What's Wrong With the TTC?


Back at the end of February, a reporter e-mailed me with some questions about the state of the Toronto Transit Commission.

Thanks, James. I guess we're just looking for a timeline of events that resulted in the TTC's current state. Are there particular political decisions or changes that hampered the TTC's ability to raise money and/or depleted political will to build transit? Let me know, or give me a call if you get a few minutes tomorrow. 416-XXX-XXXX. Thanks.

I was in the midst of a move at the time, so I couldn't call him. I can, however, type at 90 words per minute. This is what I wrote in response...

It's been a long road that got us to where we are, and lots of little decisions have hurt the TTC over the past six decades. Some of the problems weren't even budget cuts.

You may need a baseline to compare how and when things went wrong for the TTC. In 1954, the TTC was a City-owned transit company that operated at sufficient profit that it was able to pay for all of its capital expenses, and build the Yonge subway (with a modest subsidy offered by the Federal government as a post-war make-work project). By 1959, the TTC required Metropolitan Toronto to forgive its property taxes and offer a small subsidy to pay for the construction of the University subway. In 1966, more property taxes forgiveness, more municipal subsidy, along with provincial assistance got the Bloor-Danforth subway built from Keele to Woodbine, and extended to Islington and Warden in 1968. Without the province's help, the original line would not have opened until 1969.

In 1972, the TTC made its last operating profit. The following year, the Metropolitan government ordered the TTC to remove its zone fare system charging suburban residents extra for their longer trips downtown. In 1973, and every year since, the TTC needed government subsidy just to keep operating.

What was happening was not uncommon. In 1945, most public transit agencies across Canada and the United States were privately owned and traded on the stock exchange. By 1965, almost none of them were. Cities across America had to pick up financially moribund transit agencies from bankruptcy and operate them as a social service, or do without municipal public transit altogether. The big problem was competition from the private automobile, and the massive increase in urban sprawl that made the automobile the only really viable means of getting around in most North American cities. Transit companies just couldn't keep up, and so they lost riders until they collapsed. In many ways, the fact that the TTC was a Toronto-owned company already helped considerably, as the city and later the province took on the commission's deficits to maintain a high quality of service, without the TTC going into bankruptcy.

But the increased government subsidy meant increased government interference, and this led to some decisions that I think are especially responsible for our current state. By 1979, the TTC had been building subways constantly for twenty years, but TTC staff and Metro planners noted that the cost of building these subways was getting prohibitively expensive. Moreover, the dense areas of the city that were most favourable to subway development were, by and large, adequately served by said subways. Metropolitan Toronto wanted to extend rapid transit service to the sprawling suburbs, but knew that subways were too expensive for that, and the capacity they offered was way over the demand that these new subways would be called upon to meet.

So the TTC and Metro's solution was a simple and cost-effective one: build new streetcar lines on private right-of-way fanning out from the subway terminals into the suburbs. Such a network was planned for Scarborough, with a big, fast trunk line operating over the route of what is now the Scarborough RT, and then breaking up into little branches that could fan out into Scarborough, offering a one-seat ride from Kennedy to the Malvern neighbourhood, Centennial College, and even the Toronto Zoo.

Then Premier Bill Davis entered the picture. Up to that point, he'd been great for transit in Toronto. To address the needs of commuters after bowing to public pressure to can the Spadina Expressway, he dramatically increased public transit funding for Toronto and the rest of the province, using provincial tax dollars to pay for half of the TTC's operating subsidy, and three-quarters of the commission's capital expenses. But with that level of support came strings. Davis was interested in building a high-tech industry in Ontario, especially in the realm of public transit vehicle manufacturing. Basically, he wanted Ontario to become a leader in maglev technology, and even commissioned the construction of a test track at the Canadian National Exhibition in the early 1970s. This fell through when the West German partners, Kraus Maffei, pulled out.

But Davis' new crown corporation, the Urban Transit Development Corporation (UTDC, which would later be absorbed by Bombardier) continued to work on the high tech solution to an age old problem, and produced the ICTS vehicle that currently operates on the Scarborough RT. Davis wanted a test system to market the new technology to the world, and you can guess what happened next: the low-cost, proven-technology solution to extending rapid transit into Scarborough was replaced by a high-cost, prototype-technology test track, which put the Scarborough project over $100 million over budget, and delayed its opening by a full year.

The ICTS system that currently operates in Scarborough has been described as a white elephant. It was notoriously unreliable when it opened. It was susceptible to snow and ice. It proved to be more expensive than streetcars operating on private rights of way (otherwise known as LRT), and a lot less flexible. The system didn't really sell all that well (although systems do exist in Vancouver, Detroit, JFK Airport and Kuala Lampur, I believe).

Worse, because it was more expensive than a proper LRT and a lot less flexible, the Scarborough RT could not be easily expanded. Out went the proposal to fan out to the rest of Scarborough. The Scarborough RT soured the whole concept of low-cost, lower-ridership suburban rapid transit, so that by the 1980s, in the eyes of politicians, any rapid transit expansion into the suburbs had to be subways, or nothing.

But subways remained prohibitively expensive, and as the reliable supporter of public transit Bill Davis retired, the governments that came after him would follow the pattern of expressing sticker shock at the previous administration's rapid transit plans, delay in coming up with their own plans, and then unveil their new plans just in time to be defeated by the next government, who then had their own sticker shock reaction. That describes the Petersen and Rae years to a T. This is why, when Mike Harris was elected in 1995, very little new construction had taken place. And, of course, as he was elected on a platform of major government cuts, those construction projects that were underway (the Sheppard and Eglinton West subways) were suspended. It was only the intervention of North York mayor Mel Lastman that kept the Sheppard subway alive. Finally, in 1996, Harris pulled the provincial government out of public transit funding altogether, making the TTC solely the responsibility of the city.

That was the low point, and we've been struggling to get out of that pit ever since. We've made some progress. When the TTC deteriorated to the point where its signalling system failed and driver inexperience caused a fatal subway crash in August 1995, that served as a wake-up call emphasizing the importance of funding public transit enough to at least maintain a state of good repair. TTC general manager David Gunn poured every cent he could into system maintenance, preventing us from losing the streetcars as we'd lost the trolley buses just a few years previously. He had the TTC operate the subway at intervals of five minutes or better regardless of the time of day. Ridership started to return, and the public's demand for improved service brought greater government investment. Mike Harris returned to the transit funding table in 2001, making the province fund about a third of the TTC's capital budget. The City of Toronto under David Miller increased the TTC subsidy enough to institute the Ridership Growth Program, which ensured that every bus and streetcar route on the TTC would operate at intervals of thirty minutes or better whenever the subway was open, seven days a week.

There have been hiccups along the way, including cuts imposed by Mayor Rob Ford, but TTC ridership has increased from the mid 90s low of 370 million, breaking past its 1988 record of 463 million, to over 525 million. Simply making sure that the buses and streetcars operate makes a big difference. However challenges remain. The big one is that politicians are still too near-sighted to see that their subways-or-nothing approach to rapid transit development is counter-productive. It's far more rapid transit than we need given the demand for each new line, and it's way too expensive. We could serve far more people for the same amount of money if we applied it to a larger LRT network.

That's the background of how we came to be here. I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of the TTC, because we've come a long way from the dark days of 1995-96. The TTC could be a lot better than it is, but it is still a darn sight better than most agencies across North America, and the solution isn't rocket science: if we want a rapid transit network that serves Torontonians well, clean buses and streetcars that show up frequently, we simply have to find the money and the political will to pay for it. John Tory's new funding initiative is a big first step towards that. Now, if only we could ditch the idiotic Scarborough subway plan and actually give them transit that they can use, that doesn't break the bank.

Any further questions?

He thanked me. There were no further questions.

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