It’s more buses or bust

Mayor John Torys announcement around increased bus and streetcar service last week is likely one of the four largest single-year.


Mayor John Torys announcement around increased bus and streetcar service last week is likely one of the four largest single-year increases in service in the TTCs 90-plus year history. After four years of cuts and funding freezes under Rob Ford, this was a welcome bit of good news for riders, although the effects for some wont begin to be felt for some months.

Torys announcement is an acknowledgement that more needs to be done to improve transit immediately verses the time frame of years for any subway or LRT project that may or may not happen.

But in order for the changes announced by Tory to be truly transformational the TTC will not only have to live up to its promise to better manage service, it will need to plan to add much more peak hour service in 2016. And as a result, riders will have to come to expect moderate yearly fare increases.

Low-income passes could be considered for those least able to pay, although funding for these should come through other budgets and not the pockets of transit riders. But freezing fares would quickly drain the pool of money for the promised buses needed under Tory’s plan, especially without increases in transit funding from the province or feds.

Past studies have quoted some 70 per cent of transit riders as saying they can afford to buy a car, which suggests a certain level of disposable income.

Having said that, it might have made more sense for the mayor and TTC to raise fares across the board than hit regular Metropass users, the TTCs most loyal customers with the highest increases. These riders will not likely not understand the logic of their passes going up by 5.7 per cent verses the 3.7 per cent hike for token users and zero increase for the small proportion (eight to12 per cent) of TTC riders who pay cash.

To those who say that riders already pay enough, it should be noted that fares at the regional transit agencies like York Region are the same or higher. And new increases in NYC, bring their fares (although the cost of passes are lower) to similar levels seen in large cities in Europe like Berlin and London.

At the end of day, riders will grumble but accept higher fares if service levels continue to improve.

But for the mayor to realize further improvements in crowding conditions beyond this year, more buses will be needed. And here’s where things get tricky.

Its 2014 fleet plans suggest the TTC intends to retire some 350 buses, maybe as many as 400 during this term of council, while buying 400 replacement buses. This is while ridership is expected to rise to close to 600 million, from the current 540 million, which means there will be few buses left to deploy to increase rush hour service with buses already promised to cover the increased express service promised under Tory’s plan.

The purchase of the hundreds of new buses will require tens of millions in new capital funding which, with all the other transit and city projects, will be hard to find.

With capital dollars tight, the TTC will need to consider rebuilding older buses in its current fleet (like its recent decision to do a limited rebuilding of 30 of its streetcars) to meet Tory’s services commitments.

The TTC has resorted to this tactic at least three times in the last two decades to respond to funding shortages. The most recent life extension of 28-year-old buses, cost around $70,000 per bus (although some needed much more work) and this turned out to be a faster and cheaper way of getting needed buses into service quickly.

But that issue is complicated by the fact that hybrid buses purchased by the TTC as a requirement of federal funding are failing, lasting less than 10 years in many cases, or half the expected ages of regular buses in the TTC fleet.

Some cities like Ottawa or New York have experimented with conversion of hybrid buses to clean diesel, which costs well below replacing buses altogether. Just after 2000, the TTC replaced Condensed Natural Gas engines with clean diesel in about 100 buses and some of those remained on the streets for another decade. It’s time to seriously consider following suit.

Tory’s announcement was about as good as any that could have been made.

But in the longrun, finding a solution to the bus shortage and rush-hour crowding beyond this year is what’s needed to effectively serve the transit riding population, which continues to grow and would grow even faster if more space on transit vehicles were available.

Reduced crowding and wait times in the off-peak hours (when buses are available)

Limited new rush-hour service on 21 of the busiest routes starting in November or December when 50 new buses are delivered

Expansion of the express bus network, adding four new routes to a network that serves 34 million rides annually

12 new Blue Night (1:30am to 6 am) bus routes

Restore all-day, everyday bus service the city and TTC cut in 2011

Provide ten-minute or better bus and streetcar service on key routes Mondays to Fridays.

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