In Defense of the TTC
Many students use the Toronto Transit Commission to commute to and from campus, yet most of these commuters probably have a negative and cynical view of the TTC, and in essence are TTC haters. I’d like to take the unpopular view and say that the TTC is a very underrated transit system and manages to perform its job well, despite the many geographical, political, and financial hurdles it faces. Andy Byford’s dream of becoming the best transit agency in North America may not be so farfetched; in some ways it already has come to be.
Many Torontonians have mocked the subway network for being too small and having only 2.5 lines. Many also look to New York, Tokyo, and London’s subway systems with envy. Toronto, however, is not New York, Tokyo, or London; it has at most 1/6th the metropolitan population of those cities, and a smaller fraction of their densities. For a mid-size North American city, its subway network beats many larger major cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and LA. In addition, many cities larger than Toronto like Dallas don’t even have subway systems. The subway network is also larger than many cities elsewhere on earth, including global metropolises like Amsterdam and Rome. So while it’s okay to dream for a subway system that rivals New York, let’s not forget that the TTC’s subway system punches above its weight.
The subway schedule is also one of the most frequent in North America. Imagine barely missing the train and having to wait 20–30 minutes for the next train. That’s what people in other cities, even New York, have to deal with. A subway line is only as useful as the service provided on it. The TTC has ensured no line in the subway system has a frequency lower than 5 minutes at any time. New York, meanwhile, has sections where the train comes every 20 minutes outside of rush hour. DC and San Francisco have trains arriving every 8 minutes even during rush hour. Even in European cities like Frankfurt and Paris, service is up to twice as sparse as the TTC. And in 2018, after a lot of work completed during weekend closures, automated control will be implemented, enabling the TTC to run trains every 105 seconds, matching Vancouver as one of the most frequent metro systems in the world.
It’s not just the subway network that’s among the best in North America; Toronto also has a very robust bus and streetcar network. Like most bus networks, it covers all areas of Toronto. But Toronto is unique in the fact that every inch of the city from Scarborough to Etobicoke is within a 20 minute walk to one of 52 frequent bus, streetcar, or subway route that comes every 10 minutes or less, even at midnight. Other cities can’t even come close to this service. LA has huge swaths of the city that don’t have access to reliable and frequent bus service. Minneapolis, a similar-sized city to Toronto, only has five routes that all converge downtown. No other city comes close to the level of bus/streetcar service Toronto, New York, Chicago, Montreal, and Vancouver have.
The TTC often gets derided for its delays, but in actuality, it’s among the most reliable systems in the world and has relatively few delays compared to other transit agencies. Infrastructure related delays are down 21% since 2014. Other causes of delays, like suicides, are much harder to prevent and relate to wider issues for which the TTC should not be blamed. In fact, the TTC’s on time performance is at 96.6%, among the best in North America, and beating other cities like New York (82%), San Francisco (91%), and DC (90%) by a wide margin. And the TTC is not accomplishing this through more short turns. In fact, short turns for both bus and streetcars are down by about 50% and 66% since 2014 respectively. The TTC is in a position where it can make infrastructure and maintenance upgrades, such as automatic control on trains, while many other cities are scrambling to ensure the safety of their system. Much of the New York subway is running on 1930s signaling technology, Vancouver has experienced multiple system-wide failures in the past couple of years, and Chicago had a major subway derailment in 2014 which injured 34 people. DC famously had a huge issue with exposed electrical wiring that led in 2 separate incidents to 86 people being hospitalized, a death, a complete system shutdown for 3 days, and multiple sections of the subway being closed for up to 3 months. Ever since a 1995 derailment, the TTC has ensured and prioritized proactive maintenance and upgrades over system expansion. Together, with the reduction in delays over the last few years, makes the TTC one of the most reliable systems in North America.
All this does not detract from the fact that the TTC is relatively expensive. However, the TTC itself should not be blamed. Ever since Ontario has ceased funding the TTC, the TTC has chosen to become more efficient rather than to cut service. Now, with 70% of its funding coming from fares (farebox recovery ratio), it is among the most efficient transit agency in the world, and beats most transit agencies (including New York) by at least 10%. However, with both Rob Ford’s and John Tory’s budget cuts to the TTC, it has no choice but to raise fares, since all efficiency gains have already been realized. There is no transit agency in the world with a higher farebox recovery ratio without using distance-based fares, and implementing distance-based fares is essentially a fare hike that punishes suburban commuters. The TTC is heading into uncharted territory if it were to attempt to find more “efficiencies”, which may risk the safety and reliability of its network.
There are other criticisms that the TTC has no control over and cannot fix easily. The TTC cannot significantly change rider behavior, no matter how many posters they put up. The TTC will always be crowded if service remains good since induced congestion also applies to transit. Any expansion will cause new riders to fill the excess capacity and return back to the previous equilibrium. The TTC cannot control how the Presto smartcard works, and isn’t in charge of Presto fare gates; that responsibility is on Metrolinx.
The TTC still has some problems. Cleanliness of both the trains and stations, while better than North American counterparts like New York and DC, is a long ways away from Hong Kong and Tokyo. Customer service, while improving since Andy Byford took over as CEO, can still be improved. Presto has been rolled out at a snails pace, and the prospect of eliminating paper and token fare medium seems to be perpetually delayed. But it’s important to realize that the TTC is doing an admirable job at getting people from A to B anywhere in the city in a safe and reliable fashion. The TTC can be (and in some ways is already) the best transit agency in North America, and to do solidify that status, riders should pressure politicians to give it more resources to continue its admirable handling of the city’s transportation network.