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What we learned from the New Yorker’s profile of Andy Byford

What we learned from the New Yorker ’s profile of Andy Byford
Photo by George Pimentel

Andy Byford, the former CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, left town in December to take a new job as head of the New York City Transit Authority, placing him in charge of the largest and most deeply troubled public transit system in North America. For a guy like Byford, who made his name in Toronto as the highly visible face of the TTC, this is the big time—a chance to export his carefully cultivated brand of humility and technocratic competence to a much bigger market. Now, barely six months into his gig, Byford has achieved one of the ultimate signifiers of American-style legitimacy: he has been profiled in the New Yorker. The story, by longtime staff writer William Finnegan, is full of new anecdotes about Andy’s time south of the border. Here’s what we learned.

His legend has grown

The general consensus among transit watchers in Toronto is that Andy Byford did a good job here. He worked hard to instil an ethos of customer service and accountability at every level of the TTC’s organization, and he pushed for necessary improvements to the city’s transit network, including the installation of new automatic train signals that will smooth subway travel for generations to come. But if your only source of information about his time in Toronto is this New Yorker article, you might get the impression that he completely revolutionized public transportation. “His last stop before New York was Toronto,” writes Finnegan, “where, by nearly all accounts, he turned around a troubled transit system with spectacular results.” If Byford had the near-wizardlike powers attributed to him here and elsewhere in the piece, he probably would have used them to fix Bombardier’s streetcar supply chain.

He mixes business and pleasure

The New Yorker has discovered that Byford’s commitment to public transit runs very deep indeed. According to Finnegan, his engagement to his wife, Alison, started when he “proposed to her on a high-speed train.”

He’s not on speaking terms with de Blasio

The vagaries of New York City’s transit funding model, which divides financial responsibility between the city government and the New York state government, have pitted governor Andrew Cuomo against New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. The two men blame each other for the decrepitude of New York’s subway system. Byford has had some success at courting Cuomo, but the New Yorker reports that de Blasio remains aloof. “In other cities, mayors tend to be heavily involved in mass transit, even hysterical about its deficiencies,” Finnegan writes. “Not in New York. Byford has not heard from de Blasio since his arrival, in January.”

He’s dining out on his Rob Ford cred

In the past, Byford has good-naturedly griped about the Ford era at Toronto’s city hall—particularly Ford’s off-putting habit of calling Byford’s personal phone to complain about routine TTC service issues. The New Yorker quotes Byford telling a similar tale to a roomful of high-powered civic boosters in New York. “I’ve seen wacky politics before,” Byford said. “I walked into the Rob Ford—may he rest in peace—mess in Toronto.”

He thinks the toughest thing he did in Toronto was the Spadina subway extension

Byford told Finnegan that his single biggest challenge during his time at the TTC was completing what Finnegan refers to as “a subway extension.” Presumably he means the Spadina subway extension, which Byford led to completion just before moving to New York. The project was plagued by delays and budget overruns, but, under Byford’s leadership, it ended up opening to the public about two years later than originally promised—which isn’t bad, by Toronto public works standards.

NYC will soon know the pain of weekend signal-maintenance closures

During his time in Toronto, Byford mastered the art of the weekend subway closure. Although the frequent outages were (and are) annoying, Byford used his position as the face of the TTC to educate the public about why they were necessary. He appeared in YouTube videos, where he’d patiently explain the necessity for signal upgrades and other forms of track maintenance. Thanks in large part to the TTC’s public education campaign, ordinary riders came to understand that the TTC couldn’t just perform all its maintenance work after-hours. There was too much to be done. New York’s maintenance backlog is even more severe than Toronto’s, and Byford appears to be revving up for a similar publicity blitz. “The work simply cannot be done with trains running through the tunnels,” Byford told the New Yorker.

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