Who broke the TTC? Inside Toronto's public transit disaster

Who Broke the TTC?

Toronto used to have one of the best transit systems in North America. Now it’s overcrowded, underfunded, unreliable and dangerous. The inside story of what went wrong and who’s to blame

By Stephen Spencer Davis
| July 6, 2023

Toronto’s transit system is a mess. In the past year, fares have increased, service has decreased and wait times have ballooned. A staff report from late 2022 showed that the Toronto Transit Commission’s bus and streetcar routes were particularly migraine-inducing. About two-thirds of riders were routinely getting stuck on vehicles that were either chronically late or mired in construction. A lucky 14 per cent rode routes that were classified as on-time. The rest were what the TTC calls “on the cusp,” meaning that they were mostly punctual, most of the time. Major projects are habitually completed years late and millions over budget. And then there’s the rise in violence throughout the system, the half-measured response to it and how both have combined to turn people away from public transit.

The city’s current transit woes are the culmination of decades of inertia, political meddling and bad management. The problems now vexing the TTC, and public transit more broadly, arrived neither suddenly nor without warning. They were allowed—and, in some cases, encouraged—to happen. Today, the whole system is sorely underfunded, neglected and saddled with leaders who often act only when sufficiently embarrassed. Worse still, nobody seems to have a viable plan to make it any better. Here’s an inside look at everything wrong with Toronto transit and who’s to blame.


Problem 1: The farebox funding model is a nonsensical, unreliable mess

The players: Mike Harris, Kathleen Wynne, John Tory

In June 1995, Mike Harris was elected as Ontario’s premier on a radical, fiscally conservative platform he called the Common Sense Revolution. Within months, he slashed provincial funding to two major TTC capital projects, effectively skewering the already-in-progress Eglinton West line. Then, a few years later, he pounced again, this time eliminating the province’s annual contribution to the TTC’s operational funding, which accounted for about 16 per cent of the overall budget. The cost-cutting move had disastrous ripple effects, which continue to destabilize the TTC. Suddenly, the city was scrambling to recoup millions in lost subsidies. It couldn’t—then or now.

Today, in the absence of provincial and federal contributions, riders have been left to shoulder the financial burden of running the system via fares. It makes for a wildly unstable funding model and one that’s unique among urban transit systems: Chicago, New York and Shanghai, for example, all receive either state or federal funding (and sometimes both). The TTC, on the other hand, brags about being North America’s least-­subsidized transit network.

It shouldn’t be a flex. The farebox funding model has left the TTC vulnerable to dips in ridership, creating a death spiral in which, time and again, lower ridership results in worse service, slower commutes and overcrowded vehicles—all of which, in turn, leads to more riders abandoning the TTC, sending the system deeper into the hole and provoking further underinvestment. The pandemic didn’t help: in the early months of lockdown, ridership fell by 85 per cent, drastically curtailing revenue.

This year, the TTC’s operating budget is $2.38 billion—with fares and city funding equally contributing the lion’s share—and it still isn’t nearly enough. In late February, the TTC announced service cuts to more than 30 routes across the city. Some bus routes lost service during certain times of day; some on weekends. Others were suspended indefinitely. Another round of cuts came in early May, this time decreasing service on the Yonge–­University subway line, the city’s busiest.

A graph of Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) fare hikes between 1921 and 2023

The TTC also lacks the funding to secure its future. In 2019, the agency released a report revealing that nearly $24 billion in capital spending—necessary to keep it functioning over the next 15 years—was unfunded. Neglecting capital investment means that the TTC can’t purchase needed vehicles, improve accessibility and safety, or maintain a state of good repair. Such is the case with the aging fleet of trains on the Bloor–Danforth line. The agency projected that it could run the line until 2027 with the old trains, after which it would need to gradually retire the fleet by 2033. Expanding the line requires even more new trains. Without additional funding from the provincial or federal governments, the TTC plans to divert more than $1.5 billion—money that could be spent modernizing the Bloor–­Danforth line—to keep its current trains running. Either way, riders lose.

Leaders of all political stripes have advocated for consistent, reliable funding from higher levels of government for the TTC, to no avail. Instead, funding has been piecemeal, usually tied to specific projects and, more recently, to pandemic relief, not the long-term financial strength of the system. Yet, without better, consistent funding, even the most exciting transit projects become a burden.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2008, voters in Los Angeles County approved a half-cent sales tax increase to generate billions for transit expansion. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is supported by a property transfer tax, a tax on petroleum businesses and tolls—the latter of which then-premier Kathleen Wynne rejected in 2017. Likewise, John Tory was typically opposed to raising property taxes during his mayoralty despite the obviously dire state of the TTC. The agency’s financial situation is poor because politicians have either engineered this state of affairs, supported it or tolerated it. But they haven’t done much to fix it.


Problem 2: Politicians are good at grandstanding and bad at transit planning

The players: David Miller, Rob Ford, John Tory, Karen Stintz

The city’s past three mayors have each proposed transformative transit projects, none of which ever reached anything close to completion. In 2007, David Miller and then–TTC chair Adam Giambrone announced Transit City, a network of light-rail lines on major thorough­fares, including Eglinton, Finch West and Sheppard East. The plan was practical. Engineering and environmental studies were well underway when the 2010 mayoral election campaign began. Positioning himself as the polar opposite of the left-leaning Miller, Rob Ford put forth a plan that would undo Transit City. His proposal had all the hallmarks of a campaign-­trail bid: an impossible timeline, dubious financials and a ­Manichaean world view: streetcars bad, cars and subways good.

Ford promised to extend the Sheppard line to Scarborough Town Centre and replace the Scarborough RT with a subway in time for the 2015 Pan American Games. And he vowed to do it all without implementing new taxes or tolls. To Ford and his supporters, Miller represented downtown thinking, and Ford was for the burbs. It hardly mattered that the light-rail line would service 47,000 riders compared with the subway’s 24,000—or that becoming a subway champion meant arguing that light-rail would wreak havoc on traffic (despite the fact that it would run in its own dedicated lanes).

The branding ploy worked: Ford cruised to an easy victory. On his first day in office, he cancelled Transit City. It took many months and more political manoeuvring, particularly by then–TTC chair (and eventual mayoral hopeful) Karen Stintz, for the plan to rise from the dead. In early 2012, councillors voted to resurrect light-rail lines on Finch and in the current Scarborough RT corridor. It was a big win for Ford’s political opponents, but also one that landed the city roughly back where it was the day before Ford took office.

Overcrowding and delays on the TTC subway
The TTC records an annual average of 20,000 subway delays. Photo by Getty Images

The transit plan that carried John Tory into office in 2014 used the same ingredients as Ford’s scheme: an impossible timeline, an emphasis on technology and a promise of no new taxes. Because Ford had created an environment in which anything other than a subway was an insult to taxpayers, Tory adopted a useful misnomer: “a surface subway.” He outlined a 53-kilometre rail network that would run mainly on existing above-ground tracks, using a mix of both new stations and pre-existing stops, including at Union and Dundas West. He branded the line SmartTrack. He promised that the $8-billion project would pay for itself and said he’d complete it in seven years. He also falsely claimed that Olivia Chow’s downtown relief subway line, by contrast, would take 17 years. Tory won the election easily, with Chow a distant third.

The issues with SmartTrack, clear to insiders and experts during the election, became more obvious during Tory’s first term. “I don’t think there was a single person who didn’t think it was a boondoggle,” former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat told me. Faced with SmartTrack, she said, city staff—who normally put in hundreds of hours of careful planning and analysis—“had to try to figure out a way to put some lipstick on the pig.” The western stretch of the line would be a technical nightmare to build, forcing vehicles to make impossibly tight turns and likely requiring tunnelling. Critics pointed out that Union Station probably couldn’t accommodate the extra riders. As for the number of new stations, former TTC CEO Andy Byford characterized it to me, with understated diplomacy, as “optimistic.”

Related: The dashed transit plans of Toronto’s past four mayors

Tory brushed off the criticism, but his years in office would tell the tale. In 2016, the problematic western portion of the plan instead became part of the (similarly problematic) Eglinton Crosstown LRT. At the same time, the number of new stations was reduced from 22 to six (and, later, five). Tory planned to run SmartTrack through Union Station as a separate service, but this would have required an additional two platforms, infrastructure that the station couldn’t accommodate. It’s now been two years since the promised opening date for SmartTrack flew by. The new opening date is in 2029, and the city has nearly $1.5 billion tied up in the beleaguered project. If Ford threw out work that had already been created and paid for, Tory created work where arguably none was necessary. The province is increasing GO service, promising all-day two-way travel at 15-minute intervals on several lines, all of which will overlap with Tory’s plan. It’s most of SmartTrack without the branding.

Modest changes that are affordable and fast—and may actually improve the transit experience—often get no traction at city hall. As the recent election underscored, no serious candidate for mayor can win, or even compete, without a grand transit plan that taps in to voters’ frustrations. Josh Matlow’s Scarborough Moves plan promised a network of light-rail lines and a busway. Olivia Chow also targeted Scarborough, promising a dedicated busway. Mitzie Hunter said she’d revive plans for the Sheppard East subway extension and push it west. Mark Saunders hinted at axing both bike lanes and the priority streetcar corridor on King Street and launched his transit plan, which was focused on accelerating existing projects, in June. Political meddling may help careers, but it leads to less, worse or more expensive transit—and sometimes all three.


Problem 3: Long-term planning is uninspired at best and non-existent at worst

The players: Pretty much everyone

In September 1921, when the TTC was established, the city strived to build a world-class system—one that would match the ambitious pace of the growing city. The agency spent big bucks installing 185 kilometres of streetcar tracks and purchasing hundreds of modern steel streetcars. Next came a fleet of buses, stretching across nine expansive lines. In 1954, Toronto opened Canada’s first subway line to considerable fanfare, with thousands crowding the streets to take their first ride. Over half a century later, the TTC and the city both seem too burdened with the daily work of running (and funding) the system to enact any forward-thinking improvements.

Some projects are particularly disappointing—largely because they were once so promising. The 504 King streetcar, which runs from Dundas West to Broadview stations, is the TTC’s busiest surface route. It’s also a long-time source of frustration for the agency. As far back as 2001, the TTC warned that vehicles were sometimes so full that they had to turn people away. In an attempt to alleviate this, the TTC unsuccessfully proposed a small experiment in 2001, and then again in 2007, that would give streetcars the right of way on four or five city blocks. In 2017, Jennifer Keesmaat tried again. This time, council green-lit it as a one-year, $1.5-­million pilot project between Bathurst and Jarvis. The new corridor rules significantly reduced traffic, freeing up the roadway for streetcars. A city analysis later showed that the modest intervention had improved reliability and that streetcar travel times had dropped by several minutes during afternoon rush hour. Ridership increased by 20 per cent during morning peak hours. The priority corridor became permanent in April 2019.

The salaries of TTC leadership and executives, including CEO Rick Leary

Eric Miller is the director of the Mobility Network at the University of Toronto. When the King Street priority corridor launched, he viewed it as “one little bright light” for a city and transit agency prone to cautious, conservative thinking. Since then, it’s become a faded blueprint for an incomplete project. The painted barriers meant to protect pedestrians are flaking, battered and, in some cases, missing. That infrastructure, which was meant to be temporary, was never upgraded. Over the duration of the pilot project, police issued 9,787 tickets to drivers who flouted the rules. Since then, reports have shown that motorists regularly ignore the traffic rules along the King corridor and go largely unpunished. Calls for cameras have gone unanswered. The project could have been a model for innovative thinking. Instead, it’s become another example of a forgotten plan.

The city’s surface network is particularly prone to short-sighted thinking. A persistent issue with buses is bunching, when one delayed vehicle throws off the whole ­schedule, making subsequent buses arrive in quick succession. This leaves the first vehicle packed and the others nearly empty. The TTC has suggested more bus-only lanes as a potential fix. Its first, beginning on Eglinton East and running 8.5 kilo­metres to Ellesmere Road, opened in October 2020. It’s been a success. Travel times on the dedicated lane were as fast in 2021 as they were in March 2020, when roads were virtually empty. That was partly because several stops along the route were removed, but if the city knows that a dedicated right of way works, it should apply the same approach elsewhere. Yet progress has been glacial. The city pledged to study potential changes to 20 bus and streetcar corridors—including a section of Queen, home to a notoriously crowded streetcar—over the next decade. But, currently, Jane Street is the only priority corridor under active review—and it has been, more or less, since 2007, with no improvements.

Related: How the TTC has failed to expand in every direction

A dedicated lane is not a revolutionary idea. Cities around the world use them to solve problems like bunching, overcrowding and route delays. Chicago laid down red priority bus lanes on three streets in 2019 alone. Buses on Los Angeles’s orange line run in a dedicated right of way that includes portions of an unused rail corridor. The line’s ridership skyrocketed in its first decade of use, jumping from 16,000 weekday boardings to more than 29,000. Ottawa has the Transitway, a rapid-transit bus network that opened in the ’80s and now includes 11 lines on bus-only lanes. These projects require little more than streaks of paint and maybe some cement. But Toronto moves slowly and—unless political glory is imminent—has shown itself to be stubbornly resistant to change and especially to anything that might irritate drivers.


Problem 4: Metrolinx is secretive and spineless

The players: Phil Verster, Steven Del Duca, Doug Ford, Caroline Mulroney

Bad decisions love secrecy, and both are abundant at Metrolinx. The sprawling Crown agency was formed in 2006 and now manages several major public transit projects across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Metrolinx has its hands in the Scarborough subway extension, the Ontario Line and the fiasco known as the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. It’s also responsible for running the GO network and the Union Pearson Express train as well as the Presto fare collection system. In theory, Metrolinx is the province’s sober-minded transit agency, at arm’s length from the political cynicism and pandering that lead to bad planning. It has its own executive team, led by president and CEO Phil Verster. This team answers to the agency’s board, which currently consists of 13 provincial appointees, governed by Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney. In practice, this set-up has bred some murky power dynamics, allowing Metrolinx to often run as a crude extension of the provincial government—vulnerable to the angling of politicians.

The problems at Metrolinx set in early. One auditor general’s report found that Metrolinx had failed to implement a performance-­management system for contractors in its first decade of operations, meaning it didn’t sufficiently track how well its contractors did their jobs or what they charged. One consequence of this lack of oversight was that the agency continued to award contracts to builders with crummy track records.

Related: Inside the $11-billion Ontario Line subway war

In 2009, one contractor’s workers didn’t show up to their project site for several weeks. Between 2009 and 2016, Metrolinx awarded that contractor 22 more projects, worth $90 million in total. After completing one of these subsequent projects, the very same contractor took six months to address several mistakes, including a missing surveillance system. In another case, Metrolinx terminated a contract with one company, still paid it almost the full amount and later re-hired it for another contract.

Such problems, despite intermittent attempts to resolve them, have persisted over the years, with millions of dollars wasted. Metrolinx often grants contracts without seeking the lowest price. In 2011, for example, it took over the Ministry of Transportation’s 2006 contract with Accenture to design the Presto system. It went on to repeatedly extend Accenture’s lucrative contract, increasing the scope of its involvement with Presto, all without undergoing the proper competitive tender process, until the contract’s final expiration date in 2022. Then, after briefly considering a competitive procurement process, it ultimately decided to rehire Accenture without one. By way of explanation, Metrolinx cited the company’s experience and expertise with the system. The latest $400-million contract is set to expire in 2025, despite criticism that Presto has failed to fulfill its ­promises—including tap-on “open payment” debit and credit card options for TTC vehicles—and that its total cost has made it one of the most-expensive fare card systems in the world.

Metrolinx leadership salaries Toronto Transit Commission public transit urban planning

This isn’t just a Presto problem. Accusations of poor and sometimes even shady decision-making have dogged Metrolinx and its leaders for years. In 2017, the Toronto Star revealed that then–minister of transportation Steven Del Duca had pressured Metrolinx to approve the Kirby GO station in Vaughan, his home riding, as well as the Lawrence East station in Scarborough, which would double as a SmartTrack station. This was despite the agency’s own analysis, which found that the stations would slow travel times on the network, potentially pushing riders off of public transit and into their cars. Still, the $100-­million Kirby GO station was given the green light and will become part of Metrolinx’s Barrie corridor. In fact, ­Ontario’s auditor general later discovered that the agency had responded to pressure from both the ministry and the city by enhancing the case for the Kirby and Lawrence East stations and downplaying its previous concerns. Metrolinx head Phil Verster himself has said that political meddling is all part of building transit: “Politics are always a part of transit decisions. Our role as transit specialists is to make sure we give good, fact-based advice to politicians. In the end, they must make the decisions.”

The truth of those decisions, however, is rarely made public—at least by Metrolinx. A former high-level Metrolinx employee told me that the Progressive Conservative government has the agency’s communications staff in a chokehold that has only tightened since the 2022 election. According to this source, the province prefers that agency statements be delivered “at the last second” and “couched in nothingness” and has forbidden Metrolinx staff from issuing fulsome public notices about potentially hot-button news, such as construction disruptions. As a result, the public gets little information on vital Metrolinx projects.

Related: This teenage urban-planning prodigy designed a fantasy map of the TTC

Case in point: the 25-stop, 19-kilometre Crosstown line, a project overseen and designed by Metrolinx, built by a consortium of private companies known together as Crosslinx Transit Solutions, and—if it ever opens—run by the TTC. The project was originally set for ­completion in 2020. After a decade of construction, multiple delays and a budget that’s at least $1 billion over initial estimates, that deadline was missed, and Metrolinx has refused to provide an updated timeline (though one Crosslinx representative has now said that the line won’t be open in 2023 either). Metrolinx announced the project’s further delay last September, the same day the Ford government released news about a provincial surplus. The timing, and the continued obfuscation around an actual opening date, was intentional: they wanted to offset the bad news with some good. “We knew a year ago that it wasn’t going to open by the end of 2022,” the source told me.

For months, Metrolinx stayed mum about the reasons behind the latest delay; Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney either declined to answer questions or outright ignored them. Finally, in April, Verster acknowledged the extent of the problems plaguing the Eglinton Crosstown. He said the project was riddled with 260 quality control issues, including improperly laid track, which could cause a derailment. Verster placed the blame on Crosslinx Transit Solutions and said that Metrolinx was using “every lever and every remedy” to get the consortium to deliver on time. The next month, Crosslinx fired back with a lawsuit that claimed the delays weren’t its fault and that its attempts to finish the project were hamstrung by never-ending, out-of-­control, late-stage demands from the TTC. Metrolinx, it added, shared the blame for supposedly failing to bind the TTC to a contract that would hold it to the terms of the project. Verster called the litigation a delay tactic and Crosslinx’s behaviour “disappointing.” Predictably, during their election campaigns, several mayoral candidates responded to the fiasco by calling for Verster’s firing.


Problem 5: Random acts of violence are at an all-time high

The players: John Tory, Rick Leary, Jon Burnside, Paul Ainslie, Stephen Holyday and Nick Mantas

The recent rise in violence on the TTC has coincided with a cascade of worsening crises, including those related to mental health, homelessness and affordability. As long as those problems go unaddressed, the transit system, like everywhere else in the city, will remain a pressure cooker. There were 245 violent incidents against riders in the last two months of 2022 alone, and annually, violent incidents increased by 46 per cent compared with 2021. The high number of attacks marked 2022 as the most violent year on record for the TTC—even with the pandemic significantly reducing the number of riders.

Related: “I was attacked at St. Clair station. The TTC never investigated the assault”

In response, TTC CEO Rick Leary emphasized all the shopworn solutions: security cameras, emergency alarms and the SafeTTC app. But things only seemed to get worse. In a single 48-hour period in January, both a teen boy and a woman were stabbed during their afternoon commutes. That month, Toronto police committed 80 officers to patrolling the transit system. John Tory and Rick Leary said they’d boost the number of special ­constables, promising to fill the organization’s 25 vacancies and hire an additional 25 new staff. In a nod to widespread criticism that more police wouldn’t solve the problem, Tory and Leary turned to the Streets to Homes Program, an outreach project that helps people who are experiencing homelessness find housing. At that point, 10 Streets to Homes workers were active throughout the TTC; Tory and Leary doubled their number. Another 50 security guards were hired and trained in mental health first aid, overdose prevention and non-violent crisis intervention. Tory called for a national summit on mental health, saying that the TTC’s woes had “no magic answer.”

Tragically, it was too little, too late. In March, the fear and grief peaked when 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes was stabbed, unprovoked, while waiting for the subway at Keele. More than 500 people attended the teen’s candlelight vigil, many of them strangers. Magalhaes’s mother, Andrea, later addressed the media, asking, “When is this going to stop—this senseless violence?” Police arrested 22-year-old Jordan O’Brien-Tobin and charged him with first-degree murder. At the time of his arrest, O’Brien-Tobin was on a probation order in connection with a sexual assault charge. His past was dotted with dozens of additional criminal charges. As more information about her son’s alleged murderer came to light, Andrea pleaded with the city to increase its investment in social services, especially ones that address physical and mental health. Meanwhile, riders felt increasingly unsafe: one-third of them said they’d started to avoid taking Toronto transit.

Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for Gabriel Magalhaes, a 16-year-old stabbing victim who was killed during a spike in TTC violence in March 2023.
Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for Gabriel Magalhaes. Photo by CP Images

Since its flurry of action in January, the TTC has slid back into inertia. More damningly, that action produced arguably tepid results. The extra policing cost roughly $1.7 million a month in overtime and lasted only until the end of winter, when funding ran out. Police chief Myron Demkiw called the operation successful, saying that it had helped decrease transit crime and boost arrests. Housing and mental health advocates, on the other hand, called it a heavy-handed response that targeted the city’s most marginalized people.

Few riders expect the TTC to single-handedly solve the problems that have contributed to increased violence, but the service’s emphasis on surveillance and prosecution indicate a frustrating focus on the wrong end of the issue—punishment rather than prevention. The city also deserves a large portion of the blame. In early February, Tory and members of council, including TTC chair Jon Burnside and commissioners Paul Ainslie, Stephen Holyday and Nick Mantas, voted against a staff recommendation to keep 24-hour warming centres open until April 15 (though council later backtracked, in part, dedicating funding to keep one centre in operation). A week later, they voted down a motion from new councillor Alejandra Bravo to fund respite spaces for people experiencing homelessness by diverting $900,000 from the billion-dollar police budget. Making a significant difference will require commitment and cooperation—from the TTC and all three levels of government—to alleviate the city’s concurrent crises. There may be no magic solutions, but the places to start could not be clearer.


This story appears in the July 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.

Clarification
July 21, 2023

A previous version of this story reported that Mark Saunders didn’t have a transit plan. In fact, he released one in June, and the article has been updated accordingly.

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