What Toronto can learn from New York about transit
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What Toronto can learn from New York about transit

Policy coordination is all well and good, but NYC's example shows what happens when a city loses its say on transit.

Toronto’s transit system isn’t like New York’s—although it sometimes plays it on TV. Photo by wyliepoon in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

The former TTC CEO, Andy Byford, just started his new job in New York City. He is now in charge of the New York City Transit Authority, which is part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA is actually a regional authority and the largest transportation network in North America. It provides subway, bus, and rail service to 2.73 billion riders a year.

The scale and complexity of Toronto’s transit system no doubt taught Byford a few valuable lessons he has taken to New York, but what I’m interested in at the moment is what Toronto can learn from New York.

In many ways, it is fair to say there is no comparison. The MTA is a much, much bigger system. It has 424 subway stations over 662 miles (1060 kilometres) of track. Compare that to the TTC’s 75 stations and 76.9 kilometres of track, and you see how our system coverage is a pale shadow of theirs. Some of the track in New York is doubled, allowing for both express and local service.

The New York subway opened in 1904 with 35 kilometres of track, which is about the equivalent of opening from Finch to Union to York University all at once. Today it has 22 lines, and the buses and the subway run 24 hours a day.

The MTA claims that 80 per cent of rush-hour commuters to central Manhattan arrive on public transit. Over 7 million ride on an average weekday, almost 6 million on the subway alone. In terms of ridership numbers and mode share, the MTA is a success story that Toronto could learn from. What do they do well to make transit the best option?

One thing they do is they treat the city as one place. If you live in New York, you live in New York. You’re not penalized for not being able to live centrally. There is one flat fare for NYC metro. As Jonathan Mahler put it in the Times, “In New York, movement—anywhere, anytime—is a right.”

The MTA introduced a fare card, the MetroCard, in 1993, and it had a two-hour transfer window by 1997. Yes, 20 years ago, Toronto. The MetroCard can be used to transfer between different modes of city transit, but it cannot be used on suburban rail lines, such as NJ Transit. They do not have a shared fare system with NJ Transit, the rail service that brings in commuters from neighbouring New Jersey. The MTA has prioritized its own residents.

There’s no doubt that public transit is a significant reason New York City is the economic, arts, education, and political engine that it is. Both The New York Times and Clifton Hood have argued that the subway built the city, rather than the other way round. The subway connected the city to itself and changed the way its residents understood the city. It enabled recent immigrants to participate in the city’s economy and society even if they were living in poverty.

The fare system—its equity and its convenience—has been key to achieving the MTA’s high ridership and mode share, which has in turn been critical to the city’s economy and well-being.

The MTA is also a cautionary tale, in ways that Torontonians will find familiar.

Despite its great success in terms of ridership, the MTA has fallen on hard times. The source of the problem is as much (or more) political as financial.

The governance and funding of the MTA is somewhat complicated. Technically, the city owns the subway, but it’s leased to the New York City Transit Authority, which in 1968 became part of the MTA, which is a state authority. The buses are not part of the City Transit Authority, but instead operate under a separate regional bus agency. The MTA oversees bus, subway, and rail service for the region (including service to Connecticut), as well as toll bridges and tunnels into the city. The idea, when the MTA began accumulating authority over a range of services, was to coordinate regional transit policy.

So, although New York City originally built its own subway, New York state now runs it. That means it is responsible for funding it. Fare-box recovery is just under 38 per cent and other operations revenue brings it up to 50 per cent.

The MTA is billions of dollars in debt. The state is doing everything it can to get more money out of the city. The city argues back that it already generates more than half the state’s wealth. The city and the state are arguing over the implementation of a congestion charge, and the most recent proposal from the governor does not include tolls on the East River bridges as expected.

But it’s more complicated than that political squabbling. Relations between politicians at all levels, bureaucrats, unions, construction companies, vendors, and consultants are a labyrinth of friendly and unfriendly connections. As one New York City journalist put it, “No wonder it’s a mess. No one owns it.”

Recent articles in The New York Times have gone into the situation in depth—you can read more here and here. In brief, however, it is clear that having the state run the city’s system does not benefit the city. The state is up against the basic problem that even if all state residents benefit from Manhattan’s workforce arriving at their desks on time, “people who don’t ride the subway don’t want to pay for the subway,” as Mahler put it in his piece.

The state should (and does) recognize the benefit of New York City transit to the rest of the state, the region, and the national economy. But it has not secured the funding stream that will support even the operating costs of the system, which is the most important thing it has to do. Instead, it has repeatedly cut back the MTA’s funding in key areas, such as maintenance, even as ridership grew. Worse, the state has raised money off fees from the MTA issuing bonds, diverting its resources to other purposes. A new report by the Regional Plan Association argues a new governance structure is urgent, arguing the reconstruction of the subway needs its own corporation with secure, dedicated revenue.

New York has been in a similar position before. The city’s population largely stalled in the postwar period, with the rise of suburbanization and private automobiles. A subway ridership record set in 1946 has yet to be surpassed. New York City’s population in 1980 was lower than in 1940, and most boroughs have yet to re-achieve their 1940 numbers—Manhattan’s population was smaller in 2010 than in 1900. Maintenance and expansion were deferred and failing equipment was not replaced. By the 1970s, public transit service was terrible and its ridership was in freefall.

Although the system was renovated extensively in the 1980s, investment in transit has not kept pace with the city’s growth since. Today, the city is “struggling with old infrastructure and overcrowding” and signal system that is “30 years past its useful life.” Less than 20 per cent of stations are fully accessible. Some capital projects have faced catastrophically escalating costs. The bus system, responsible for more than 2 million riders a day, is also struggling.

The last few years have seen a major decline in reliability and on-time arrival. 2017 ridership fell slightly for the first time in many years. Trains get slower as demand exceeds capacity. And part of the problem is the continued use of older cars, due to a delay of new cars from Bombardier. (Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.)

A recent report estimated the maintenance and improvement backlog is over $100 billion (US). It’s a lot of money, for sure, but without the subway, you risk putting a dent in the $1.7 trillion New York City contributes to the US GDP every year.

Coordination of transit is a good thing, but a unified governance structure with no checks on its power and one that is vulnerable to political manipulation does not serve public utilities well. New York City needs more than money for its subway. It needs more of a say in and oversight of its own system.

On the more positive side, New York’s flat fare and a lower fare-box recovery ratio has served it well for ridership and mode share. The flat fare, on a much more extensive system, is striking when one looks at the recent preoccupation with fare structure by the TTC and Toronto City Council and, especially, Metrolinx. Our fiddling with fares and fiddling with ridership distribution has little to do with improving service or increasing ridership, and everything to do with minimizing investment.

In fairness, there is investment, but too often it’s not based on ridership numbers. Toronto should focus explicitly on increasing ridership and transit mode share. Let’s learn from the things New York got right to increase ridership and build its city and watch out for the governance structure that is currently dragging it down.

Good luck, Andy. And good luck to us.