LORINC: Understanding how the TTC won North America’s top transit prize

When the TTC announced on Monday that it had won the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) award for outstanding achievement for 2017, many Toronto commuters and pundits had a kind of collective WTF moment, puzzling over the mystery of an Oscar conferred on a movie we all love to hate.

“A development that will raise eyebrows,” noted the Toronto Star’s Ben Spurr. “Is this some kind of joke?” The Sun fulminated rhetorically, adding that “it’s been a bad year for reality.”

“No one is saying it’s perfect,” responded TTC CEO Andy Byford, who hastened to point out that the system had “lost its way” since its last victory, back in 1986 – an observation that ignored a host of obvious achievements, like the 2003 ridership growth strategy and the execution of the TTC’s accessibility program.

As usual (and yesterday’s reaction was no exception), the TTC catches a great deal of flack that is properly directed at our elected officials. These are the folks who fail to invest in expanding a heavily-used system, shovel vast sums into hopeless projects, jack up fares to protect the delicate sensibilities of property taxpayers, and wantonly punish riders by forcing service cuts.

The politicians we send to City Hall (and Queen’s Park and Ottawa for that matter) are responsible for a lion’s share of the problems that generate all the grumbling about the TTC. And for that, we have only ourselves to blame.

Indeed, the APTA award, in some ways, sends a discrete signal, audible mainly to transit nerds, that the TTC runs a tight ship in spite of, well, everything.

Having said all that, what follows may sound like nit-picking.

My issue with the APTA’s prize is that it’s extremely difficult to figure out why, exactly, the TTC won. And against whom. And by which measures.

Strangely, the news of the prize came straight out of the TTC; the APTA didn’t formally announce it (still hasn’t). The association’s spokesperson, Virginia Miller, told me yesterday that they allow individual winners to reveal their victories at their own pace. Unlike most of the organizations that compile various city rankings, APTA doesn’t publish a list of the participating agencies, any kind of score sheet, nor a guide to its methodology for determining how the competitors are judged. In an age of open data and public sector transparency, the process is remarkably opaque.

Miller did share some details in an interview, however. The TTC’s award is for a category of transit agencies with at least 20 million trips per year (the TTC tops 500 million). That means 56 APTA member agencies are eligible, although she wouldn’t disclose which others submitted entries. The award is based on performance over a three-year period, from 2014 to 2016.

There are two categories of criteria – qualitative and quantitative. Under the former, Miller said, agencies are judged according to seemingly quantitative areas such as safety, operations, maintenance, customer service and financial management. The qualitative category also includes fields such as workforce development, minority and women participation, marketing, accessibility and community relations. Miller explained that for the latter, the TTC cited its partnerships with the National Ballet and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, as well as its handling of the 2015 Pan Am Games. The TTC submitted a description of how it moved people around during the 2015 Games but the APTA, she added, didn’t verify the data provided.

As for categories with actual metrics, the TTC scored well in cost-per-vehicle hour, chalking up a 2.1% drop over the three-year period. Another was “mileage between delays,” which saw the TTC record a 30% increase (also good). The APTA lauded the TTC for its five-year modernization plan and a decision to add 700 weekly hours to its night bus service, which, truth be told, is less an accomplishment than a reinstatement of a service that had been cut during the Rob Ford era.

Finally, Miller noted that the APTA’s prize also took into account the fact that the TTC’s subsidy, 89 cents per rider, is the lowest in North America.

Which brings me back to the strange politics of a prize like this.

The TTC’s management works hard to ensure that the agency is run cost effectively, but Byford & Co. don’t, of course, make the final decision about the level of subsidy per rider. That’s a political choice, which does bear the commission’s imprimatur but is ultimately the responsibility of city council and Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, who have studiously ignored long-standing calls to reinstate the Bill Davis-era subsidies (50% of the operating shortfall and 75% of capital outlays) that were on par with almost all other transit agencies in most large Western cities. (The current provincial operating subsidy has been nothing since Mike Harris declared transit to be an entirely local responsibility way back in 1996.)

In other words, the TTC’s shiny prize rests, in part, on a perverse incentive: the agency gets more points for starving itself.

Which begs this question: Does this award increase or decrease the political imperitive to invest in more and better transit for Toronto?

On the glass-is-half-full side, you might say that the APTA’s gold star tells politicians and the voters they answer to that the TTC is a tightly run operation, and thus worth investing in. But a cynic (!) might argue that the prize, in effect, takes the pressure off those same politicians, because North America’s largest transportation association is telling all and sundry that everything’s fine, nothing to look at here.

I’m inclined to opt for what’s behind curtain number two, especially because the APTA’s award is so wanting in the kind of transparency that would allow the public to make an informed decision about what this prize actually measures.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about Team Byford. They are doing a solid job under perennially crappy conditions. And who could blame them for trying to get a bit of love in a city that complains endlessly about its transit system?

Let’s just hope the APTA’s gold star doesn’t turn out to be a subtle double-edged sword, one that gives the transit haters out there – and you know who they are – just one more reason to perpetuate the thin trickle that’s been dribbling out of the funding taps for lo these many years.

photo by Thomas Hawk

3 comments

  1. It’s hard to understand why Toronto’s TTC Transit can be considered better than Montreal’s STM transit (for example).

  2. Haruki — It’s obviously not clear how the APTA came to their decisions, but there are obvious some reasons: more choices in transit options; more reliability or service (not kidding the stats prove it out), and greater amount of route coverage. If you were arguing which city had the better subway station design than you’d have a good argument to make on behalf of Montreal.

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