Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Short Circuit in the Electric Sewer

In a lot of cities, rapid transit isn't - at least, with my experience and expectations created by the Toronto Transit Commission's operations, that's how it often seems to me. On Toronto's three subway lines and the Scarborough RT, trains run so close together that if one's pulling out right as you hit the platform, you'll only have to wait 5-6 minutes for the next one. It's not often, in my experience, that the scheduling seriously breaks down. What I've come to realize is that this is unusual, as far as North American cities go. Though the rapid transit systems in Montreal, Chicago, and Los Angeles beat out Toronto in some respects, in my opinion none of them stand above the TTC in terms of this dedication to timely service.

The recent TTC fare increase is, in its way, emblematic of that. Adam Giambrone has stood firm against the prospect of service cuts to make up the budget hole, and in so doing, the TTC is one of the few major transit systems on the continent that's taken that option off the table. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is staring into a budgetary abyss, stemming from a $200-million shortfall in a recently-enacted transit payroll tax as well as reduced support from the New York state government. Yesterday the New York Times reported the shortfall as $383-million in spite of a 25-cent fare increase in May, a far more sobering amount than the expected $106-million gap the TTC hiked its fares to fill.

Ultimately, as it turns out, an extra twenty-five cents per ride doesn't seem to have been enough to stabilize the system, and the MTA has been forced to slash service in order to stay afloat. Two entire subway lines, the W and Z, will be cancelled - unlike in Toronto, where "line" and "track" are synonymous, in New York multiple subway lines can use the same track - while off-peak service would be reduced and discounted student fares would be eliminated. Its version of Wheel-Trans would be cut to the absolute minimum. The budget which would force these cancellations hasn't been passed yet - it goes before the MTA board tomorrow for approval - but this isn't the first time I've heard tidings of budget armageddon coming out of Manhattan, and the MTA only has so many saving throws against recession.

Cutting service is, fundamentally, a short-term solution that creates long-term problems. The usefulness of an urban transit system comes not just from its length but from its capacity for connections. One subway line may feed multiple bus routes, and the passengers that transfer off those buses filter through the system according to their individual needs. Service cuts inevitably break these connections, and the echo of a scissors' snip will be magnified as it resounds across the system. A frequent transit rider whose bus route is cancelled or chopped into an inconvenient schedule may well find it easier, if not cheaper, to drive and find their own route on their own merits.

A certain level of complexity is necessary, I think, for a truly functional and reliable transit system. Sufficient service grants the system a robustness that would allow it to weather damage and continue functioning. For example, I feel that the Downtown Relief Line should be a far more immediate project for the TTC than the current Transit City system. Not only would the new subway line spur new ridership, by extending higher-order transit service to areas of the city that currently lack it, it would give the system resiliency. A DRL that reached north to Eglinton Avenue would have been invaluable last month, when an accidental tunnel breach shut down a four-station section of track that left tens of thousands of commuters in the cold.

While it may be necessary in the short term, a transit agency cutting service in order to survive runs the risk of cannibalizing itself - service cuts decrease the connections of the system, which drive potential passengers away, and if enough are driven away farebox revenue is insufficient to sustain the system, which in the absence of government assistance necessitates further fare increases or service cuts - in much the same way as the protagonist of Stephen King's Survivor Type. Though I hope that the MTA can come out of this pit as soon as possible, I'm thankful that the TTC is so far refusing to consider the kind of drastic measures that could lead to another lost decade for transit in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. Transit systems in Europe and overseas generally seem to be better even than Toronto at keeping to the schedule - I've had good experiences in Paris and Singapore, and a not-distasteful experience in London.

    The funding crunch that transit systems are facing sends a message (at least to me) that governments at all levels are not nearly as serious about being "green" as they claim to be - obviously, encouraging improved mass transit is a very easy way to cut carbon emissions, as well as reducing congestion and wear-and-tear on city streets.