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Kuitenbrouwer: If you ignore the smell, the bus is still the better way

Posted: February 28, 2008, 8:50 PM by Barry Hertz


The TTC, which expects to set a record this year by transporting 464 million passengers, has recently announced major service improvements and has plans for a big expansion. Peter Kuitenbrouwer continues his series on the challenges faced by the city’s transit service with a look at the bus network.

At 8:25 a.m. last Thursday, 16 people waited for an eastbound 32 Eglinton bus at the corner of Dufferin Street. The bus shelter, in a dumb spot 10 metres west of the stop, was empty. Four buses — 32s and 32Ds — arrived together. Most of us got on the third one, because the first two were too packed. At the centre of the bus, clinging to a pole in the crowd, stood Peter Telles-Langdon. He teaches construction to mental health and substance abuse survivors at George Brown College. He was in high spirits.

“I know people sometimes find the overcrowding a problem but I’ve found Toronto has been absolutely wonderful,” said Mr. Telles-Langdon, who has lived in Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and London, Ont. “Here, every race, colour, creed, everybody packs onto the bus together, everyone’s smiling.

“I have a car at home, but dealing with parking and traffic, it’s easier to use the TTC. And I meet all kinds of interesting people. The TTC is a good social program.”

Certainly, the TTC is a good place to get up close and personal with Toronto, especially these days. After ridership peaked in 1988, the TTC went into a steep decline in the 1990s. The province cut funding, the TTC responded with fare hikes and service cuts, and ridership dropped. But the service has emerged as one of the success stories of the new millennium. Ridership has jumped 12% in five years, from 405.4-million riders in 2003, to 459.8-million riders last year.

The crowding has become horrendous, and the reason is simple: In 1988, the TTC operated 1,787 buses and trolley buses. As we return to our peak, we have (as of Dec. 31) 1,491 buses, and no trolley buses.

“We are carrying more people with less vehicles,” says Mike DeToma, a TTC spokesman.

As a TTC report to a meeting on Wednesday notes, “Unusually, it has not been possible to add service to reduce observed overcrowding for much of the past three years. There have been insufficient buses and operators available since March, 2005.”

There is good news: This month the TTC added service to 173 bus routes, at all times on weekdays and on weekends, including a total of 30 additional buses during the morning peak, “the single largest permanent TTC service increase in recent decades.”

In the past week I tested out a dozen bus lines in North York, Scarborough, York and Toronto, and came away impressed. I never waited more than three or four minutes for any bus.

At Downsview Station, the 195 York University Rocket was waiting when I arrived. The trip to York took 10 minutes. I got chatting with the driver.

“Yeah, you can put on more service, but there’s always little problems,” he observed. “Snowstorms, ice, traffic. And these newer buses, I notice, break down a lot. The hybrids lose their charge.” He pointed to his instrument console. “Let’s say something goes wrong in here, Then all of a sudden the thing stalls and won’t go. Those old GMs — they go forever.” (The seats in the rear, raised portion of the new buses are also terribly designed, miserable little spots with scant leg room, a problem the TTC has promised to rectify.)

Even as service increases, the buses remain packed. The 25, which travels north on Don Mills Road from Pape Station, remains a cocktail sausage package, and the TTC so far has no resources to add more buses there.

Riders have to put up with a lot. I boarded the 95 York Mills bus at 3:30 p.m; it was packed with private school kids in ties and grey pants. From the size of their homework knapsacks, it looked like they were heading to Afghanistan. One kid flattened me with his backpack.

“Oh my god,” said one girl. “It’s so crowded today.” Another said to a boy who boarded, “Don’t worry, just push through if you’re trying to get by me.”

A third student said, “I don’t know how we are going to get off.” Somehow, we all got off.

At 4 p.m. at the Don Mills subway station, the 95 Sheppard also came right away. Everyone got a seat. A father, with his two kids, said service has definitely improved. “I am surprised,” he said. “I came two weeks ago and this bus was packed. Normally it’s packed.” (The TTC last week added three buses here in the “early evening.”)

Yes, folks, it is time to applaud the TTC. They are doing something right. I tried the 36 Finch East and the 41 Keele, too: both were busy, but on time and offered quick service.

And then, at 6:17 p.m., I arrived at Dufferin and Bloor streets, fully expecting my usual 15-minute wait for an overcrowded southbound bus. Instead, the bus came at 6:20 p.m. Another 29 is right behind. Sure, the bus smells of fish. But it is here. And I even have a seat. Thank you, TTC.