You know something? I’ve lived in this fair city on and off for the last twenty-five years, and let me tell you what – I love it. I love every inch of it from the Beaches to Chinatown to the Lakeshore to North York where I grew up. I’ve been to a lot of places in my life, and as cliche as it sounds, there’s just no place like Toronto. Best city in the world, if you ask me.
I take issue with some of what happens in this city. We’ve weathered two major garbage strikes in the last few years. We’ve survived through that thickheaded clown Mayor Mel and his outrageously inappropriate public statements it took years for this city to bounce back from. Then there was the SARS debacle – remember how much fun that was? All the washed-up rockers in the world couldn’t have made champagne out of that shit.
But all those issues aside, there’s one particular burr under my metaphorical saddle that refuses to dislodge itself no matter how many times I try to convince myself my horse is just ornery. That horse is called Rocket, and the burr is the Toronto Transit Commission.
Now, let me preface this post before a whole bunch of people come down on me for complaining (for some reason, people still don’t expect that of me) – I’m not arguing with the fact that I rely on the services of the TTC to get back and forth to work unless I want to take a cab (not bloody likely) or buy a car (not on my salary). I’m sure many of those who work on the ground level of the Commission are good people – I even know a couple, and they are – and my issue is not with them. Decent, hard-working people are not the target of my anger. Get that straight right off, or we’re going to have a very bad day.
The problem I have, as always, is bureaucracy.
The TTC introduced the concept of a “Metropass” to this city almost thirty years ago. For my non-Canadian readers, a Metropass is exactly what it sounds like: a monthly unlimited transit pass you purchase for a flat rate, swiped or shown to operators on your way around the city. Great idea, right? I think so too.
I’ve been buying one every year since 2002. At that time I was paying something like $92.00 for a Metropass (I can’t remember the exact amount anymore, and information on this subject is notoriously hard to find – the best I could locate was this graph that suggests an adult Metropass was somewhere between $90 and $95). I was also a university student at the time: interestingly, the TTC only offered its student discount on Metropasses to high school students with a valid school ID.
I never understood that choice. Who would benefit more from a discounted transit pass – a high school student presumably living relatively bill-free at home, or a poor university student trying to make it on OSAP loans and campus jobs? Even when they did start offering the student discount to us post-secondary types, the discounted passes were only available in select locations on campus (not at regular TTC stations) – and the wait times at those locations were typically measured in hours thanks to huge lineups. I often found myself foregoing the ten-dollar discount in favour of getting home from school sometime before dawn – the few times I did soldier up and stand in line, the passes were usually sold out by the time I got to the front.
Of course, by that time the price of Metropasses had gone up to $99.75; still a respectable price since I could deliver a cool C-note to my local fare collector (sorry, cash only) and walk away with a month’s worth of subway goodness. When you consider the price of a single trip was $2.50 at the time, it made sense: even if I only went back and forth to work, I would be paying a hundred bucks a month regardless. It was worth the extra twenty-five cents for me to garner myself unlimited travel.
And now, here we are in the waning days of 2009.
The price of a Metropass is now $109.00, a mildly irritating total seeing as I can only get twenties out of the bank machine, which leaves me with a puzzling sum of eleven dollars (too much for a pack of smokes, not enough for dinner out).
The subway and streetcar systems are tragically outdated. Subways routinely break down during peak hours. The last thing I want to hear on my way to work is “Attention customers on the Yonge-University-Spadina line. We are currently experiencing a delay at our _________ station due to systems failure. Response crews have been dispatched, and we will provide you with more information as it becomes available. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” Right. And before you tell me it doesn’t happen very often, explain to me how I could recite that announcement verbatim from memory if it didn’t happen at least twice a week, every week, for years?
Streetcars are backed up for blocks by other streetcars and their drivers who inexplicably run their vehicles off the tracks (think I’m kidding? It happened a few days ago at King and Bathurst. Twice.) Yes, you have to take into account traffic in the downtown core, but I fail to understand how I can wait thirty minutes for a streetcar during peak hours with no explanation and without making other transit options available.
While the transit system is relatively clean, at least compared to somewhere like New York (and despite the best efforts of many customers to stink it up by never bathing), the swipe turnstiles for transit passes constantly misread the magnetic stripe, causing me to rack myself in the junk trying to walk through as the idiots behind me pile drive into my ass when I don’t pass through immediately.
And while the so-called Blue Light buses (set to run major routes when the subway shuts down for the night) are a great idea on paper, it would be nice to catch one inside of thirty-five minutes waiting outside a bar on Queen Street in the freezing cold at 2am in January.
And here’s the part that’s going to piss some people off. I’ve had some great experiences with TTC employees (and I’m referring here to operators and booth minders), but I’ve had some piss-poor ones as well. That’s to be expected in some ways; nobody likes their job and nobody’s having a good day, but here’s my issue. I’ve worked in customer service before (and make no mistake, this is customer service we’re talking about) and nowhere I’ve ever worked would put up with the kind of snark and blatant rudeness I’ve experienced from the TTC. My favourite is the one operator on the Yonge subway line who likes to yell at passengers getting on and off the train. Imagine the following statement soaked in sarcasm and dripping with derision.
“Use all available doors. ALL available doors. There’s more than one, you know. Get out of the way of people getting off. OUT OF THE WAY. This train will not move until you get out of the way. There’s another train coming, don’t be impatient. USE ALL DOORS. ALL. ALL DOORS. MOVE OUT OF THE WAY.”
Okay. People are morons who don’t know how to use the transit system; we know this. I know this better than most, because I routinely have headphones ruined by ignorant assholes who can’t wait five seconds for me to get out of the way before they shove by me with their noncy little attache cases that catch on my wire and tear the buds out of my ears. Every day I fantasize about wading through the crowd at Bloor station with a cattle prod, electrocuting idiots as I clear a path to my intended destination.
That said, I’m allowed to be irritated because I’m in the thick of it. It’s not my job to be polite to people, because I’m people and I don’t work for the TTC. It’s not appropriate to talk to your patrons like they’re functionally retarded, even though they are, because if you did it in any other job, your ass would be canned before you could say “the customer is always wrong”.
So why do I bring all of this up?
The TTC has been losing money for several years now. This has been attributed to the popularity of the Metropass over one-off transit fees and tokens. Roughly 260,000 people a month buy a Metropass, and they account for over half the adult ridership on the system. Apparently nobody at TTC headquarters foresaw the possibility that regular commuters would find it more fiscally beneficial, especially in these trying economic times, to purchase the unlimited pass rather than trying to budget out a handful of tokens over the course of a month. Why they didn’t foresee this is beyond me, but that seems to be the case. So, as a result of a predicted $100 million shortfall in 2010, the TTC is scrambling for a way to make up the deficit. In a few weeks they’ll be meeting with city councillors who will be presented with the three options the best minds of the transit unions could come up with. One, cut back service. Two, ask the government for more subsidies. Three – fare hike.
If they cut service, they’ll have a city-wide riot on their hands. The service offered by the TTC outside of the subway system is already shaky at best. So that’s a no-go. This isn’t the ‘States, so it’s not likely we’ll see the government grant a bailout to the transit commission of one city – besides, that comes out of our tax money anyway (see problem one). So what remains is yet another fare increase, which is itself unsurprising (being as they’ve been raising prices consistently for the last ten years), but the projected size of those hikes is what has gotten under my aforementioned saddle today.
Single-ride adult fares will rise to three dollars from $2.75. Okay, not a big difference (and as I’ve already said, not so many people go with the single fares these days anyway). Tokens will hit $2.50 from $2.25 – also not bad, but I’ll get back to tokens in a second.
The kicker for me, and for the other 259,999 people who buy Metropasses every month for the privilege of getting back and forth to work every day, is this: if the proposed hike goes through, the Metropass will raise in price from $109 to – wait for it – $126 a month.
A hundred and twenty six dollars a month. For those of you keeping track, that’s $1512 a year. That’s almost what I make in a month.
And here’s another fun fact: the Metropass is supposed to be a deal compared to buying regular fare, right? Check this – assuming I was to go back and forth to work five days a week to the exclusion of all else (and in the modern age of apartment living where all the amenities are walking distance from your front door, it’s not inconceivable), I would be paying $30 a week, which works out to $120 a month.
Translation? It would actually cost me less to travel at the regular fare rate than it would to buy a Metropass. Some deal, huh?
And a note on tokens, since this won’t be enough to convince some people of the fact they’re being rammed in the butt by a streetcar: until such time as the fee hike goes through, the TTC has put a cap on the number of tokens you can buy at one time. You’re allowed five. So much for the reduced prices on bulk token purchases. This move, it seems, is designed to keep people from stocking up on tokens while they’re still more affordable.
There’s another term for this – if you’re old enough, you’ll remember the same term from the oil embargo in the ’80s, or more recently during the 2003 blackout – that term is price gouging, and last time I checked, while it might not be illegal, it’s definitely immoral, especially during an economic crisis.
Why does the TTC not have any money? At the current prices, Metropasses alone account for over $28 million a month. That’s $340 million a year, just from Metropasses. That doesn’t take into account token sales, one-off rides, day passes, week passes or any of the other options offered by the Commission.
According to the TTC’s own 2009 budget their operating costs max out at about $1.2 billion per year. A full third of that is covered by Metropasses. The city of Toronto gave them an additional $282 million in subsidies in 2008; now we’ve covered $620 million – over half the operating budget.
Now I don’t know about you, but I travel the TTC every day, and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if the sheer number of people crammed onto subways and streetcars every day can’t account for the $4.8 million a month they’d need to shore up the rest of the budget. At $2.75 a ride, that’s about 1.7 million rides, or 872,000 round trips.
The TTC boasted in May they’d delivered 470.8 million rides in the previous twelve months, so let’s break it down.
470.8 million rides in a year breaks down to 39.2 million rides a month. If each rider paid the regular fare that would amount to $107.8 million dollars a month. Now we know that isn’t the case because 260,000 people buy Metropasses, and there’s no real way to tell how many rides each of those passes accounts for.
But let’s take me for an example, since I’m on the high end of the transit spike as far as the amount of time I spend running all over this city. On average I swipe or show my card four times a day, six days a week. That’s 24 rides a week, or 96 rides a month. I think that’s reasonable as an estimate. If every Metropass user did about the same we pass holders would be accounting for 24.9 million rides a month – again, sounds about right.
So of the 39.2 million rides a month the TTC claims, that leaves about 14.3 million rides to the non-pass users. If they all paid the full fare (which they don’t), that’s a total of $39.3 million dollars a month coming in from the non-passers. Let’s assume only 30% of those people pay the full fare (as opposed to day or week passes) or 4.3 million full-farers. Works out to $11.8 million, folks.
That’s more than twice the amount they need to shore up the budget. Even if you take into consideration student, senior and child fares, I cannot for the life of me figure out how they’re looking at a hundred-million dollar deficit coming into 2010.
So the question comes back: why do they have no money?
I searched high and low for reliable estimates on TTC salaries, benefits and retirement plans, but I’ve not been able to find any that match, so much as I would love to lay this at the feet of the fatted calf of yet another Canadian union (a favourite whipping post of mine) I can’t do it in conscience. But I can assume that, given the number of people the TTC employs, they’re shelling out a fair chunk in union-determined payments. Where the rest of the money is going, I really can’t say. They’ve talked for years about extending the subway line up to York University – hasn’t happened. The so-called Light Rail system is slated to begin construction in a few years, but we’ll see if that actually pans out. And as I’ve beaten to death already, it’s pretty clear not a great deal of money is being dumped into upkeep of the transit system.
My point in all this is that I’m tired, sick unto death really, of being asked to pay more and more for less and less. If my transit prices are going to go through the damn roof, I want to see some bang for my buck. And by “bang”, I do not mean the sound of a streetcar being derailed, a train screeching to a crushing halt (and staying there for an hour) or a bus running aground on a sidewalk.
Toronto is the best city in the world, and it’s time our transit system reflected that. To the TTC: I’ll pay you if you pay me back. Don’t leave me stranded in the middle of the night. Don’t make me late for work. And do not complain to me about your budgetary concerns until you’ve gotten yourselves in order and started providing the kind of service the long-suffering commuters of this city deserve. If you’re going to call yourself “The Better Way”, start living up to it.
That’s my take.