How Did Toronto Lose So Much Transit Service?
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How Did Toronto Lose So Much Transit Service?

Yesterday the TTC announced major service reductions, cuts they have opted for almost entirely without debate. Some thoughts on broken decision-making at City Hall.

TTC service cuts for January 2012 made the news yesterday, the same day as a town hall meeting to discuss customer service on the transit system. Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) wants to concentrate on good news, on positive stories about a better TTC. Those cuts are bad news the TTC planned to keep under wraps.

TTCriders, a public transit advocacy group, had alerted media and politicians to the cuts, forcing the detailed list of service changes out of the TTC. Surprise! Budget cuts mean your bus, as well as busy routes all over the city, not just sleepy late-night services. How did Toronto come to this? Isn’t transit ridership growing? Doesn’t everyone want more service? Who approved these cuts? Why doesn’t council know what is going on?

Mayor Rob Ford’s search for gravy in the city budget presumes that there’s money to be found in every agency and department, especially those where Miller-era spending improved services. To the Ford administration, that’s waste, spending Toronto cannot afford. At the TTC, one target is turning out to be the Ridership Growth Strategy [PDF], a 2003 plan to make transit more attractive, to woo people out of their cars with low-cost improvements. One important part of that strategy was improving loading standards to reduce crowding and make room for new riders. TTC planners added bus service during rush hours to reduce loads by about 10 per cent, and off-peak bus and streetcar service was scheduled so that everyone (on average) got a seat. TTC riders know this is a rosy view thanks to delays, bunched vehicles, and overcrowding, but at least the TTC made an effort.

The TTC’s Budget Process

Ford’s edict to cut spending by 10 per cent landed on the TTC as it was planning the 2012 budget. The combined hits of a lower subsidy from the City, rising costs, and growing demand put the TTC in a box. Management recommended a change back to the old loading standards so that more riders could be carried, at least in theory, with less service. On September 16, the Transit Commission approved this change, and TTC staff set about crafting what would become the January 2012 schedules [PDF].

At the time, the actual effects of the new policy were only presented to the Commission and the public in general terms: vehicles would be a bit more crowded and riders would have to wait a bit longer for their ride to show up, we were told. These would be trivial changes, necessary sacrifices in difficult economic times. They won’t hurt much.

Who could object to waiting a mere 30 seconds more for their bus? On 54 Lawrence East, the morning rush service will change from every three minutes to every three and a half minutes. How dare riders complain about so small a change? But what this actually means for a busy, already overcrowded route is that instead of 20 buses per hour, riders will get only 17. Three busloads of passengers will have to cram into what’s left on the street.

The Service Cuts

The TTC’s analysis assumes there is actually room for these riders because today’s standard says there should be. However, riding growth chewed up that extra space on busy routes long ago. Even worse, the buses don’t actually arrive every 3 minutes, but come in packs. Many don’t reach their destinations thanks to short turns. Riders know that the advertised service does not match reality on the streets.

Outside the rush hour, the change is more severe. The loading standard, now based on having a seat for everyone, will rise by 25 per cent on routes with service every 10 minutes or better. This means that one bus or streetcar in five will disappear on busy routes. Riders who know well that everyone does not get a seat today will be packed in even more tightly, and they will wait longer on the street.

Packed buses and streetcars take longer to load and unload at stops while riders push their way on and off, and this adds to delays in transit service. We will see even more short turns, and travel times will go up. The TTC will blame it all on traffic congestion, not on the effect of their misguided policies.

These are, by any reasonable definition, major service cuts. How can all this happen without a public debate, without the details known clearly before new policies are approved?

The Political Context

The TTC’s board, like so many City agencies, is almost entirely filled with Ford sycophants, councillors who do what they’re told by the mayor and don’t ask embarrassing questions. When Ford says “cut 10 per cent,” they cut, rather than asking about the real effects and debating alternatives.

In early 2011, the transit commissioners learned that telling the public the gory details of service cuts in advance is a bad strategy that only encourages long meetings filled with public protest. The truth is that the board has an agenda, and listening to the public is, at best, for show, not for real consultation. For the 2012 cuts, it seems they’ve decided it’s far better to approve an abstract policy without revealing the effects it will have, much less asking for comment on it. Those 2011 cuts were intended to pay for service improvements this fall, but one quarter of these will be rolled back in January.

A draft list of service cuts put together by TTC staff made its way to me in mid-October. At the time, the media and council were preoccupied with Ford’s Waterfront Follies. This list did not find its way to TTC commissioners, councillors, or the public, even though the changes would have widespread effects. (Some councillors and commissioners did see the list that was unofficially passed around, but there was no procedural mechanism that ensured they all did.) The TTC was more concerned about how the information leaked out than with the need for public debate.

City council does not have line item review powers for the TTC, which is technically separate from the City. As with all agencies, boards, and commissions (also including the Toronto Public Library and the Toronto Police Service), the City approves a total budget allocation, but the details of how that is used are mostly in the TTC board’s hands. (However, council can and does intervene at times in TTC affairs. By the terms of a bylaw passed during the last term of council, the TTC cannot make changes on its own—such as increasing service—that would commit the City to higher subsidies in future budgets. Oddly enough, this rule doesn’t apply to changes that would cut service across the board.)

The service cuts and loading standards have never been to council for debate, nor has the 10 per cent cut in the subsidy budget. That 10 per cent cut comes from a directive issued by the city manager, one which was never voted on. Thanks to the mayor’s control of the TTC board, these changes were made at the TTC without any discussion outside of Ford’s circle.

The City’s 2012 operating budget process officially gets underway on Monday. It is only if and when council confirms the level of the TTC’s subsidy—that is, votes in favour of the 10 per cent reduction that the city manager has requested—that we will know whether the service cuts announced yesterday were actually necessary. Which brings us to the political question: will the “mushy middle” votes on council line up with Ford to cut TTC funding, or will they side with the progressive wing and find roughly $15 million to restore loading standards and service to 2011 levels?

The Upshot

The underlying issue for the TTC and for council is the current lack of informed debate. Cuts are easy to make in the abstract while councillors speak boldly about belt tightening, calling for sacrifices made in the name of the greater good. Real cuts affecting real people are much harder to champion—especially when a good chunk of the Toronto’s financial problem is self-inflicted, given council’s decision to kill or curtail revenue sources over the past year.

Just when transit and transportation are hot issues for debate across the Greater Toronto Area, the TTC is diverting attention from our real problems. Last night’s town hall was a fine exercise in appearing to care about public input, with the pretense that somehow transit will improve, that politicians responsible for the TTC actually believe in better transit. The reality is that major decisions on transit policy are implemented as if transit service is granted grudgingly to undeserving riders, and their council representatives don’t even exist.

For more on transit in Toronto, head over to Steve Munro’s blog.