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English transit boss compares TTC to London

Oct 31, 2008 04:30 AM

Christopher Hume

When it comes to public transit, Michael Challis knows his way around.

The affable Londoner happens to be the general manager of that city’s famous Piccadilly Line, which makes him responsible for 1,600 employees and 650,000 passengers daily.

Curious, then, that Challis chose to spend his sabbatical in Toronto; a city he has grown to admire and even love.

“Toronto stood out as a progressive urban culture,” he explains. “For a North American city, it’s unusual, even distinctive.”

And although comparisons are not entirely helpful, he says public transit in Toronto rates favourably with London’s. No, it’s not nearly as extensive, but Challis likes what he sees.

For example, he’s a big fan of the TTC stations where buses and subways connect. “Brilliant,” he says. He also applauds the fact that Toronto kept its streetcars.

“There’s a grassroots understanding of urban issues here,” he argues. “And I think the political environment is incredibly pro-transit.”

On the other hand, Challis recognizes that the system has major problems; he points to the King and Queen streetcar lines as routes that aren’t working. The service, he notes, is uncomfortable and less than reliable.

He also worries about providing transit to the suburbs.

“I don’t think I realized how much sprawl there is around Toronto,” he admits. “It really is enormous. I think it will be a huge challenge.”

London’s situation is different; its greenbelt legislation was passed in 1948, almost 60 years before ours, and there’s also the infamous Congestion Zone. Introduced in 2003, it means drivers pay the equivalent of $16 every time they enter the zone.

“I would say the Congestion Zone is a success,” Challis says. “It has caused a shift from private vehicles to public transit. Generally speaking, cars aren’t good for the urban environment.”

Of course, it took a leader of courage and vision - in London’s case, former mayor Ken Livingstone - to introduce road tolls. Many predicted it would be political suicide, but they were wrong. Though Livingstone was retired by the electorate earlier this year, the Congestion Zone is unlikely to suffer the same fate.

“The big question,” Challis argues, “is how to get the middle class to use transit. They need a sense of security, cleanliness and order. I’m impressed by the lack of graffiti and window scratching on the TTC.”

According to Challis, both the Piccadilly Line and the TTC are victims of their own success. As a result, they must struggle to keep up with demand, and never quite manage.

And despite his brave words about Toronto’s progressive politics, Challis understands that “Municipal governments look at subways and think they’re ridiculously expensive. But with any infrastructure project, you do get a return, even if it takes time.”

As Challis also knows, most of the TTC’s woes lie well beyond its ability to fix. When it comes to funding, for instance, keep in mind that the Piccadilly Line alone receives almost $2 billion annually in public money. It’s considered that important.

By contrast, ever since the provincial government withdrew from the cities of Ontario in the 1990s, the TTC has been financed on the backs of passengers.

But if Challis is right, “You deal with the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”

However, he warns: “Downtown vitality and the efficiency of surface routes will suffer if the car isn’t kept in check. Toronto is relatively well served by transit. But now you need to build on what you’ve got, expand what was built in the 1950s and ’60s in the city to the region.”




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