Big John the Nickel Puncher

Growing up in East York, Ontario, a community of mostly small working-class and lower-middle-class homes, I had noted one small strip of mansions parked on the ravine above Taylor Creek. I was told one day that one of these was the home of “Big John the Nickel Puncher”.

Who was “Big John”? He was the operator of the bus system in East York prior to the creation of Metro Toronto in 1953. In those days the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) served the City of Toronto (old style, not the new post-1998 one) and had only a few routes that strayed outside of it. Other communities had their own systems.

As a part of building the Metropolitan level of government in 1953, the province of Ontario also amalgamated all the transit companies into one, to be run by the TTC, over the entire Metro Toronto (the same as the post-1998 City of Toronto) area. Routes were quickly assumed and rationalised. The old operators were forgotten.

There’s a lot of talk in the Toronto region today about transport issues. First, since 1953 the true urban area now far exceeds “Toronto” itself: depending on exactly how you divide it up it certainly contains Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, Markham, Durham and Oakville, and possibly could be said to extend to Burlington, Hamilton, up toward Kitchener, etc. A century ago this was the area served by interurban railways connecting the various towns and villages back to the centre. Today the regional municipalities I enumerated operate regional transit systems with some connections between each other and to the TTC, and with the GO Transit system of rail and buses acting as the “modern interurban” for the area.

Each of these systems, in turn, makes its own independent decisions about fares, routes, and schedules. They make their own applications for provincial capital funds to support construction of facilities, be those bus rapid transit on dedicated lanes or roads (BRT), light rail solutions (LRT) or to construct hubs for a hub-and-spoke system. The TTC, in turn, with the Spadina subway extension, will be headed into Vaughan (and there are similar hopes for a Yonge subway extension to Richmond Hill one day) is starting to move out beyond the City of Toronto. GO is laying track. It sounds good, right?

Well, it’s not. Leave aside the battles at Toronto City Council about the direction the TTC should take in providing rapid transit (other than shared roadway buses) in the “outer” wards not served by the old pre-1953 “City of Toronto” streetcar system. What we’ve built fails two key tests for solid urban transport.

It’s not frequent enough, and it’s not local enough.

Frequency is the sine qua non of getting transit to be used instead of cars, when we’re discussing environments where walking is not a plausible option. (As New York City shows, a city with over half the subway stops in the United States, the reason transit doesn’t grow past a certain ridership — in a city where frequency and density of transit choices is there — is because many trips are taken on foot instead, because the city itself is so dense.) Routes need to provide highly regular and near immediate service: certainly less than a ten minute wait, and preferably on the order of five. Smaller vehicles coming more frequently are a better solution than articulated vehicles coming infrequently. Yes, this requires more labour. That doesn’t make it false.

We started with Big John’s small local system because that’s precisely what it was. Small vehicles, frequent service. To pay for this, no transfers — people needing to transfer from one route to another had to pay another 5¢, and, at the township limits, where his service met such similar services as existed in Scarborough, North York or Leaside, or at the City of Toronto limit where the TTC ran, you paid the fare for the other system. But the nickels paid for a level of service most East Yorkers (which is now considered “inner” in terms of post-1998 Toronto) get today on some routes but not on others. (In particular, routes running north-south to a subway station do reasonably well; routes running east-west across East York do not).

What this adds up to is that regional transit needs are built up in layers. (Believe me: outside the TTC’s operating area it is generally much worse, with most routes offering half-hourly or hourly service.) Very frequent local connectors; higher speed “rack up some distance routes”; a mix of vehicle types and modes. Since this is the 21st century, it’s also not unreasonable to expect that a patron ought to be able to move from one operator to another in a fairly seamless manner.

So what should the Toronto region be doing?

A lot of the discussion today turns on “subways vs LRT”. But more frequency would work wonders. That implies a fare system that will pay for the drivers and the vehicles required. By all means pave the hydro corridors for BRT (an option no one seems to want to discuss); build LRTs; reserve lanes. Successful extensions like this will demonstrate they get the business required to be upgraded: bus to rail to heavy rail either overhead or underground.

But couple this with two other moves: make community transport (say, within a zone that covers a ward or two) available via other operators — so that they start up without the existing transit systems’ overheads and embedded cost structures — and, for the TTC, stop making all the routes run to the subway (which all but three do today). Instead, connect to the new BRT/LRT system “in the area”. The curse of the TTC as it exists in the Toronto of today is that most of its routes are too long. Inevitably this leads to bunching of vehicles, with short turns galore and long gaps without service. So, for instance, break the long bus and street car runs into sub-routes: run a few vehicles over the length of the journey, but many to just past the centre of the city. Break long bus runs (29 Dufferin, 25 Don Mills, etc.) up into segments, running some express services from the subways and others locals for part of the journey. Make, in other words, the system work the person out doing errands where the value of their time matters.

This probably means the TTC would need to return to the two-zone fare system in effect 1953-1968. So be it. Vancouver’s Translink operates a three-zone system; London in the UK a six zone system. If the TTC were zones 1 and 2 of a 5-6 zone regional framework, with local connectors providing high frequency to residential areas for a small added charge, we could start to create a suite of services that actually kept cars in their garages or driveways rather than out on the roads.

Remember: most of the traffic is people doing errands: children to/from school and activities, shopping, posting a parcel, etc. Yet we organise transit for commuting, which only occurs twice/day, rather than for facilitating staying off the road in a private vehicle.

Paradoxically, the other key item to include in a fare structure, then, is to pay by time. We want a system you can “hop off, hop on” running errands. Make the starting and ending part of that journey — the bit that gets you from the bigger system to your street corner — something you pay for as an alternative to walking. Make the larger system work by time within a zone — or more time across the zones.

Adding a congestion charge, such as London uses, for the centre of Toronto is the other missing element. The monies raised by it should help develop the “outer” areas; the relief it would provide on the roads would make “inner” routes run more reliably, and handle the collector services that need to move there as well. Remember: demographically our population will contain more frail and elderly in the years ahead, and it would be wise to plan for the day when entry/exit from a regular service will take a little longer but still be preferable to running a separate “WheelTrans” type of service to get around.

For all routes other than the local collectors, where the operator’s cost structure should be kept as low as possible, an integrated fare card system that deducts from a balance make sense. Let’s just get on with it: it’s not rocket science, doesn’t need further study — my last trip to Washington DC involved using the Metro there, with a fare-by-distance system and a cardboard card with a magnetic stripe as sufficient to track the monies on the card, my last trip to Vancouver BC involved using similar technology to track and manage time paid for, and my year spent living in The Hague in The Netherlands involved strips of light cardboard that could be folded and stamped to specify the same. If Metrolinx is using Presto, then let’s all just use Presto — but then Metrolinx should set region-wide fare zones and terms, not the individual municipal operators jockeying for position and control. (Likewise, in that system, a MiWay [Mississauga] or Viva [Vaughan] vehicle coming through Toronto to the subway at Islington or Finch Stations should be able to pick up and discharge passengers just like a TTC vehicle would: it’s just “travel in the next zone”, not a cross-boundary closed service.)

We had more frequent and better services sixty years ago. It’s time we had them again. Where will the leadership come from to restore transport vitality to our region?


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