The Problem of Public Transit II: Not Spending Where it's Needed, Not Needing Where it's Spent


Photo courtesy of the Transit Toronto website.

Previous article: Part I - The Silent Necessity Grows Louder

Since the end of the Second World War, public transit throughout North America went into decline. Growth, suppressed by two decades of depression and war, caused an explosion of urban development, centred largely around low density suburban subdivisions served by the private automobile. Public transit agencies, which tended to be private companies, were forced to travel farther to serve fewer people, and they went bankrupt. When they were taken over by their cities, they were run as skeleton systems for the very poor and the mobility impaired.

Toronto bucked this trend. The Toronto Transportation Commission, established as a city-owned corporation in 1921, remained a profitable organization even as the automobile made inroads on transit ridership. Not only did the City not inherit a moribund system, as was the case in many American cities, the province’s decision to unite the City of Toronto and its surrounding suburbs in a single municipal federation called Metropolitan Toronto spared the city from losing development and dollars to its neighbours. As a result, Toronto had the resources to expand transit service incrementally through the suburbs, relying on the TTC to supplement and relieve the city’s expanding road network. By the late 1970s, when American cities started to build back as LRTs the streetcar lines they so unwisely abandoned, Toronto was seen as the trendsetter.

In 1988, the TTC carried 463 million passengers, making it the second largest public transit agency north of the Rio Grande. It was seen as a large part of why Toronto was “the city that worked”. Today, at the end of nearly ten years of steady increases from a mid-90s low of 363 million passengers, the best the TTC can boast is that it carried just over 410 million passengers in 2005. What happened to make the TTC lose almost 25% of its ridership base?

In 1988, the cost of a monthly Metropass was $46.00. Today one sells for $99.75. During the recession when the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario were forced to cut funding to various services, public transit was an easy target. Fares rose out of step with inflation and service was cut back. The TTC’s farebox recovery, already at a North American high of 68%, rose to an unheard of 82%. To some eyes, this would put the TTC within spitting distance of operating profitability, but what this really meant was that commuters now had to walk further to reach their transit stop, wait longer for their vehicle to arrive, pack in tighter with fellow commuters, and pay more for the privilege.

Is it any wonder ridership dropped? Which of course unleashes a vicious circle: as more passengers leave marginal services, the services become more marginal, leading to further cuts and more lost passengers. Given that, in 1988, 60% of TTC riders had access to private automobiles, it’s little wonder where these riders fled to, and why our streets are so much more congested than they were.

Then there was the skimping of our maintenance programs. This manifested itself in transit vehicles that were suddenly dirtier and in poorer condition, streetcar tracks that started to crumble, and flaws in subway signal systems that contributed to a fatal crash — the first in the TTC’s history — in August 1995.

The Russell Hill subway crash brought the problem of poor maintenance to the attention of TTC officials and politicians. The new TTC General Manager, David Gunn, rolled out a policy that has become a mantra: a state of good repair. Cut back on service if you want, but ensure that the service that remains is safe and reliable. David Gunn and his successor, Rick Ducharme, pulled every spare nickel they could in improving system maintenance, and they managed to convince the City of Toronto to spring for hundreds of new subway cars. They made it a policy that subway trains should operate at intervals of no less than five minutes at any time (two minutes during rush hours). This, in my opinion, contributed to the stabilization of the TTC’s ridership in the late 1990s. People at least could be sure that the subways ran frequently and on time, most of the time.

It is a bit of an indictment that it took a fatal subway crash to convince politicians of the need to fund public transit so that it maintained a state of good repair, but this highlights the problem of public transit: you only really notice it when it goes wrong. To generalize, politicians do not enjoy spending money that nets them no political gain. Rather than replacing worn out buses and making sure 40-year-old subways run on time, they would rather be spending money on projects that offered photo opportunities.

Consider the Scarborough RT. It was first proposed in the late 1960s when Toronto planners concluded that the dense areas of the city that were best suited to subway development were, by and large, served by subways. These planners asked how the low density sprawl development could be served. Was there a technology that could provide rapid service, meet the demands involved, and cost significantly less than a subway extension?

The TTC had a solution: streetcars. They were already carrying twice as many people along Queen Street as the busiest bus route in the system. Put them on private right-of-way and they’ll run faster. Couple them together, and they’ll carry more people. Best of all, they can be installed cheap. From a trunk line running from the end of the subway to the Scarborough Town Centre, this new streetcar network could split and efficiently cover all of northeastern Scarborough.

But while the city and the province had committed to retaining and expanding Toronto’s streetcar network in the early 70s, the provincial government under Bill Davis wanted to do more than just buy new transit vehicles; they wanted to build them, and they wanted to make Ontario an industry leader in this field — a forward thinking, high tech leader if possible. The solution to the problem of providing rapid transit for demands above what a bus could carry and below what a subway should carry was not low-tech streetcars, but high-tech maglevs. The Scarborough RT project should be built as a maglev.

Yes, you heard me right. Bill Davis, through the provincial crown corporation UTDC (Urban Transit Development Corporation) spent most of the early and mid 1970s trying to perfect maglev technology similar to what has only recently rolled out commercially in Shanghai. The Tories never could get the cars to levitate, but they did succeed in building a linear induction propulsion system that used electromagnets. Requiring a showcase system to sell the technology to the world, the province convinced the TTC to change its design of the Scarborough RT to this new technology.

The result was the line went $100 million over budget, and has since proven itself to be the worst of all worlds. It is an appendage of the Bloor-Danforth subway, adding an annoying transfer to a through route, and offering little opportunity for branch line extensions across the northeast of Scarborough. Though it cost almost as much as a subway to build, it retained the capacity of an LRT, and with the TTC unable to purchase additional equipment, it now finds itself severely overcrowded. The failure of the Scarborough RT to produce substantial savings over new subway construction soured planners and politicians to the intermediate capacity concept, even though it hadn’t really failed. The next rapid transit extensions were designed as subways, even though LRTs could have provided the service for far less.

While Ontario politicians see public transit as a worthwhile expenditure (and that is a rarity), they tend to favour splashier projects over cheaper plans which get the job done. Building new subway lines certainly trumps spending money maintaining the system that’s already built. This is especially a problem given that the investments made in the late 1970s and early 1980s weren’t designed to last forever. Their needed renewal has produced a hump of unavoidable capital spending that’s been creeping up on the City of Toronto for years. Capital expenses on the TTC are expected to rise above $700 million before this decade is out. The Scarborough RT reaches the end of its design life in 2015. The cars that operate on it aren’t made anymore, and replacing them, or rebuilding the line to accept their replacements, represents a substantial premium — at least $350 million that has not been budgeted for — or up to $1.2 billion if the line is replaced by a subway extension as some suggest.

And in the meantime, the project which has received provincial cash (not actually spent; just put into trust funds) is a 6.2 km extension of the Spadina subway to York University and beyond into central Vaughan. Despite the fact that the extension will ultimately serve only 100,000 riders per day (about twice the current ridership of the grossly underused Sheppard subway), and despite the fact that an inexpensive bus-only roadway to York University is being built this year, which can handle current demands and demands expected for foreseeable future.

It is utterly irresponsible to spend money to expand our transit system when we aren’t sure that enough money has been set aside to maintain the system we have, but that’s what the province is doing. The Spadina extension represents a project premier McGuinty can be photographed hauling a shovel for. It crosses into the city of Vaughan, protecting the riding of MPP and former finance minister Greg Sorbara from a strong Conservative challenge. It buys votes in the politically volatile 905 area code, instead of wasting cash on Scarborough, which is seen to be in the Liberals’ back pocket.

There is a need to expand the system, but there are more efficient ways of doing that. The City of Toronto has finally had the sense to propose expanding the TTC’s streetcar network along key suburban arterials. They have a sensible plan to increase the TTC’s ridership by almost 100 million passengers per year. Even on the buses, transit activist Steve Munro makes a compelling argument that the billion dollars being laid out on subway expansion could purchase 500 buses and pay for the drivers and the fuel to operate them. Such an initiative could increase Toronto’s peak-hour service throughout the city by one third. Yes, the buses would travel as slow as ever, but instead of waiting nine minutes for a crowded vehicle, you’d wait six and get a seat, and this is something passengers respond to more than in-vehicle travel time. The boost in ridership would exceed that produced by proposed subway extensions by an order of magnitude.

But the political reality is that if a government is to spend a billion dollars on public transit, they want to be seen standing in front of heavy equipment digging our next subway. Not on new buses. Not even on replacing old track.

Unless they see trains going into tunnels, public transit expenditures simply aren’t sexy enough.

Next Article: Rearranging the Deck Chairs (the Greater Toronto Transit Authority)

Steve Munro Comments

Before posting this commentary, I sent a copy of it to transit activist Steve Munro for comment. His response allowed me to correct a few errors that had crept in. He also had a couple of responses that I couldn’t easily include in the body of this text, and I put them here:

Another cause of the (Russell Hill subway) crash was poor training. The very junior operator in question had learned the trick everyone knew — that you could drive in such a way that you never actually saw the timing signals change. This was particularly unsafe for a very long block on a blind curve where the fact that the signal was not clear but was also not seen led to fatal consequences. Moreover, the penalty for running a red signal was stiffened so that operators try to make up seconds by running close to signal timings at their peril. Finally, the implementation of multiple dispatch points along the line, combined with drop-back crewing at terminals to ensure a decent crew break, eliminate the advantage and purpose of running hot.

And on the frequency of subway service, Steve offers this clarification:

The peak period headway is 2’40” on both lines (Bloor-Danforth and Yonge-University-Spadina), with 5’20” north of St. Clair West when the turnback operates (during peak periods). Sheppard is 5’30” at all times. However, one important change was that off-peak cutbacks to 7 minutes or more were undone — ragged headways meant that gaps of 10 minutes were common. This ties in with the crewing practices mentioned above. The shame here was that the TTC never recognized the importance of good minimum headways on the surface which contributes over half of the ridership and is essential to feed the subway.

Thanks to Steve for helping me with this column.

blog comments powered by Disqus