Friday, November 13, 2009

We Could Still Do Worse Than Ride the Rocket

It seems to me that over the past few years, the Toronto Transit Commission has developed a particular talent for attracting complaints. It may be that these grumblings were already around, but only achieved their current prominence in the public discourse after the 1990s cuts gutted service. A great many of them are, in my opinion, completely unfounded. Say what you will about the TTC, but if you're one of those people who thinks it's the worst transit system in the world, all you're doing is exposing the depth of your ignorance and the lengths to which you'll go to attack something you don't personally like.

The impending fare increase has been generating more complaints, and even a protest in the form of today's TTC riders' strike. The question I've never seen answered by opponents of the fare increase is this: if not a hike, what are you willing to give up? I think the most important thing to have and to retain in this situation is perspective. The TTC is a major transit system, but it's not the only major transit system, and we can learn a great deal through comparison. It was true back in March, when I looked at the potential service cuts and fare increases faced by New York City's MTA, and it's still true today.

The Chicago Transit Authority, which operates that city's 'L' rapid-transit system and an extensive bus network, is right now giving a lesson in what could have been. The recession has been hammering transit agencies across North America, Chicago's included, and I think the TTC is fortunate to have come through in the state it's in. Here, the TTC has been selling the fare increase as a necessity in order to maintain and expand current levels of service. Yesterday Chicago barely avoided fare increases of its own, but at no small cost.

Chicago's rapid transit network is considerably more extensive than Toronto's, a result of much of it having been built by multiple competing private companies in the great age of transit before the automobile came and ruined everything. One thing I did notice during my analysis of the system was the relative infrequency of trains - in the Loop, at least, this is moderated by the sheer number of lines that pass through it, but further out from downtown the situation is different. In Toronto, unless something is seriously wrong the longest you'll wait for a train is 5-6 minutes - and that's on off-peak hours on a Sunday. Chicago's frequencies rarely come close to equalling that, even in rush hour.

And now the waits are going to get even longer. The Chicago Tribune reported today that fares in Chicago will remain at their current $2.25 per ride rather than increasing to $2.50 for bus fare and $3.00 for rail and express bus fare, thanks to a $166-million infusion from the Illinois state government, but at the expense of layoffs and service cuts. Nine of the CTA's express bus routes will shortly be cancelled and service frequencies will be reduced on more than two-thirds of the city's bus routes as well as 'L' trains - to the extent that outside rush hours, frequencies will be reduced to every 20-30 minutes.

This might not be so bad if you're waiting in a comfortable subway station. If you've never been to Chicago, you might not realize that the 'L' has very few of those. It's called the 'L' because the vast majority of it is elevated. In a response to my Tunnel Visions: The Chicago 'L' post last month, Chicagolander Strannik commented on what it's like to wait for a train in the winter:

About as unpleasant as you make it sound. All elevated stations are equipped with heater lamps, but there is usually not enough lamps for everyone. During the winter, you often see clumps of people huddled around heat lamps while everybody else looks on jealously. Oftentimes, the heat lamps don't even function properly. Blue Line Irving Park 'L' station is particularly notorious for heat lamps that do absolutely jack to warm the riders. Some stations do have indoor spaces where you can wait for the train to arrive (they're colloquially known as the "waiting rooms"), but they are rare.

What's more, recall that $166-million from Springfield? It doesn't come for free. It is, in fact, a loan. The Tribune's Clout St blog outlines it - the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA as well as Metra and Pace, commuter rail and bus systems, is to pay off this loan at a rate of $15.3-million for the next two years, and $10-million a year until 2039. Even then, the CTA still has a $100-million deficit to solve.

The TTC has its problems, yes, but those problems are not structural. It's taken ten years for the system to climb back up from the lows of the 1990s, when provincial subsidies were removed and it was forced to reorganize and chop in order to survive. I still think the TTC is the better way, and I'll be riding it today.

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