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Ride to nowhere

Overcrowding isn’t a problem on the No. 33, one of the TTC’s ‘poor performing’ routes


Special to The Globe and Mail

Driving through Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood gets more than a little familiar for long-time Toronto Transit Commission employee Al Armstrong. In fact, it’s often boring. The route — 33 Forest Hill — is only a 20-minute round trip, and some stops serve as few as 20 riders a day.

“They rotate us through,” says Mr. Armstrong, partway through his 2�-hour shift. He consults his schedule and raises an eyebrow at the next driver’s shift on the nearly-empty circuit. “I couldn’t take four hours of this.”

Amid all the recent hubbub about bus, streetcar and subway overcrowding, 33 Forest Hill offers a different snapshot of the public transit system.

It’s one of the TTC’s “poor performing” routes — a route deemed to be below a critical level of efficiency. According to the TTC’s Service Improvements for 2005 report, 62 of its 142 routes fell into this category last year. Toronto’s budget committee had suggested cutting 33 Forest Hill — along with 20 other poor-performance routes — to save money, but the TTC voted instead last week to maintain service levels by raising fares,

It may not seem busy, but to the riders who use it, the 33 is critical.

At 2 p.m. on a weekday ride of 33 Forest Hill, the bus is as deserted as the Exhibition grounds in December. Riders are sparsely scattered among the vinyl seats. An older woman sits primly wearing a leopard-print coat, a black pillbox hat and oversized sunglasses that fit over top of her spectacles. But for the most part, the bus is relatively empty.

During this part of the day, Mr. Armstrong often sees familiar faces riding the bus, people who have lived in the area for a long time. One regular always regales him with the history of the Eaton family home, located next to one of the stops along the route.

But Mr. Armstrong rarely sees more than a handful of actual riders at a time. “This isn’t a money-maker,” he notes as he drives the route. “But in the big picture, all the runs are connected to the [TTC] web.”

Steve Munro, a public transit advocate, points out that many routes in the “poor-performance” category — routes like 120 Calvington, 74 Mount Pleasant and 115 Silver Hills, all recommended for elimination along with 33 Forest Hill — cost relatively little to operate.

And when the budget advisory committee for the TTC suggested eliminating marginal routes, it wasn’t the first time Forest Hill found itself on the chopping block. In a 1997 report on its services, the TTC also considered scrapping the route.

“Every three to four years, someone brings up this list,” Mr. Munro says. “Even though this looks like a great big list, collectively what we’re looking at is small change in the context of the system.”

As of 3:20 p.m., it’s a completely different story, and the 33 Forest Hill’s raison d’etre comes into focus. Seventy-one elementary schoolchildren get on in the first two stops after Forest Hill Public School, filling the bus to beyond what is defined as capacity, leaving any concerns about lack of usage temporarily abandoned.

There is a lot of chatter and pushing and shoving by the overflowing group. It feels like an indoor recess, squished into the aisle of the bus. “It’s all about these kids,” Mr. Armstrong says. “Everything in between is just filler.”

A few stops later, a woman boards the bus and grimaces, shaking her head at the prospects of finding a seat. But as soon as the kids disembark, it goes back to being empty.

Rider Roy Boyce, a government worker, says he rarely makes use of the service himself. But he believes that the TTC has made some reasonable service limitations to keep its costs under control. “They cut off service on weekends — that made sense. But with any kind of commuter system — probably those with a lot of extra capacity — not every hour of every day are you going to have complete usage.”

“A lot of the nannies and housekeepers of the people of Forest Hill ride it,” he adds.

According to calculations of the Service Improvement for 2005 report, cancelling the 33 Forest Hill route would save $338,000 a year — only about 2 per cent of the TTC’s estimated $16-million shortfall.

And the route’s 195,000 annual fares would be bus-less. While the 33 Forest Hill’s ridership — 750 fares a day — pales in comparison with the 501 Queen streetcar’s more than 40,000 daily fares, the bus remains a desired service for people in the area, no matter how few ride it.

“Would the world end if we cut the Forest Hill route? No,” TTC vice-chair Adam Giambrone says. “Depending on service levels, you can take a bus off, and that deals with overcrowding issues [elsewhere]. At the same time, you can’t reduce a bus route to less than one bus.”

At the last stop for 33 Forest Hill, an elderly woman is helped off of the bus, her walker lifted to the ground by a stranger. As she walks away, thanking the driver and stranger, Mr. Armstrong looks concerned for her safety.

Even if she doesn’t get out that much, for people like her, the bus may be one of the few ways to get around.

“If they didn’t go on the bus, they would become Wheel Trans passengers,” Mr. Munro says, explaining the elder residents’ dependence on local route service. “[But] the nannies and kiddies are entitled to public transportation too.”