News / Toronto

TTC wins top award, but riders are still the ones losing out: Keenan

The American Public Transportation Association says the TTC is the best transit system in North America. The best? Number One? Really?

Crowds converged at Bay and Bloor station on the Yonge Line during yet another busy commute for those relying on the TTC.

Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star

Crowds converged at Bay and Bloor station on the Yonge Line during yet another busy commute for those relying on the TTC.

It should be clear by now that in the world of handing out awards, “best” can often mean something different than most of us understand it to mean.

Just look at the history of the highest-profile awards. At the Oscars, How Green Was my Valley beat Citizen Kane for best picture in 1941, Dances With Wolves won over Goodfellas in 1990, and Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction in 1995.

At the Grammy Awards, an upstart group called Milli Vanilli won “best new artist” in 1989. And that’s without even getting into the era in which Kanye West might rush the stage to point out injustices.

Stupid is as stupid does, as one inane “best picture” title character was fond of saying. And award-winners have certainly won an award — but whether they 'merit' one, perhaps, is a separate conversation.

So: the TTC is the best transit system in North America over the past year, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

At a press conference announcing the award Monday morning, TTC CEO Andy Byford said the award shows Toronto’s transit system is “back where we belong as number one in North America.”

To which hundreds of thousands of Toronto commuters might shake their heads and ask, “number one at what?”

I like Andy Byford — I think he has made dramatic improvements to the TTC’s customer service and management in his roughly five years heading the agency.

I think it will be a shame if, as is rumoured around city hall and as he has not denied, he leaves at the end of his contract later this year because he’s fed up with trying to manage an agency in the chaotic and skinflint political conditions that have long prevailed in Toronto.

I think if you’re in his position, and someone hands your organization a big award, you smile and accept it and take a moment to brag about your success. I don’t want to pick on Byford.

But come on.

Let us review, in part, TTC headlines from 2016 and 2017: a summer of failing air conditioning on the Bloor subway line left passengers trapped in underground sweatboxes; ridership failed to meet expectations; fare collection machines across the system widely failed to be in service; fares continued to rise (up more than 35 per cent in the decade since 2007); the delivery of new streetcars remains years behind schedule and existing streetcars have failed in adverse weather conditions — and some streetcar lines have been completely out of service for months at a time for repairs. The Yonge subway line is over capacity. The Bloor subway line is over capacity. The King and Queen streetcar lines are over capacity. Earlier this year, bus service on some lines was cut in the shivering cold of winter due to a lack of vehicles.

The Yonge street TTC subway line was closed during the morning rush from Bloor Street to St. Andrews following a mysterious chemical spill at College station in March 2015.

Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

The Yonge street TTC subway line was closed during the morning rush from Bloor Street to St. Andrews following a mysterious chemical spill at College station in March 2015.

I know TTC managers and executives bristle when this parade of customer complaints is rolled out. Last year, TTC chair Josh Colle took to the pages of the Toronto Star to complain about whiny critics who fail to recognize how hard and well TTC staff work to provide service while managing the lowest level of government funding among major transit systems in North America.

And while I remain a whiny critic, I agree with him that the efficiency of our transit system — the number of passengers it manages to carry despite low funding and a relatively small track network of high-order vehicles — is underappreciated.

I mean, there are awards I could see giving the TTC. As a kid, I won a hockey award for “Most Improved Player” on my team that I (and all my teammates, I think) understood to mean I was not very good at the sport at all, but was obviously putting in a lot of effort and practice to get less bad at it. Something like that.

Or better than that, actually: if there were some kind of award for MacGyvering together a workable, functioning network without the resources that would seem to make that possible, the TTC should win every year, I think.

From the way it uses a bus network to feed its subways to carry far more passengers per kilometre than you’d expect, to the way it keeps streetcars on the road by continuing to employ a full-time blacksmith in 2017, the TTC does quite a lot with relatively little. And as Byford notes, they seem to have dramatically improved on a lot of very visible customer service standards in the past half-decade.

But best? Number One?

Really?

My big concern with patting ourselves on the back over recognition like this is not the frustration it provokes in customers who still feel, day-to-day, like the transit system has a long way to go.

It is the complacency it may encourage in the political masters who are responsible for most of those headaches. They have underfunded the system for decades, and continue to do so, while planning to spend billions on politically motivated line extensions that won’t improve the service where it needs improving most.

Increase spending to make service better? It’s a difficult political request at any time. But when you’re asking to do so just after being recognized as the “best” on the continent, it’s all the easier to find yourself dismissed. “We don’t need to invest in getting better, we’re already the best!”

That, it seems to me, is exactly what happened last time the TTC won this award in 1986, just before a long, sustained period of dramatic budget cutting, system stagnation, deferred maintenance and falling ridership through the 1990s.

Best? Bah. Forget the awards. We just want a ride.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

More on Metronews.ca