Ding Ding Ding…!

My friend and former NetGainer, Darryl Moyers, delights in solving problems.    We were trading war stories, ranging from the court system to the performing arts, before the subject turned to transit.

“Here’s one,” he said, “You’ll love this.”

Trying to get to work, on a deadly cold winter morning, he became stuck in one of five streetcars lined up at a College Street intersection.  They were trapped by a frozen track switch, which a crew of TTC workers had gathered to fix.   After about 20 minutes, a guy with a steaming bucket  came  through the gathered workers and splashed hot water on the track.  They pried the  thawed switch into the right position with a iron bar and were ready to go again.

While they were waiting for the man with the bucket, there were undoubtedly small crowds gathering at each of the many stops further along the route.  It was rush hour after all.

There was a TTC supervisor on the scene, distinguished by his maroon jacket, doorman’s cap, and notebook .  Once he was certain that the bucket of water had done its magic, he turned to signal the streetcar drivers.

“Now, service–wise, what would you do if you were him?” asked Darryl.  “What would you do?”

I thought about it for a minute.  The challenge is obviously to pick up as many people, as quickly as possible, at all the stops where they’ve been accumulating since the switch had frozen.  It’s a matter of re-establishing the optimal pace and spacing of streetcars.

So I suggested sending the first car empty to the fifth stop, the second to the fourth stop, the third to the third stop, the fourth to the second stop, and the fifth to the first stop ahead of the intersection where they’d been halted.  That way, the first car wouldn’t delay the four behind it every time it stopped to pick up passengers, and at least five loads of people would be evenly distributed among the five cars, instead of the first one jamming to capacity before the second one starts to fill.

Depending on how many stops, how closely they’re spaced, the number of waiting passengers, traffic congestion, and other factors, it might have been wiser to spread the cars over 10 or 15 stops instead of five. There is undoubtedly a formula for solving this problem that the TTC has evolved over its many years of streetcar operation.  The organization must have dealt with this kind of service interruption thousands of times before, and must have an adaptable procedure for quickly reaching all the stranded passengers along their routes when the streetcars start rolling again.   Maybe my idea wasn’t the best one, but it was the only response that made sense to me.

Darryl nodded in agreement with my suggestion.

“But guess what they did?”  I could tell there wasn’t a better idea coming.

“They sent them all at once?” I replied, doubtfully.

“Exactly!” he said, windmilling his arms in imitation of the supervisor.  “Go, go, go, go!” he yelled.

The way he told it was funny.  His exuberance made it impossible not to laugh.

A few days later, I saw needlessly bunched up streetcars from a passenger perspective, and it wasn’t nearly as funny.  I’d seen this many times before, but Darryl had me thinking differently about it now.

I wanted to travel west on King Street.  I used the TTC’s phone app to see when the next car would come.  In seconds it advised me that there were none coming for about 15 minutes, but then three would come in six minutes, the second just four minutes after the first, and the next coming just two minutes after the second.

This was a Saturday evening.  There was no rush hour traffic.  The weather was fine.  Yet these cars were scheduled on intervals of 15, 4, and 2 minutes.  I chose to walk, and covered the 1.7  kilometers to University Avenue before the first of the three streetcars overtook me.  Two more pulled up in rapid succession as I descended the subway stairs.  Keep in mind that this is the TTC’s most heavily used streetcar line, and that I had outpaced the system for 20 minutes more.

Every regular streetcar rider has seen this.  After waiting too long, not one but two, three, or four streetcars come trundling along to your stop, sometimes separated by a car or two, but often not.  The front car stops to pick up passengers, even though it’s already overloaded.  The subsequent cars are nearly empty and are delayed by the loading and unloading of the lead car.

I’d always believed that this was a consequence of traffic congestion.  Streetcars are frequently cut off by lane-changers and forced to wait for left-turning motorists.  If a streetcar is impeded frequently enough, it might be overtaken by the ones behind it, right?

The more I think about it, the less sense that makes.  Why wouldn’t the second, third, and fourth streetcars be impeded to the same degree as the first, maintaining the spacing intended by their schedulers?

I’m no transit hater, but I’m beginning to suspect that the TTC doesn’t have good data or formulas for pacing and spacing their streetcars.  There seems to be an institutional tolerance of long wait times and useless bunching of vehicles that riders shouldn’t have to tolerate.

That’s another way of saying the TTC hasn’t put the passenger’s interests first.  If, after decades of streetcar operation, it’s still acceptable to leave people waiting for long intervals in bad weather, when there are enough vehicles on the route to shorten wait times, there’s something profoundly wrong.

This habit of mind, this procrastination about soluble problems, is evident in other ways.  Every rider has their own examples, no matter which transit mode they rely on.

How about spontaneous “short turning,” when everyone is put off the street car to wait for the next one?  The driver is called off the scheduled route, and politely orders everyone to get out.  The passengers all stare uncomprehendingly at the ceiling loudspeaker, and then at each other, muttering incredulously as they disembark to stand at the roadside wondering whether to wait or start walking.

A February 12th tweet from Joshua Hind (@joshuahind) captures this commonplace occurrence perfectly:  “If Toronto had a signature sound, it would be the collective groan heard when a streetcar driver announces he’s short-turning.”  So you see, it’s not just clustering that drives people crazy and it’s not just me who thinks these are pervasive problems.

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Somehow, someone at TTC headquarters believes that this time-honoured practice, like streetcar bunching, is a tolerable part of the passenger’s experience.  In reality, it’s just another  inconvenience that discourages transit use.

While working on a project for the City years ago, I had occasion to interview TTC executives about delays and difficulties in the development of real estate around their stations.  I was asking specifically about the stalled redevelopment of bus yard at Eglinton Station, which the TTC had decommissioned for a development that never materialized.  What I heard was astonishing.  One executive told me that he didn’t want outside real estate experts trying to help unstick the development process.  “After all,” he said, “we’re the only ones who know how to run a railroad.”

Maybe that’s what’s at the core of the TTC’s performance problems.  On some level they still think that the management of signals, rails, and rolling stock is their prime consideration when they should be designing and delivering services to meet the needs of its riders and the City as a whole.

The Eglinton bus yard was decommissioned in 2004 and it’s unlikely that anything permanent will be built before 2020.  The TTC  finally stepped aside to let Build Toronto manage the development about 18 months ago.  Commuters have been inconvenienced for a decade.  Some residents have been evicted from an adjoining side street.  The empty, fenced, weedy site has been an irritating eyesore for a decade so far.  The TTC protected its turf, while obsessing about real estate and finance, without factoring in the misery it was causing the people who were affected by  its ill-conceived plan.  Even if the trains ran on time for that decade – and they didn’t – was this any way to run a railroad?

My point is that the usual excuses don’t explain some of the TTC’s more persistent problems.   Reductions in provincial funding, backlogged capital repairs, and growing passenger volumes have no bearing on them.   Think again of the supervisor checking his walkie-talkie and windmilling his arms to start a chain of five cars at rush hour.  Ask yourself what if anything it would have cost to have evolved a more logical procedure for these frequent service disruptions.

The TTC recently celebrated its billionth rider.  That’s a huge accomplishment, yet I wonder what the organization has learned about its customers and their needs over the course of its first billion transactions.

My guess is that they haven’t learned enough.  Their reports and plans tend to count bodies like they’re in a war, but what do they know about the lives of their customers and well they feel served by the TTC?  Maybe they’ve got better data and analyses than we can see, but it’s not evident in the assumptions about how to treat people.

While everyone in municipal and provincial politics rages about the need for massive investments in transit, and while candidates debate how to raise billions of dollars to fund their schemes, I wish the TTC would optimize the resources already in hand.  No matter what the organization claims, streetcar bunching is a waste of labour, equipment, time, and energy that can be reduced if the organization put the rider’s experience ahead of other considerations.  And this is only one of many curious organizational behaviors that transit-dependent Torontonians are forced to tolerate.

All the mayoral candidates have made transit a spending priority, even the incumbent, who effectively prevented expansion of the system for the past three years.  They all have 10-digit budgets in mind for their suburban extensions and downtown relief lines.  With this consensus, it’s almost certain the City and the Province will find a way to make the system bigger.

But will it be better?  With everyone campaigning for new transit funding, no one is looking critically at the deficiencies of the existing system, some of which have nothing to do with money.

It’s simply not good enough.  While we plan for new investments in transit, the corporate culture at the TTC may need to undergo some changes before it’s entrusted with billions of dollars in new infrastructure and equipment.

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