Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Forest On Chow's Bus Pledge Problems

How did we let our bus fleet get into this bad a shape and why is Chow the only "major" candidate proposing anything to fix it?

The Toronto Star has today published a piece finding problems in the feasibility of Olivia Chow's promise to improve bus service if elected Mayor.  To be specific, Chow promises to immediately improve peak hour bus service, the busiest times of day.  The Star article casts doubt on whether this is feasible, quoting a TTC official who claims there would be no additional buses available for this. 

The Election Forest: Making Buses a Priority is a Signal

A big reason I favour Chow in the Mayoral election is that she appears to be the only (major) candidate who will dedicate much attention to the bottom economic half of the city.  This is fairly unsurprising when you consider we have four conservatives running against one progressive (being fair, Soknacki has some ideas helpful to lower earners).  Buses are the biggest portion of transit time for many of the city's "left behind" areas and people, who don't tend to be very near any of the existing rapid transit lines.  This is a matter of social and economic justice.  Buses will never be the most desirable mode of transit, and we can't build LRTs or subways everywhere so of course many transit users are going to need buses for some part of their trip, but we can keep service levels high enough that when you go to get the bus, you know it will come soon, and not be jammed full when it gets there so that you can get on it.

Chow's bus promise is not the stuff of campaign consultants.  Bus service isn't sexy, we just sort of expect it to work, but under Ford (and Stintz as TTC Chair) bus service has been cut back.  The working class people and students most reliant on them now have to wait longer for their bus, and face more frequent buses too full to board.  So it is a very good thing that someone is putting this on the agenda, just as a signal that "transit is not all about who will build the most choo-choos, bus service matters"  Finding problems in the specifics of Chow's bus service plan is fine and all, it's the kind of scrutiny that should be applied to political campaigns, but at least Chow has buses in mind.

The Trees: Less There Than the Star Thinks

The Star's TTC source, Chief Service Officer Rick Leary presents a case where all the buses are already in use at peak times, and even the extra buses currently servicing under-repair streetcar lines are only available because service demand slows in the summer, but they'll be needed in the fall when school starts.  He further seems to announce a new initiative (news to me anyways) to take more buses off the road to do more preventative and less post-breakdown maintenance.  He does allow there "might" be buses available to improve off-peak service. 

I'm in no position to make expert assessment of his claims in this regard, but I do note that the Queen's Quay streetcar has been off service for considerably longer than just the summer.  Apparently the TTC had buses to serve that line prior to the end of school this year somehow.  But, turning to those actual experts, let's check in with Steve Munro, who previously (March 2014) looked at TTC surface short term service improvements:
The TTC plans to retire over 200 buses in 2014-15 (the lift-equipped Orion V and Nova RTS buses). These could provide a pool of vehicles during the two years it would take for expansion-related new bus orders to arrive.
It would have been nice if the Star has known about this, and asked Leary. As the TTC is busy getting new buses, it is strange he plans to do more preventative maintenance with a fleet of newer buses, but mainly it means there are buses that could be used for Chow's pledge.  The TTC does not generally run buses to the literal end of life of the vehicles, they just get more expensive to maintain once they pass a certain point.

(Munro also notes that progress in the York subway extension should by 2015 release some buses currently needed for "supplementary service" and that there is a major construction hiatus for the Pan Am games so no streetcar lines should be out of service.)

Ok, So There are Buses: Where to Store them?

This is a real problem, the article correctly points out the TTC has no additional storage grounds, and the planned one won't be ready before 2019 at the earliest (currently not even funded to begin, so almost certainly later than that).  Per Munro (ibid):
The TTC has already looked at leasing storage space for its fleet while awaiting the construction of Tapscott Garage, although this need was offset by the reduction of bus requirements made possible with less generous crowding standards. (Note: Munro is here referring to the Stintz/Ford era service cuts)
We are, ultimately just talking about parking lots here. Yes, I'm sure it's operationally easier for the TTC to run from dedicated storage/maintenance facilities but in a pinch, any big enough lot should do.

Ok, So There Are Places To Store Them. But Drivers?

Yes, the TTC might have to hire more drivers to implement Chow's improved service levels.  What of it?  Buses need drivers and our ever growing population will eventually necessitate more buses & drivers anyway.  Every candidate's plans to expand transit will entail hiring staff.  In the very short term I expect some additional drivers can be found by paying overtime to existing ones who would ordinarily be off shift. How long does it take to hire & train bus drivers?  Chow assigns $15M to this whole promise, which presumably includes money to hire and pay new TTC employees to drive the buses.

Off Peak Service Matters Too

All the challenges aside with finding more buses, drivers & storage for peak service, improving off-peak service matters too.  Plenty of people (like seniors) ride the bus outside of peak hours and 15 minute service instead of 30 minute service matters when you're out waiting at a stop in the middle of the day or in the evening. 

The Other Forest: Why is The TTC's Bus Fleet in Such Dire Straights?

The biggest takeaway I get from the Star's piece is that we've allowed our TTC surface fleet to get to such a terrible place where TTC management is (in effect) telling reporters during an election they simply can't improve peak service before something like 2019.  Mayor Chow or no, our population is growing and demand for buses will grow too...or maybe it will simply peak at some level of "just absolutely full" on many routes where additional commuters are forced to find other means to get around (cars) and making our gridlock problems worse.  Rather than viewing this as some big scandal in the Chow campaign, the scandal is that we let ourselves run out of breathing space on our bus fleet.  Whoever is mayor will have to grapple with this, and at least Chow is already interested in the problem.  The worst thing would be to just "muddle through" with degrading service and ever more peak capacity buses leaving people behind.  Supporters of other Mayoral candidates should ponder, what will my candidate do about this?


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