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The Better Way - Toronto still 'best in transit'



TOP IN TRANSIT: Toronto’s transit system in motion as viewed on Spadina Ave., from Front St. looking north.

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter

You couldn’t live any length of time in Toronto over the past 30 years and not be familiar with this boast:

The TTC is the best transit system in North America.

It was a mantra. A Toronto truism as certain in the citizenry’s psyche as the “world’s tallest freestanding structure” and another losing Maple Leafs season.

It was a point of pride and a key ingredient in the basic belief, held widely here, that this was the continent’s most livable city.

But a fatal subway crash in 1995, a series of mid-’90s fare hikes, massive budget slashes, ridership losses, a strike and stalled and truncated subway expansions caused cracks to form in this urban fact over the past decade.

Many began to look askance at the assertion and wonder whether this old truth had been derailed.

So The Star took a look.

For a month this past summer, a Star reporter travelled to Washington, Atlanta, New York and San Francisco to compare transit systems.

‘I don’t think you can find a system in North America that operates better than the TTC. Now there might be little pieces here and there (in other cities) that are really great, but those are a small part of the whole picture.’

—Richard Soberman
University of Toronto civil engineering professor

How did the TTC stand up? Was it falling behind, riding box car while other systems rumbled up to first class?

The truth is simply that the “Best in Transit” title, despite serious budgetary concern here, can still be legitimately placed in Toronto.

Certainly many newer systems, like those opened in the 1970s in San Francisco, Washington and Atlanta, far surpass the spartan old TTC in subway esthetics.

And their accoutrements, including direct subway links to international airports, computerized information systems, electronic fare cards and elevator accessibility for the handicapped are to be envied.

So too, especially in this time of provincial downloading, is their access to billions of federal and state dollars for operating and capital expenditures that make system expansions a real possibility.

But by the most meaningful transit measurements, the TTC still holds a clear lead in the quest to be best.

“I don’t think you can find a system in North America that operates better than the TTC,” says University of Toronto civil engineering professor Richard Soberman, one of the country’s leading transportation experts.

“Now there might be little pieces here and there (in other cities) that are really great, but those are a small part of the whole picture.”

That “whole picture” as Soberman sees it, must be viewed from this most basic standpoint: Which system is most efficient at carrying the largest numbers of people?

And by this measure, the TTC is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of its North American counterparts.

“At the end of the day, one main measure that you use is ‘what’s your per capita riding’,” says Soberman, who has followed the TTC for almost 40 years and last year wrote a report on the commission’s future under city amalgamation entitled The Track Ahead.

“And with the exception of New York City, where it’s almost impossible not to take the subway if you’re trying to get into Manhattan, then the TTC is still far ahead on this score.”

Indeed, Soberman adds, the average Torontonian takes about 164 rides a year on the TTC, while cities like Atlanta and San Francisco average between 20 and 40 annual rides per capita. On a North American scale, only Montreal rates higher than the TTC on rides per capita at more than 180 per person per year.

“Also, if you look at the TTC from a utilization standpoint, not only does it have more people using it than most of the other systems we’re talking about, it also has a better distribution of ridership,” says Soberman.

“In some American cities you wouldn’t be caught dead on the subway at 10 o’clock at night while the TTC is used in the off hours. It’s used throughout the day.”

The TTC’s superiority also rides on the bottom line balance sheet, where its ratio of operating costs to fares collected is far better than any other North American system.

While the Montreal system boasts slightly more rides per capita than the TTC, for example, it also operates under a far more generous government subsidy. Where the TTC is efficient enough to obtain about 80 per cent of its operating budget from its passengers, Montreal relies on a 50 per cent government subsidy.

Most comparable U.S. systems recover less than 50 per cent of their annual operating budgets from passengers.

The TTC’s chief general manager David Gunn, however, warns that the commission’s 80 per cent fare recovery is the most any system should be asked to achieve and that any future funding cuts could be disasterous.

“We’ve been asked to jump through hoops for the last few years and we’ve jumped through the hoops,” says Gunn, who has announced he’ll retire next spring.

“But you keep asking us to jump through hoops and we’ll trip, and when we trip, not only will the government subsidy not go down, the amount of money it takes to subsidize the place will go up because the customer cost recovery will collapse and the service will be worse and the fares will be higher.

“It will be the worst of all worlds,” Gunn predicts.

While the TTC relies heavily on its passengers for operating expenses, it does not do so by charging far higher fares than are found elsewhere.

“There is talk about the TTC having the highest (fares) in North America, and it might have in terms of the single fare,” says Soberman, who holds the Bahen-Tanenbaum chair in civil engineering at U of T.

“But if you look at transfer costs in other systems (from bus to train) and the different costs for different trip lengths I don’t think that is the case.”

On San Francisco’s aesthetically beautiful Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway, for example, passengers can pay as much as $4.45 for a single trip between the system’s most distant destinations.

And on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the basic subway fare is $1.10. But peak hour premiums, transfer charges and ride-length surcharges can bring a single trip combining bus and rail to as much as $4.35.

Toronto has a free transfer system that allows you to go from one end of the city to the other using both surface vehicles and rail for $2 - or less if you buy fares in bulk or monthy passes.

The success of Toronto’s transit system, Soberman says, rests in part on a philosophy of austere efficiency that dates back to initial subway construction in the 1950s.

“Toronto has always been, with a few exceptions, lean and mean,” he says. “When they were starting, they said, ‘This is a business, we’re trying to provide a service, what people want is reliability at relatively low cost,’ so we have stations that look like they were out of the Stalinist era as opposed to Montreal say, which is very ornate and artistic.”

That initial “lean and mean” philosophy came out of the former Metro government’s having to largely build and operate the system out of its own resources during those early years.

And while the introduction of provincial money - up to 75 per cent for capital projects - made for easier times in the 1970s and 1980s, it also made for some ill planned and excessive projects like the ornate Spadina line. Some of these problems are still with us today, Soberman says.

“One of the troubles occurring right now is the Sheppard subway for example,” he adds. “The Sheppard, the (cancelled) Eglinton subway, the extension of the Scarborough RT were all facilitated by the fact that everybody (at the TTC) thought they would be spending 25-cent dollars and they made some terrible decisions.

“They wouldn’t make them under today’s circumstances because they don’t have enough money and they’re going to have trouble finishing the Sheppard subway properly.”

It was under Gunn that the system’s original lean and mean philosophy was resurrected after the former New York city transit boss was hired in late 1994.

“David Gunn walked into an organization that had seven years of non-transit people running it,” Soberman says. “And they didn’t worry about minding the store, they were more interested in talking to (the media) and holding press conferences and stuff like that.”

Gunn, unlike his predecessor Al Leach, now the provincial municipal affairs minister, was entirely devoted to a back-to-basics approach. Under his “state of good repair” program, Gunn diverted almost all the system’s capital funds that were not tied up in the Sheppard subway project toward fixing, replacing and maintaining the TTC’s badly damaged infrastructure.

But now that the city is again going it alone on TTC funding, even this most basic approach to transit is in jeopardy, Soberman says.

His solution, one that has worked in many other jurisdictions, would be to find an alternate source of funding for both operating and capital expenditures that does not impinge entirely on the city’s overburdened property tax.

“I think so long as we are only funding these systems out of property taxes we’ve got a problem,” Soberman says. “And I think we have to move more in the direction of having dedicated sources of funding, whether it’s a sales tax, whether it’s a portion of gasoline tax, whether it’s an extra charge on gasoline or whether it’s an extra charge on vehicle registration.”

Both Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and San Francisco’s BART receive a large part of their funding from a dedicated sales tax levied on goods sold in the jurisdictions they serve.

In Montreal and Vancouver, slices of gasoline taxes are dedicated to mass transit systems.

“They’re even using a cigarette tax in Massachusetts which I wouldn’t object to now because I just stopped smoking,” Soberman says.

Alternatively, although less likely, Canada’s federal government could take on a similar role to the one played by its U.S. counterpart.

“The systems you’re talking about - BART, Atlanta, Washington - they’re much newer and they’re also funded in an entirely different way,” Soberman says. “I mean the U.S. federal government is a big player in urban transportation. The Canadian federal government is a non-player. They have no involvement or business in urban transportation.”

The U.S federal government financed 80 per cent of the construction of Washington’s “Metro” subway system and more than 60 per cent of San Francisco’s BART and Atlanta’s MARTA properties.

While it looks for secure funding, however, the TTC can look back on a past that is still envied by many American transit officials.

The TTC’s success, however, has not been based solely on a heritage of good, lean management, Soberman says.

“I attribute the higher utilization of the TTC to maybe four factors, the first being it is well run,” he says.

“Secondly, the topography of the city and its grid system is ideal for a transit system because it really means you can go from anywhere to anywhere easily.”

Third, Soberman says, Toronto has a higher density population than many American cities.

“And the more dense the population, the more you get people using the system,” he says.

“Finally, we have a very strong and vibrant central area. And people can get to work or entertainment or their homes downtown very easily on the TTC.”