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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A little history of the TTC’s web site

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Since we created the subway station buttons over two years ago we’ve come into contact with a lot of rail fans and people with a real passion to see the TTC succeed. One of our most vocal supporters is a former TTC management employee (who wants to remain nameless for the time being). Over time, he has given us advice on how to approach the TTC and helped us understand the mindset of the commission’s senior management.

He was delighted to see Spacing, Reading Toronto, Torontoist and BlogTO challenge the TTC to make their website accessible, useful, and informative. He sent along the letter below which should shed some much needed light into the history of the TTC’s website.

photo from Toronto Archives (in 1960): fonds 1567, series 0648, file 0107, id# 0014

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The TTC website was my baby: I recommended it, created it and built it, up to 2001 when my TTC tenure as a marketer ended (not an IT tech or web designer.)

I wanted to tell you how delighted I am with your championing a (long overdue) redesign of the TTC website , your successful challenge to TTC Chair Adam Giambrone (and his enthusiastic response) to accept public input into the redesign of the TTC website, and the outpouring of passionate responses on Spacing, Torontoist, readers.

As TTC CMO, I recommended the creation of the website to TTC CGM David Gunn in June 1997 during the Marketing & Public Affairs budget presentation. He approved it — without any funds to host the server. TTC IT declined to offer a server, feeling they had neither the web expertise nor budget to host the website, so I had to scramble to find a host.

Three organizations ultimately bid on hosting the website: (then the most popular Toronto website), (TTC info in Toronto books) and Metro (soon to be City of Toronto). After much discussion and thought an agreement with Metro was signed in late November, 1997 and the TTC website was up and running a little over a month late on January 1st, 1998. I was a mighty proud papa!

The TTC website grew from that humble January 1998 start to 1,000,000 hits/month Deember 1999; tripling to 3,000,000 hits/month nine months later (September 2000); before growing to the unimaginged 9,000,000 hits/month by the end of 2001 (this was in the days before pages views were the norm).

The TTC website was a huge success, despite limited financial resources and the skepticism of my boss, who as a career Tory politician/PR guy didn’t really understand marketing, nor see the website as a critical part of the marketing strategy “to offer TTC information anywhere, anyway, anytime” as a catalyst for the rider to take TTC trips.

Once the initial rush of starting the website was over, it was clear by late 1999 that the website needed better design, both to reinforce the TTC’s “Ride the Rocket… The Better Way” branding but also speed rider access to attractively designed and systematically, intutively organized information they needed to help make TTC trips “cheaper, faster and more convenient” than the competitor — the car.

There were several organizational roadblocks to implementing a redesign. First, my boss wasn’t sold on the internet, and wouldn’t approve funds to have our ad agency prepare a redesign, telling me a few weeks before Y2K, “Not to spend a lot of time on the internet, as I don’t believe in it!”

Secondly, the TTC’s “webmaster” was not a graphic designer but a two-year animation diploma grad of Seneca college — who did wonderful Java animations (including the subway 3-note chime that never worked on my home Mac!) And thirdly, when I took my inexpensive idea of having Design/IT students prepare a spec redesign of the website as a class project to (Metro, now City of) Toronto, they vetoed the idea saying they couldn’t vary the TTC content pages from the underlying Toronto website (blue frames—which is why the TTC home page is still an orphan to the TTC content pages underneath.)

My tenure ended in 2001, and so it seems did the internal spark for on-going evolution of the design of the TTC web site (monitoring the hits/page views as a guide to content and design). Imagine where the TTC website would be today if I’d been successful earlier in 2000 or if you’d issued your design challenger sooner? It’s probably true that “when the student is ready, the teacher will come!”

I think it was in November 2005’s Commission meeting that (then Commissioner) Adam Giambrone first publicly critiqued the dated design and poor functionality of the TTC website; expressing a desire for it to be radically redesigned. I was delighted and in February 2006 e-mailed Adam Giambrone some Google search links for “Good Website Design”/”Top Transit Websites.” They are very applicable to the current challenge:

1. Direction for Redesign: Principles to follow in redesigning a website from BBC’s Web guru’ company

2. What makes a great website.

3. World’s Greatest Websites. Unfortunately, I can’t find any transit examples…

4. Tri-Met’s website. Six language translations… Russian, Spanish, 4 Asian languages—Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese & Korean!

For those who have commented about the TTC’s Commission website, I’d also encourage them to visit Translink’s website which has all Board Agendas, Minutes and Reports in full as formatted .pdf’s unlike the TTC’s barren text partial reports.

I look forward to reading the community’s input to the TTC website redesign. To be successful I think Chair Giambrone has to grapple with who is best suited to manage the website on-going, and whether a Toronto-tied server will allow the TTC website the creative flexibility to evolve to a higher standard of (integrated) graphic design that is also more intuitive and functional for riders to access the information they seek.



  1. It is always stunning when I hear rumours about it — but freak show when it’s in print — about how set-in-their-ways TTC management are. How single-minded, how allergic to change, how near-baroque they are in their response to progress. I didn’t think the bureaucracy actually existed like this. I thought it was some made up thing, propaganda Thatcher would have dreamt up at 10 Downing to convince people why it was necessary to gut the civil service.

    How do people who, even back in 1999, who say they don’t believe in the internet, still have jobs? How has Canada, or Toronto, managed all these years with these people in charge? How can you make it into a high position and be so….backwards?
    Stunning, depressing. Stuff like this will turn me into a neo-Thatcherite. That would suck, but how to get rid of this cemented rot?

  2. both to reinforce the TTC’s “Ride the Rocket… The Better Way” branding

    You know, this is symptomatic of the problem with the TTC’s marketing. Pick one slogan. Don’t keep the old one from the 1980s then add the one from 1999. Choose *ONE*

    I’d also encourage them to visit Translink’s website which has all Board Agendas, Minutes and Reports in full as formatted .pdf’s

    Please, NO. PDFs are *NOT* fully accessible. Properly formatted HTML *is*.

  3. Why yes PDF’s are indeed fully accessible. Sure the Mac’s Preview program loads them at a reasonable speed (unlike any version of an Adobe product which shall remain nameless) but so do some PDF readers for Windows or Linux.

    Heck Safari (Mac) even loads them in the browser window.

    I would suggest either buying a Mac (or Linux, I suppose) or doing a quick and easy search for fast PDF readers for Windows or Linux.

    PDFs are *awesome* and should be appreciated even if Adobe hates their own format.

  4. Wednesday Keller, you need to learn what “accessible PDF” really means. Have you tried Googling? It’s the latest thing.
    In any event, this very useful posting at least confirms the fact that the Web site has never had adult supervision. Don’t send an animator to do an information architect’s job.

  5. Jakob Nielsen is one of the foremost authorities on website usability – that is, designing sites that make it easy for people to find the information they’re looking for. I think that’s the most important thing we all want from the TTC.

    Here’s his definitive piece on why PDFs are only good for pages intended for printing:

    PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption

  6. Nielsen is highly overrated, but his ability to turn overstated diktats into $50,000-a-day consulting projects is commendable. There *are* occasions when PDF for onscreen reading is fine, you know.

  7. The Nielsen article makes good points that are very relevant here. The new TTC site should avoid PDFs, except as a secondary option for documents that people might want to print. You wouldn’t believe the variety of problems that non-techy types (i.e. regular people) have with PDFs – I’ve watched the usability tests.

    The TTC site should be designed for a broad spectrum of users, including those with older browsers and slow connections. When you test websites with random groups of Internet users, you start to realize there are a lot more of them out there than we realize.

  8. But even if PDFs are only good for pages intended for printing, there are plenty of examples of potential TTC pages that I *want* to be easily printable. Schedules, for one. I want a timetable that I can print out and carry with me, maybe in my inside coat pocket. And I want to be able to print out Commission meeting reports that actually include all of the various figures and attachments (typically more figures). Right now both already *are* presented in HTML (albeit bad HTML especially for the schedules), but while they do have their usefulness, they’d be much more useful in a printable format. At the least, there’s nothing wrong with providing both.

  9. I hear you Brent – I agree that there’s nothing wrong with providing both.

  10. Are you guys from Spacing planning on posting about your meeting with the TTC regarding their site?