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Gee: TTC riders and drivers kiss and make up

The displays of humanity we’ve seen from riders and drivers in the last while show that all is not lost

By Marcus Gee
Urban Affairs Columnist

The TTC and its riders are like a married couple the morning after a really nasty fight. They know they went too far and they are taking extra care to be civil.

The evidence from those who ride the system is building. I’m seeing and hearing about more passengers saying “transfer, please” when they get on, and “thank you” when they get off. More drivers are saying good morning to riders and stopping for people who run for the bus.

The other day on the Bloor-Danforth line, the operator came on the intercom after every stop to say, “Have a safe, happy journey and thanks for riding the TTC.” Amazed passengers broke out in smiles.

Last Friday on the College streetcar, the driver, a woman, joked with passengers as the packed car struggled through the snow and people fretted about the tim e. “Mind if I go get a coffee and go to the bank?” she said. “Maybe I’ll get a coffee, too.” Everyone laughed, a lovely urban moment in a stressful day.

Matthew Blackett, the publisher of the urban-affairs magazine Spacing, has just been appointed to the Toronto Transit Commission’s panel on improving customer service. He has observed a marked difference in the way riders and drivers are treating each other since the high tension of earlier this winter, when pictures of the sleeping ticket-booth guy set off a wave of rider complaints about the TTC and a corresponding backlash by fed-up TTC employees.

Mr. Blackett was on the streetcar the other day when the car gave a lurch. One of the passengers started yelling at the driver. Instead of joining in, a couple of fellow passengers shot back, “Hey, he’s just doing his job.”

It is as if riders and drivers are working toward an unspoken bargain to step back from the brink and start treating each other right. The relationship between riders and drivers was creating a vicious circle, with passengers ranting on websites about rude drivers and drivers setting up their own pages to rant back.

It was ugly and toxic and no one was winning. Passengers can’t really expect top-notch TTC service if they try to cheat on paying their fares, if they litter subways and streetcars or if they snarl at drivers (or hit them and spit at them). Drivers can hardly expect respect and appreciation if they abuse or ignore their customers.

With a little work and good will, the vicious circle could become a virtuous one - with friendlier drivers leading to better-behaved riders and both sides learning to value the small courtesies that make urban life livable. If that sounds squishy, consider the impact that minor acts of kindness can have.

A regular passenger on the Bay Street bus tells me in an e-mail that, on one recent trip, “the driver noticed an elderly and partially disabled lady slowly crossing Bay and obviously wishing to board the bus. Not only did he wait for her, he moved the bus a little closer so she did not have so far to walk.”

Another time, he writes, a foreign visitor was looking for a street in the west end. “The driver phoned in to enquire about the address and gave the passenger very precise instructions on transferring to a King car and what to tell the driver about where to let him off.”

Both incidents happened in the past two weeks. An elderly TTC rider says that when he takes the Don Mills bus, “they bring the bus to a halt right at my ancient feet, and lower it to accommodate me. I always say thanks when giving up my ticket, and tap their arm as I get off, thanking them for the ride.”

The little things are what count. The passing compliment, the apology, the extra effort to accommodate. Of course, the TTC still needs a lot of work. Mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi calls it the world’s best 1970s transit system. The fare system is archaic, the stations run down and customer service still an afterthought. In attitude, it often apes Ernestine, Lily Tomlin’s phone operator on Laugh-In , when she says: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”

But the displays of humanity we’ve seen from riders and drivers in the last while show that all is not lost. Most riders are not cheats, most drivers are not boors. Most of the time, they get along just fine. This marriage can be saved.