Off the Rails

Off the Rails

Cantankerous drivers, moribund managers and spineless politicians are all to blame for the crapification of the TTC. The case for privatizing public transit—an oxymoronic idea whose time has come

Fever pitch: tensions between drivers and riders have reached epic proportions (Photo-illustration by Gluekit, photo by Felix Poon)  

Say what you will about Adam Giambrone’s youth and inexperience: before his career collapsed in a haze of G-rated text messages, the baby-faced boy wonder—who presided over one of the most unaccountable, out-of-control and inept periods in the TTC’s once proud history—had already mastered the art of civic politics, Miller style. Barely into his 30s, he was wise enough to know that nobody gets ahead at city hall by pushing for serious change.

When the TTC’s 9,000 unionized workers went on strike in 2008 (for the second time in two years), Giambrone quickly stamped out questions of whether riders would be better served by private operators. Aside from London, England, he said, “There are no major centres that run privatized operations—there’s a reason.” In fact, there are dozens of big cities with privately operated public transit, and in many cases those systems work far better than the TTC.

Then, last fall, when the TTC announced an 11 per cent fare hike and imposed its infuriating one-token limit, Giambrone limply said that he understood why riders might be frustrated. He even blew off criticism after phase three of the new St. Clair streetcar line launched this past December—two years late, more than double the initial $48‑million estimate and, if its first months of operation are any indication, just as tragicomically ill-managed and undependable as the old-school system. Giambrone applauded the TTC, saying that, while the system would always have its critics, managers there had taken “bold action” in recent years.

Yet by early February, as passenger complaints hit record highs and images of snoring ticket takers, empty fare booths and epically surly drivers went viral, not even Chairman Himbo could brush aside the Better Way’s woes. So he assembled a panel. Translation: he wouldn’t really change a thing.

We should be thankful for the sex scandal, if you can call it that, and what can only be the beginning of the end of Giambrone and (his mentor) David Miller’s reign over the TTC. While they clearly love public transit, neither man has ever been interested in fixing what actually ails Toronto’s system. (Miller recently, all too obliviously, called the TTC “one of the greatest success stories in this country.”)

The city needs somebody who’s willing to restore the agency’s focus on the riders it long ago forgot how to serve. It should start by replacing the TTC board with qualified leaders and axing at least a third of management. And then if they want an efficient, modern transportation system, they’ll contract out its operations to private bidders, or sell it off, piece by underperforming piece, to transit companies that have a clue.

For what it’s worth, the rot didn’t begin with Giambrone, or with Howard Moscoe, his ever-meddling predecessor, or with Mike Harris, who kneecapped local transit when he killed the TTC’s provincial subsidy in 1998. The troubles predate all of them—to the early ’90s, when the system started losing riders.

Few public institutions were luckier than the TTC in its early years. Toronto the Good was a cheap, compact city to serve. Through WWII and its shortages of private cars and fuel, the system made reams of money—enough to almost entirely fund the construction of the Yonge Street subway line. The inner city didn’t hollow out through the post-war years as so much of America did—a fact that both benefited and emboldened the agency’s planners. The commission was admired internationally (doesn’t Peter Ustinov’s “like New York run by the Swiss” line smart these days?), and that culture brought both good and bad. The TTC came to believe it could do no wrong. It bloated its ranks with junior engineers and taught them everything they’d ever need to know. It promoted almost exclusively from within and developed a fierce resistance to anything not invented here.

If passengers of Stockholm transit are delayed more than 20 minutes, they get reimbursed for cab fares of up to 800 kronor, or $116

When ridership slipped during the recession of the early ’90s, TTC planners panicked. They shifted their focus from improving transit to getting by. You could almost hear the gurgling sound as the ambition drained from TTC headquarters.

Over time, the system grew into an enormous black box where public money went to die. The union became more entrenched and bitter, despite landing sweetheart deals. (TTC operators currently earn $60,000 after two years of service, and their contract guarantees them the highest transit operators’ pay package in the GTA.)

More significantly, the TTC’s nominal oversight body—the commission board—changed in 1989 from a mixed civilian and city council institution to one that was composed exclusively of councillors. Many of them didn’t hesitate to muck with the system’s operations when it was politically convenient (see Moscoe, Howard, above, who so thoroughly undermined management that two of the TTC’s more competent general managers who were pushing for improvements quit in disgust).

Given the level of dysfunction, it’s no wonder Queen’s Park hasn’t shown any willingness to lend a hand with operating costs. The provincial Liberals splash around cash to launch election-friendly capital projects, like the 120-kilometre, $8.3-billion light-rail Transit City program, which will bring right-of-way streetcar lines to eight key corridors in the region; and the $2.6-billion Spadina subway extension, which reaches up into Vaughan toward Greg Sorbara’s strip mall of a riding. But new subway and streetcar lines bring millions of dollars in new operating and maintenance costs—burdens that the TTC rightly says it can’t afford. All told, the system’s ridership is expected to increase by nearly 40 per cent in the next decade. Nobody has a clue how the TTC will staff and operate it all.

The biggest problem, however, is how terrified the city is of taking steps that would fundamentally improve it. We’ve become convinced that drastic interventions into moribund civic programs are a strictly neo-conservative and draconian prescription. (Hell, Ontario’s too terrified to privatize its liquor stores.) And so accommodation and stasis have become Toronto’s progressive way.

Major centres far more progressive than ours did away with state-operated transit a long time ago. Take Stockholm, Sweden, a city of some two million people in a country with a political tradition that makes Toronto’s lefties look like Pinochetistas. Stockholm’s public buses and subways carry 700,000 people each weekday (about half of the TTC’s daily volume). The system is directed and regulated by a central public authority staffed by 500 managers, supervisors and clerical workers (the TTC has roughly 2,500). Private companies, operating under 30 separate contracts, do the people-moving and maintenance.

Ticketing is automated and easy. Riders can even buy electronic transit tickets via text message; their smartphones become instant passes. The central regulator demands and enforces high standards for cleanliness at stations and on vehicles. The system is also blanketed with easy-to-use and reliable electronic information displays. Stockholm transit is so confident of its performance that it guarantees passengers won’t be delayed for more than 20 minutes as a result of system malfunction or faulty travel information. If they are, they’re reimbursed for cab fares of up to 800 kronor, or $116. Though cash fares range from $2.15 to $8.75, depending on distance, regular riders can buy a monthly pass for the equivalent of $100 (it’s $121 in Toronto).

Granted, Stockholm does this with an annual operating subsidy of some $900 million—more than double what we drop on the TTC every year just to keep it in its death throes. But great transit systems cost money.

We’ve become convinced
that drastic interventions into substandard civic programs are a strictly draconian prescription

There are systems like this across Scandi­navia, France, Switzerland and much of Asia and South America. When Copen­hagen gradually put transportation services out for tender between 1990 and 2002, the city stipulated that winning bidders would have to hire displaced workers from the unionized city transit service, and without any cuts to their pay. They managed to do that while increasing service levels and contracting an Italian company to operate Europe’s first driverless metro system. Not that we’d have to look so far away for operational expertise. Bombardier Transportation Danmark A/S, a subsidiary of the Quebec-based multinational, is on the short list to build and run Copenhagen’s newest subway line.

To be sure, there are examples of privatization disasters—the naysayers cite them compulsively. After bus services in Britain were deregulated in 1985, getting around many cities became a crap shoot. In Manchester, several fly-by-night bus companies compete on the most popular routes, setting their own timetables, fares and service standards, then abandoning areas in off-peak hours. Less profitable routes go unserved unless local authorities pay the bus companies to run them.

Much the same happened in the U.S. after Ronald Reagan’s department of transportation pushed local systems to start privatizing; some states prohibited local services from considering bids on any criteria other than price.

The key difference between privatization successes and failures is the motive: Thatcher and Reagan didn’t do it to improve transit—they did it because they didn’t believe in funding the public good with public money. There’s a growing pile of credible research on how to avoid the pitfalls that have hobbled some systems: on how to run tenders, how to evaluate would-be contractors, how to ensure quality and how to manage ­public-private relationships through the long-term.

For the remaining we-could-never-do-that-here contingent, take a look closer to home, at York Region, which, through a consortium of private companies, created Viva and then hired a respected French multinational called Veolia to operate and service the buses. The network, opened in 2005, is composed of just two straight-shot rapid transit lines. Because of the geog­raphy and culture through much of the region—criminally low density and an almost umbilical dependence on cars—Viva is an expensive service to run. It’s highly subsidized, as most quality public transit systems are. But it’s a good service, with clean, efficient and comfortable buses that arrive when they’re supposed to. Viva has a public information system that does what the TTC hasn’t been able to pull off in any significant way since the start of the information age: there are electronic displays aboard every Viva bus and at stops to tell riders estimated arrival times. York Region Transit even gives out free snacks twice a year on “customer appreciation days,” something the TTC wouldn’t consider without a decade of study, protracted labour negotiations, a purpose-built depart­ment in system headquarters and a $37-million special budget.

The magic of competition has helped York keep a lid on outsized labour demands. Two years ago, after rejecting an offer that included wage and benefit increases, Viva’s 160 unionized workers went on strike. As the Amalgamated Transit Union’s members skulked the picket lines, other bus companies contracted by York Region picked up the slack. Two weeks into their stoppage and suddenly aware that they didn’t hold a monopoly on public transportation, the ATU’s rank and file voted to return to work, accepting the same contract offer they had initially declined.

In Toronto, the way ahead is blindingly obvious. We should build on what some of the smartest transit thinkers in the world have already done. The first step is to replace the commission’s political board with civilian appointments, much as the provincial government did with Metrolinx last year. The new Metrolinx board may include a few too many land developers and corporate leaders—the sorts of people who wouldn’t be caught dead on the vomit comet—and too few regular transit users, but Metrolinx’s directors have all shown they can manage large and successful organizations, a skill set the TTC’s current overseers are sorely lacking.

The TTC’s new board should toss out the chief general manager, Gary Webster, an agency lifer who started with the system almost straight out of university in 1975 (he’s an engineer, of course) and was named chief general manager in 2006. The man has had four years to address the system’s problems, and yet we’ve seen little progress. The system, no matter what form it takes, needs a leader who can build a culture that moves quickly and efficiently and puts customer service first. It would help to have a leader who has more credibility with his employees, too. When Webster sent a stern memo to staff last January (“I am becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC,” it began), Bob Kinnear, the operators’ union president, ate him alive.

The province, for its part, has to step up with operating funds. The TTC gets far too little public money—less than nearly any other system on the continent. This is where Metrolinx could help. With authority from Queen’s Park, the agency could levy road tolls or a region-wide gas tax and funnel a chunk of the revenue to Toronto.

The path to any form of privatization will take a few leaders who can articulate their intentions and then stare down the transit unions’ certain opposition. The TTC has received some 30,000 rider complaints in the past year. It’s fair to say the public—whose memories of last summer’s garbage strike are still fresh—is ready to rally around a reformist figure.

We could go big and split the service into several different (but seamless) zones and then tender them all at once, or play more cautiously, offering up new infrastructure projects, like those eight planned Transit City lines, for public-private partnerships. Managed right and run with a mandate to put public service first, we’d get a system that we could once again be proud of.

But first we’ll have to get over our par­alysis, because Toronto’s greatest fear about privatizing transit is that it will turn a system that was intended for the public good into one that’s run to benefit only a few. The thing we’re so afraid of is what we’ve already got.