Thursday, December 28, 2006

Can the TTC reinvent itself?

Toronto ON - A Dr. Gridlock article on the web site offers some commentary on what ails the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and what could help solve the problem. Most of what follows in my commentary can be applied easily to any transit system, not just the TTC.

In the article, reporter Jeff Gray asks former Toronto budget chief, David Soknacki about what he thinks is wrong with the operation.

Soknacki's answer could fit just about any transit system in North America. An outmoded, monolithic, top-down organization that is too resistant to new ideas.

While I agree with Soknacki's assessment for the most part, I would add to it the following so that it works with the majority of public transit systems: Oblivious to their purpose. I say this simply because too many transit systems have lost touch with what transit is supposed to be. Moving people from point A to point B has lost its meaning as transit administrations across North America focus more on "style over substance" methods of operations.

Soknacki has a vision of dismantling the existing TTC and creating separate agencies for each mode of transport. Each mini-TTC would be overseen by an overarching regional body, aka an umbrella agency or mega agency. This type of set up, Soknacki believes, would allow for quicker adjustments to meet rider needs as well as coming up for new ideas in improving the service overall.

While Soknacki brings forth some valid points for breaking up the TTC into smaller pieces, I think he misses the fact that what he is suggesting is an even bigger bureaucratic monster. One that will further drain the already anemic transit funding coffers. The umbrella agency concept does work but it creates a larger overall paper pusher style of administration which increases the overall cost of providing service.

In Soknacki's vision, the mini-TTC's which are created would handle bus, rail and subway operations and would be able to respond quicker to ridership needs. Where the problem with this comes in is that you then need to wade through many more miles of red tape created by the paper pushing umbrella agency which ultimately will slow everything down.

Many transit systems are considering the umbrella agency method for public transit to try and salvage their failing transit systems. They are using a different reasoning than Soknacki uses however. Other systems see such an umbrella agency as a means to leverage more money out of the government rather than a means to improve operations.

Toronto's Mayor, David Miller, thinks Soknacki's idea would destroy public transit in Toronto. Mayor Miller thinks the problem strictly the lack of adequate funding.

The Mayor is partially correct but this is where Soknacki's earlier comments come into play. The TTC is too resistant to change. It is a lumbering and hungry beast rather than a lean, mean fighting machine.

Adequate funding is needed but the administration needs to trim the fat as well and streamline how the system runs. In many operations, there are too many managers with too little to do besides come up with new ways for the transit system to waste money. The focus should be on service, not bells and whistles like marketing the system and coming up with expensive capital projects. Unless the administration does its part, public transit will continue to go deeper into the fiscal black hole until it finally self-destructs from the ever increasing monetary waste and top heavy bureaucracy.

"It is a waste of time and energy to try to reinvent the TTC" states the Mayor.

Not exactly true. There is not one transit system in North America that can honestly claim to be running at top efficiently regardless of what efficiency ranking is awarded by a transit industry trade group. From how trips are assigned to eliminating duplicate or unneeded administration positions, the savings add up. The funding deficit at any transit system could probably be knocked down by 25 percent from just running an efficient operation which isn't top heavy. That requires reinventing yourself.

An important part of Soknacki's vision for the TTC is about expansion of the system. To expand a transit system without incurring massive costs, one only needs to look to how the Port Authority of Allegheny County did it during the 1970's and is summarized in an earlier article on Laurels & Lances. Simple things such as trimming a trip here and there, eliminating non-performing and duplicate routes, extending trip times by 10 minutes on some routes and using logic when assembling the route assignments allowed for more than enough resources to be freed up to be used for many new routes in Pittsburgh. In short, it involved going back to the basics of public transit. It's not rocket science nor doesn't cost millions of dollars as Mayor Miller suggests.

Soknacki's vision isn't the answer to the TTC's problems but neither is Miller's vision. Both of them miss the point that a large portion of the waste in the TTC is in the administration and how the system is managed. One wants to increase the overall administration while the other wants to leave it alone. No one wants to actually look at trimming the administration back.

Change is at the heart of Soknacki's vision for the TTC. It is something I have believed for years regarding public transit in general. Public transit needs to change how it thinks. While David Soknacki and I have different ideas on the changes that need to be made in transit, we both realize that the few with the ability to initiate the needed changes will step up and do it. My experiences with transit administrations across North America are that they don't want to change. To change how things are done disturbs the status quo.

What the TTC is facing is similar to what most every transit system in North America is facing. The solutions to helping to solve the problems are also similar for every system.

Public transit has lost its way and the simplest way to help it find the right track again is to go back to the basics of what transit was designed to be. Many of the problems will become manageable, if not eliminated, by doing so.

Now if only someone will bother to listen...

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