City to “rocking the boat”. The Provincial attitude is that they can more or less act as they please because they have the upper hand on funding and political control. The Liberal government threatened to withdraw Gas Tax funding from the TTC if it did not implement Presto, and the Conservative government was on the verge of stripping responsibility for at least the subway network, if not the entire transit system, from the City. This does not make for a level playing field nor honest, transparent public debates.

Quite bluntly, if Metrolinx were not a government agency with the power to do as it pleases, but instead a private vendor, it would have lost this contract years ago and faced claims for non-performance.

The first recommendation is the need for “Foresight” by both the TTC and Metrolinx. The contract has many unfulfilled requirements, but what does the TTC really want its fare system to look like? What are Metrolinx’ goals for Presto as it evolves? Are the various suppliers of parts of the Presto system delivering what Metrolinx and its clients really need?

Overall, and in our view, there must be a strategic refocussing at the top by both TTC and Metrolinx to tackle what matters most – the shared outcomes of customer experience and maximizing revenue.

For this to work, both parties also need to:

  • Define clear, agreed upon, and formalized outcomes and Service Level Agreement (SLA) targets
  • Seek a win/win for both parties, but acknowledge individual and shared accountabilities and responsibilities in this arrangement – several examples of which are outlined in this report. [p 2]

The second recommendation is the need for “Insight”.

To solve problems you need insight into the root cause. To gain such insight, the right level of information must be analyzed using the right data. Without that, you are solving what you think might be wrong without the evidentiary support to confirm you are addressing the true cause(s) and actual issue(s). [p 2]

One might cynically observe that this statement applies to a lot of what passes for “analysis” and “planning” for transit in Toronto, but that is entirely another article.

The Auditor General noted “fundamental” information gaps:

  • Service level agreements are not in place setting expectations and responsibilities for each party seven years after the contract was signed.
  • Key information that the TTC needs is either encrypted or purged in a short time-frame contrary to the Master Agreement.
  • The current analysis was limited by
    • problems with Presto readers including root cause analysis for frozen machines, problems with the device monitoring tool;
    • accurate monitoring of vending machines on streetcars and regular collection of coins from them to prevent out of service conditions;
    • manual practices for identification of out of service fare gates. [adapted and condensed from pp 2-3]

The third recommendation is the need for “Oversight”. Astoundingly, although the agreement provides for a Joint Executive Committee and an Expert Panel, these either do not exist or have not met for an extended time. One cannot help feeling that the TTC, in the face of an intransigent service provider, has simply given up and treats Presto as “broken as designed”. However, this could also mask resentment of a system forced onto the TTC compounded by little municipal political support to hold a provincial agency publicly to account.

Moreover …

… there needs to be the following to improve oversight of the system as a whole:

  • TTC, PRESTO and all vendors working together as one, sharing information, and diagnosing and solving problems together (e.g. coin collection issue on new streetcar vending machines needs to be resolved together despite all vendors staying within defined responsibilities)
  • Focusing, measuring and monitoring the desired outcomes
  • Controls over PRESTO revenue and assurance provided by PRESTO needs strengthening, including retailer network controls [p 3]

There are 34 recommendations in the report, and I leave it to dedicated readers to peruse the full list.

Looking back to Phase 1 of the study and the ongoing dispute between the TTC and Metrolinx over revenue losses due to Presto, the Auditor General concludes:

We prepared calculations to estimate a range for the overstatement of the PRESTO card reader availability rate and annual revenue loss. Based on the work performed with the information we could obtain, it is our view that TTC’s estimate of $3.4 million in revenue loss for 2018 due to malfunctioning PRESTO fare equipment does not appear to be overstated. TTC’s availability estimates may even be understated given the issues we identified in this report with availability of PRESTO card readers. We are not including revenue loss calculations in this report. It is our view that the information and data gaps identified at this time make it difficult to provide these important numbers with the required level of audit assurance. [p 9]

The two agencies are now going to arbitration over this and other issues, and it will be intriguing to see what effect the Auditor General’s report has on that process. A major problem for quite some time has been that there has been little field work to document how the system is actually behaving or to explore reasons behind the perceived unreliability of equipment. That neither the TTC nor Metrolinx undertook a definitive review says a lot about both organizations, but at least we now have the Audtor General’s work to show the kind of information that is available if only one makes the effort to collect it.

The high level summary of the audit occupies one page [click to enlarge].

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Toronto Council Approves Ford/Tory Transit Deal With Minor Amendments

On October 29, 2019, Toronto Council approved the proposed deal between the City and the Province of Ontario whereby the Province takes full responsibility for construction of four new rapid transit projects while the City retains control of the existing subway. The details of that agreement were examined in previous articles and I will not repeat their content here.

The debate ran all day, and it is no surprise that in the end the vote went in favour of the deal. Queen’s Park is in a position to impose its will on the City, and the offer of “free” new lines and retention of control of the TTC’s existing network was too much to turn down. Moreover, this becomes the Mayor’s signature transit “accomplishment” while his previous fantasy, SmartTrack, is a shadow of its original promise, for practical purposes a dead issue.

Several amendments were adopted in an attempt to put conditions or restraints mainly on the Ontario Line project. These are really more suggestions that the Province might, if it’s not too much trouble, modify aspects of their plans. However, Council is in no position to impose any conditions on Provincial actions as they have ceded control and pledged co-operation for whatever the Province eventually builds.

The following motions were adopted (quoted text is from the Council agenda item EX9.1 Toronto-Ontario Transit Update).

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The Toronto Board of Trade Shills for the Ontario Line

Over on Facebook, I was challenged for simply slagging the opinion piece The Ontario Line: Give the future a chance. Originally, I wasn’t going to comment, but there are enough half-truths in the article that it’s worth writing about them. This is a consolidation of the Twitter version of my reply with slight modifications.

This article is credited to Jan De Silva as a “Contributor”. She is identified as the President and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade at the very end of the article. I would be very surprised if this article were not the product of Metrolinx itself. Too many of the arguments are stock Metrolinx boilerplate, including assumptions about the nature of criticism of their project.

Associations matter, especially when they aren’t acknowledged in the byline. If an article was by a policy wonk from the Manning Institute, for example, you would read it with a different media filter. If you read something from me, you put on the SwanBoatSteve filter. Identification of the author, of the voice, up front is important.

“billions of city dollars can be freed up for maintenance”

These are billions the city has yet to allocate in any budget. They are net new spending which will crowd other works. The only money we actually have is the accumulated revenue from the Scarborough Subway Tax and that’s less than $200 million in the bank. Moreover, everybody seems to be earmarking these $$$ for new projects like the Eglinton East extension.

Why is TO paying for an extension to a Metrolinx line? Ditto for the four surviving SmartTrack stations.

“some critics still fear using new technology for the Ontario Line”

This is a red herring used to cast aspersions against critics. We don’t know which technology might be used because in all probability the P3 proponent will come with their own technology partner just like the Canada Line in Vancouver. Other SkyTrain lines must use the Bombardier technology because they are part of a network, but the Canada Line was deliberately made separate to break Bombardier’s stranglehold as a vendor.

Unfortunately, the spec for that line was cocked up and the builder was able to cheap out on station size and train length. These are contract design/management issues, not technology issues.

“Some critics”, yes, but many critics have much more substantial objections.

“critics who claim that the Ontario Line is “drawn on the back of an envelope.” Even if that was true – and it never was – the Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario teams behind the initial proposal have been working with the TTC to refine their plans.”

Either it was a plan that needed TTC’s refinement, or it was a rough sketch enough to work for Doug Ford’s announcement. It was not a finished plan. The City’s own report states that it is at a very low level of engineering detail with wide potential variation in the cost estimate.

“Planning for this line incorporates greater use of above-ground rights-of-way”

There is a reason we put lines underground, sometimes needlessly, and it has a lot to do with neighbourhood effects and the political will to get transit out of the way of cars. These are separate effects depending on the location. Eglinton’s central section is underground because it won’t fit on the street.

Some people claim that surface operation elsewhere (including the extensions) shows socioeconomic bias against the affected areas. Cue the “poor Scarborough” theme. That story doesn’t work so well in Etobicoke.

“changes to how tunnels are bored”

The TTC was already looking at single bore tunnels for some projects. These work in some areas, not so well in others especially if the larger diameter triggers problems with the available space, utilities, groundwater and bedrock.

“lighter trains to facilitate easier river and overpass crossings”

True, assuming that the lighter trains are capable of providing the capacity required. More importantly, lighter and smaller trains affect the structure size be it elevated or underground.

“more standardization of stations above and below ground to build quickly and affordably”

Tell this to the politicians who want architectural grandeur as a mark of their importance. Some variation in stations is inevitable because of location, demand, etc.

We probably would not have to look very hard to find the TRBOT gushing over the designs for the TYSSE stations when they were proposed.

“Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario are merely proposing to use the same tools cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Paris use to build dozens of kilometers of new subways at speeds we’ve only dreamed of before.”

The important thing those cities have is (or was) money and commitment. They had senior governments (including the EU) willing to pay, and a political climate where plans were not rejigged every few years to suit someone’s ego. And they had plans that ensured a continuous program of construction rather than the stop-start situation we have in Toronto thanks to political meddling and competition to “build MY subway now”.

“Subway systems in all three of these world class city transit cities have multiple car sets on their tracks, and even used different gauges as technologies developed.”

This is another red herring. Toronto has had multiple car sets on its streetcar and subway tracks since the 19th century. Old heavy red “G” trains, larger lighter “H” and “T” trains, 2 car sets and 6 car sets, wooden streetcars, steel, PCCs, CLRVs and now Flexitys.

Gauge is a question mainly of history and system age. Suburban lines in Toronto were standard gauge until they were incorporated into the “city” system e.g. Long Branch.

“critics insist Metrolinx may not hit its 2027 target date for the Relief Line … And even if this solution took until 2029 – the target date for the earlier Relief Line – this route should be more effective at providing relief than originally planned, too.”

The fundamental problem with the analysis of the Ontario Line vs the Relief Line is that the RL South is the basis of comparison, and so of course a longer RL has a greater benefit. The fact that the RL North study was being run by the Province and was stalled is not mentioned at all.

“The Ontario Line also creates a true subway network, with connections to the Yonge University Line, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the GO system at Exhibition Station,  so riders on the shoulders of our inner suburbs can shift commutes to avoid other chokepoints from several directions.”

The reference to offloading GO is key and it applies also at East Harbour (although that station does not exist yet). The OL is as much a relief line for GO at Union as it is for the TTC subway. This is a valid goal, but it should be acknowledged so that everyone is aware how much future capacity will be dedicated to GO relief rather than subway relief.

The article is completely silent on neighbourhood effects along the way which are not trivial. This is not just two tracks for an updated version of the SRT, but a six-track corridor for GO and the OL. Yes, SRT trains are not as noisy as GO trains, and the latter might even be toned down when, if ever, they electrify. I am not holding my breath on that as it costs a lot of capital that Metrolinx does not have and does not want to spend.

Service Quality on 41 Keele: Fall 2019 Update

At the TTC Board Meeting of September 24, 2019, a motion was introduced by Commissioners Shelley Carroll and Brad Bradford on behalf of Councillor James Pasternak in response to a citizens’ group, Action Keele, who have many requests regarding changes to the service on the 41/941 Keele bus routes. Two deputations from Action Keele, Matt Davis and Paul Grey, spoke to the request:

  • a. Include the #41 Keele bus route on the 10 Minute Network.
  • b. Increase the intervals for the green light facing west, at St. Clair Ave. and Old Weston Rd for easier turning maneuvers.
  • c. Move the Sir William Hearst bus stop further north to avoid extra congestion with vehicles accessing and exiting Highway 401.
  • d. Restrict the right-hand lanes, both northbound and southbound, at the Keele St. and Wilson Ave. intersection, to right turn only lanes, for better access of buses to the stops.
  • e. Add more vehicles to the local (not express) #41 Keele route to facilitate access to the network for individuals facing accessibility and mobility constraints.
  • f. Limit the main #41 Keele bus route to operate between Keele Station and Finch West Station and consider adding a #41B Keele bus route to operate less frequently from Keele Station to Pioneer Station.

Matt Davis noted that these proposals come from riders and staff, and that Action Keele had spent much of the year on surveys. He said that TTC data ranks Keele low on reliability, and riders complain about crowding and long waits.

Grey continued this theme stating that one of the main recommendations is the first, that Keele have 10 minute or better service all of the time. A consistent issue from riders at all stops was the frequency of service. One night of a survey during the coldest part of last winter, they canvassed at Keele and Lawrence where 10 people were huddled inside a shelter anticipating 20-30 minute waits for a bus.

That is not service that attracts riders, but rather drives away any who can afford to avoid it by moving or by getting a car.

Commissioner Carroll, although she presented the motion, was somewhat hostile to the deputants saying that their list of changes may or may not be implemented, and hoping that they understood there were financial impacts to this. Grey replied that there is a certain expertise gained in daily riding and operating on a route, and Action Keele thinks they have done their due diligence to produce helpful recommendations.

Vice Chair Alan Heisey asked staff if items b through d fell under the city’s Transportation Department. They do, and this part of the request would have to be dealt with there, although the TTC could provide an advocacy role as they claim to be interested in transit priority.

As for the service design, staff replied that they would review this route as part of their service plan, that there had been a service reliability improvement in September, and that they would report back. Furthermore, Keele and Lawrence has been identified as a “super stop” in the new plan now under development.

This sounds good, but it is a misleading response.

The service change in September consisted of stretching the running time allegedly so that buses could stay on schedule, but without adding vehicles so that headways actually became noticeably wider (see service history below). The reliability of service remains spotty as a review of vehicle monitoring data shows.

The TTC has a cultural inability to recognize that service does not operate on a reliable headway, and that bunching and gaps will not be fixed simply by padding running times. On routes like Keele where the scheduled service is infrequent, bunching can cause very wide gaps in service even though all of the scheduled trips are operated and few or no buses are short turned.

Commissioner Jennifer McKelvie asked when the five year service review coming back to the board. Staff replied that this will be in December 2019, and will be a “big picture” review to set up the plan for implementation. Changes will come in following years as the multi-year plan is updated. McKelvie was concerned that ad hoc requests from the community for service would be lost in this process.

Commissioner Carroll observed that requests from a local community to the TTC Board are not precedent setting giving the example of the Dufferin bus. Councillors who do not sit on the board historically bring forward concerns this way. Keele has been a problem every term of Council for a long time. Carroll mentioned demand at York University, although she missed the point that there is much demand on the Keele route that is completely separate from the university which now has two subway stations. Carroll emphasized that the Board wants engagement at this level saying “I don’t want to crap over that level of engagement”.

The request was referred to staff for consideration as part of the Service Plan on December 19.

Prologue

This is a long article with a lot of detail intended for those advocating for better service on Keele Street, and to balance TTC claims that it has “improved” service with new schedules in September 2019. Some readers don’t want all this detail, and you can bail out when it gets tedious. I won’t mind.

Several issues common to Keele and other routes are evident here:

  • Service does not leave terminals within the TTC’s 6-minute target, and irregular headways are common even where buses are supposed to be “on time”.
  • Service gets even worse as vehicles move along the route and closely spaced buses catch up to each other leaving wide gaps behind them.
  • TTC only measures service quality at terminals and, therefore, reports only on the best case situation along a route.
  • Service quality varies enormously by time of day and day of the week, but TTC reports only average values thereby burying the poor performance of the worst periods.
  • Express service runs on erratic headways which counter the supposed benefit of a faster trip.
  • Padding schedules with extra running and recovery time does not guarantee reliable service.

Some of 41 Keele’s problems are worsened by the use of articulated buses on wide headways. These vehicles were purchased for frequent routes like Finch West and they are out of place on Keele where they contribute to the very wide headways and the fact that this major route is not part of the Ten Minute Network. Unofficially, I have learned that there are plans to move the artics back to 7 Bathurst and change the 41 Keele local service to use standard sized buses with a concurrent reduction in headways. However, without an attention to service reliability, riders on Keele will still suffer.

To this I must add that TTC’s portrayal of service “improvements” work counter to the goal of both better service and a higher regard for the TTC. Schedule changes that make service worse for riders, not to mention “new” express services that are nothing more than a rebranding exercise, might play well with TTC Board members who do not look at the details. However, real improvements require better management of service on the street, an end to laissez-faire attitudes about bunching and the band-aid “fix” of extended running times, and a recognition that Toronto needs more service, not just tinkering for the sake of appearances.

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The Ford/Tory Subway Plan: Part II – Technical Appendices

In the first of two articles, A Big Announcement, or a Transit Three Card Monte?, I reviewed the proposed agreement between Ontario and Toronto whereby the Province would build four lines or extensions at no capital cost to the City, and ownership of the existing system would remain in City hands. This has been hailed as something of a “peace in our time” solution to the contentious relationship between Premier Ford and the City, but there are many outstanding issues that will not be resolved before the City signs on to the new deal.

In this article, I turn to three appendices to the City report, specifically:

Citations in this article are in the format [A3, p5] where “A3” is the attachment number and “p5” is the page number.

Reading through these documents, I was struck by how an essential section is buried right at the end of Attachment 4: the City/TTC evaluation of the Metrolinx Initial Business Case for the Ontario Line.

The main report is enthusiastic about the viability of the proposals and the contributions they will make to the City of Toronto. However, the attachments reveal the degree to which the scheme is far from complete or settled. There is a caveat that if the proposals change significantly, then the gushing support for the new plans could become only a trickle. But the political pressure is for the City to commit to the scheme, whatever it may become, in the rush to “get shovels in the ground”.

This is a long article intended to pull key points out of the technical discussion of proposed new lines in an attempt to highlight the major chunks without requiring readers to wade through every page (although the keen ones among you certainly will, I’m sure).

Timing of Market Calls for Procurement / Public Participation

The City/TTC have not received a detailed schedule from Metrolinx, however the Infrastructure Ontario Fall update includes the following timelines:

  • Ontario Line: RFQ Spring 2020, RFP Summer/Fall 2020
  • L2EE: RFQ Winter/Spring 2021, RFP Summer/Fall 2021
  • YSE: RFQ Fall 2021, RFP Spring 2022
  • EWLRT: To be determined [A3, p12]

This is aggressive for the OL and gives very little chance for substantive change before the RFP goes out. “Public participation” will be minimal in the best Metrolinx tradition.

The opportunity for feedback and input throughout a project’s development may differ given the anticipated P3 delivery model. Details regarding the Province’s proposed approach are provided as Attachment 11 to this report. City and TTC will continue to advocate for meaningful public consultation on provincial transit projects. [A3 p11]

There are conflicting priorities in completing work regarding the new design and changes to the Assessment with the desire for an expedited delivery process.

Q22: Has an assessment of construction-related impacts been undertaken as part of the preliminary planning and design? What about impacts on community, businesses, traffic congestion, noise, etc.? If not, when will this occur and be factored into decisions on build methodology, procurement, and a program for business and community supports?

A: The City/TTC expect that this will be undertaken as part of the updated environmental work for the TPAP(s).

Q23 Will the Province adhere to City permits and approvals, per the practice under the LRT Master Agreement?

A: The applicable Master agreement(s) for these projects are to be developed, and it will be the expectation that agreed upon service standards and timelines for applications, permits and approvals will be adhered to. The Province is seeking city commitment to explore opportunities to accelerate and expedite delivery including review of processes, and leveraging powers and authorities. [A3 p13]

Q29: Are you building the [Ontario] line to a budget of $10.9 B or are you building a line with a defined scope of work?

A: The project cost estimate is preliminary based on the current state of development. The scope in so far as length and areas served have been consistently stated. Future adjustments to scope, budget and schedule will be identified as part of subsequent phases of work. [A3 p15]

“Future adjustment” is a term that implies potential change, but how would this be handled with a P3 contract already in place? When do the requirements to deliver on time, on budget, supersede whatever objections or improvements might emerge from a review process?

Transit Oriented Development

One of the Province’s favourite terms now is “Transit Oriented Development” and the supposed ability to pay for transit with development charges and fares from new riders. There is a question, however, of whether the Province will seek higher density around stations to pay for its rapid transit plan even if this requires development at a scale beyond what the City has planned or the neighbourhood is expecting. What other costs will TOD bring for infrastructure, services, schools? The overdevelopment of Yonge & Eglinton, where the Province wants to see even more density, is a prime example.

Q13: With respect to “transit-oriented development” and seeking private sector investment, what assumptions are being made with respect to compliance with the City’s Official Plan policies and guidelines?

A: The Province has committed to work with the City to ensure that transit oriented developments advance a shared understanding for effective growth and high quality development of Toronto. The City and the Province are working through the details of an agreement on how they will work together to advance TOD opportunities. [A3, p10]

That is not the most reassuring of comments given the bull-headed nature of Provincial policy development. Doug Ford (and his brother before him) believes in the magic of the private sector somehow covering the cost of his dreams. This could have severe consequences for both the City and for the transit system if that dream is exploited to remove controls on high density development.

Getting There From Here

There is a problem throughout much rapid transit planning in Toronto that agencies only consider the end state after many projects have been built, new jobs and residences have been created, and magically we are transported to a future date and city where the models run.

Unfortunately, we have to get from 2019 to 2041, the year for all of the modelling cited in these reports, and there is no guarantee that the system can handle either the intermediate stages nor the “end state” if things do not occur as quickly as we hope.

Although GO expansion is part of the next decade’s work, there is nothing published to show how it will affect the TTC network for good or ill. Indeed, a major role for the Ontario Line now appears to be “relief” for congestion at Union Station almost to the point that relief of subway congestion is a secondary matter.

SmartTrack is a mythical “service” whose final configuration is still not known. Metrolinx has been quite evasive on this point, and the best we can hope for is a train every 15 minutes at “SmartTrack” stations along the Weston and Stouffville corridors. Two of the six ST stations may never be built because they physically conflict with, or lose projected ridership to, other services.

It may suit planners and politicians to talk of demand models for 2041, but what will the 2020s and 2030s look like on Toronto’s and the wider region’s transit system as we await the arrival of new services? This is a major shortfall in the City reports because they do not address the “how do we get from here to there” problem complete with associated operational and financial headaches. A scheme for the province to pay the entire cost of four new lines is wonderful, but there is much more to the transit system’s future than Premier Doug Ford’s map.

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A Big Announcement, or a Transit Three Card Monte?

On October 16, the governments at Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall announced a deal to sort out competing transit plans for the city. The current provincial priority projects are the Ontario Line (Don Mills/Eglinton to Exhibition), Scarborough Subway extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard, Yonge Subway extension from Finch to Richmond Hill, and the Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to Renforth.

The main City of Toronto report will be discussed at Executive Committee on October 23, and then at Council on October 29-30.

This article reviews that report with reference to a few parts of its many attachments. I will turn to the technical attachments in a second article. To focus material on each subject for readers, I have grouped related items together or re-sequenced things for emphasis. There are extensive quotations of key material so that readers hear not just my “voice” but that of the report’s authors.

Despite the importance politicians at both levels place on the proposals, the fundamental problem remains that many of the details are cloudy, to be kind. Specifically:

  • The City of Toronto retains ownership of the existing transit system avoiding a complex realignment of responsibilities and governance, but with this comes total responsibility for funding the ongoing state of good repair.
  • A large gap remains between the amount of funding needed to maintain and expand Toronto’s transit system relative to the amounts actually available and committed in budgets at various levels of government.
  • Ontario will build four key projects substantially with its own money, but continued support for transit beyond this is uncertain.
  • Toronto will redirect funding originally earmarked for its share of the key projects to other priorities, notably the TTC’s repair backlog. However, much of that “funding” does not exist as allocations in existing budgets and new money is required from Toronto to pay its share.
  • Cost estimates for the key projects are based on preliminary estimates that could change substantially as the design process unfolds. These estimates are in 2019 dollars and make no provision for inflation. The reports are silent on how the proportion of total spending by each contributor might change over the decade or more of construction.
  • A substantial total of project costs will be born by private sector partners through a “P3” financing mechanism. These arrangement will require future payments for what will be, in effect, a capital lease, but the mechanism for funding this from three levels of government is unclear. The reports are silent on the split between short term borrowing to pay for construction as opposed to long term payments to the P3 financier.
  • Project details as they are known today will change in response to design work and the need to keep costs within the projected level. This will affect alignments and stations, and what we think we are buying could be quite different from what we actually get.

The challenge in all of this is, as always, the question of money. We can watch the hands of politicians and managers at all levels as they shuffle cards on the table. We hope to “find the Queen”, to win in the subway sweeps rather than being taken for suckers who will cheer any plan, but lose every game. It is far from clear whether the proposal is a “good deal” for Toronto, and there are huge future transit costs that are barely addressed.

The whole exercise is a political deal to bring peace, comparatively speaking, to the transit file which was needlessly fouled by Doug Ford’s insistence that he knows more about transit in Toronto than anyone else. Does Toronto take this as its last best chance to preserve some semblance of control over its transit future, or do we keep fighting for a better deal?

There are a lot of holes in this plan and severe implications both for the City’s finances and the future of Toronto’s transit system. Many questions need to be asked and answered, even if the result will be a whole new plan after provincial and municipal elections in 2022.

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To Upload Or Not To Upload, That Is Not The Question

In his continuing assault on the City of Toronto, one of Premier Doug Ford’s early promises was to take the TTC subway system completely off of the City’s hands. That scheme was cut back to handing Metrolinx the responsibility for planning and building new lines, with the existing TTC system left for future consideration.

Now, the Star’s Ben Spurr reports that the upload has fallen off of the table and a new “deal” will be proposed:

In exchange for Toronto supporting Ford’s pet project, the “Ontario Line” between the Science Centre (Don Mills & Eglinton) and Ontario Place (south of Exhibition Place), Ford would leave the existing subway system in Toronto’s hands. This is a huge retreat for a man once bent on eviscerating City Council’s control over transit, and it raises the question of “what next” for Toronto transit politics.

I have written before about the high cost of subway ownership:

In brief, there is a myth that the subway network “breaks even” because its high ridership, and hence revenue, more than pay for the cost of operations and maintenance. This has two fundamental flaws:

  • Much depends on the allocation of fare revenue, and the amount of the fare carrying a rider on a bus+subway trip, for example, belongs to each leg of the journey. There are various ways to do this, but they all produce distortions in a flat fare system with extensive free transfers between routes and modes. This process is even more difficult in the era of monthly passes and two-hour fares.
  • There is a huge ongoing capital cost for subway renewal, for systems, vehicles, stations and much more that do not last the mythical “100 years” subway boosters claim, but which must be refreshed on a regular cycle. Even the physical structure, the tunnel, needs major repairs to achieve its intended lifespan.

Cuts to provincial funding started years ago, and the Ford government has reversed plans to increase Toronto’s share of provincial gas tax revenue. The provincial contribution to ongoing capital maintenance is small. As for operations, the City pays the lion’s share of the subsidy and the riders pay most of the rest.

If Queen’s Park takes over the subway, it would hardly be fitting for Toronto to continue paying much of the cost of maintaining this asset, and it would become a new drain on provincial resources. Premier Ford never tires of telling us that these are stretched to the point where major cutbacks, not additional costs, are the focus of all government planning. True, the province would give up its share of surface system costs, but that is a small contribution compared to what the City already pays in operating and capital subsidies.

Doug Ford’s dream of being the Tsar of Toronto Transit Planning comes with a big price tag, and there is a good chance that the government is having second thoughts about whether the proposed changes are worth the bother and expense.

The challenge for Council is, however, more complex that one of embracing the Ontario Line, popping the sparkling wine, and celebrating the Premier’s retreat.

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