Another Toronto Transit Fail: Discount Metropasses Not Worth The Trouble

13 Jan

Believe it or not, my friends, the real-life Alex James differs in some fundamental ways from the Alex James you’ve come to know and love here at State of Affairs. Specifically, I’m not nearly as angry as I might make myself out to be on this blog. Oh sure, I care about the things I write – no doubt about it. But I like to think of my persona on SoA, if you can call it that, as “me with the volume cranked to eleven”. That is to say, it comes off to people who know me that I’m over-exaggerating my fury about certain issues on the page as opposed to how I might deal with them in person. And those people wouldn’t be wrong. Let’s face it – nobody wants to read a bland, middle-of-the-road take on a social issue, least of all me, so I try to crank the angst when it’s appropriate.

Sometimes, however, I come up against an issue that genuinely does piss me off, as it has today.

Toronto is the largest municipality in this entire country, and the fifth largest in North America, according to census. The city proper boasts over two million residents; that number rises to over five million when you include what’s colloquially known as the GTA, or Greater Toronto Area. It’s the last word in first stops for immigrants to Canada, and many international friends have had very positive responses upon visiting, placing Toronto higher in their respective pecking orders than cities like New York. It’s a great city, and I love living here.

That said, I’ve expressed considerable discontent over the recent months about the consistent assclownery perpetrated by this city’s transit commission. Most recently, if you remember, they instituted a fare hike to make up for a poor fiscal year in 2009; they cited a lack of government funding as a primary motivator for their decision, and promised improved services to this city’s residents in exchange for the sizable increase.

Am I the only person who’s still waiting to see any hint, any inkling whatsoever, of these so-called improved services? Let’s take an informal poll, shall we? Here’s my experience: since I returned to work at the new Compound on January 4th, 2010, I have wasted a grand total of nine additional hours while trying to get to and from my place of employment. The most notable of these was the evening of Thursday, January 7th. I don’t want to get into too much detail as to where I was coming from or where I was going, because I like to maintain a measure of anonymity and I’m genuinely afraid of the concept of stalkers watching my every move, but suffice to say I had to traverse a good two-thirds of the Yonge Street line to get from the Compound to my band practice.

I arrived at my starting station at 4:50pm. At that point the platform was positively choked with commuters: an unusual sight when you consider rush hour doesn’t really get into full swing until about fifteen minutes later. Everywhere I looked I saw the same two expressions on people’s faces. About half had the dull, bovine eyes of defeated suburbanites, resigned to their dependency on the system to shuttle them from their mindless cubicle prisons to their picket-fence homes in the city’s outskirts.

The rest sported the blazing, fanatical, fire-shooting glares of trapped travellers who had Somewhere Important To Go and were being unduly waylaid by the selfsame system which, unfortunately, they found totally outside the realm of their obsessive-compulsive desire for control.

I’ve seen this sort of crowd before, and I’m quite happy to tell you there was one thought echoing through my mind:

I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt we were one more “Attention customers on the Yonge University Spadina Line” away from a full-scale L.A.-style riot, because these people had clearly been waiting for a considerable amount of time, and this was (as I said) before rush hour technically starts.

I don’t want to drag the story out, but the bottom line is twofold:

a) I got to band practice at seven o’clock. For reference, even during regular rush hour this trip takes me no more than forty minutes.

b) I spent the duration of that extremely long, extremely unpleasant trip with my face buried in some woman’s stinky weave while the fat guy behind me did his best to reenact the “squeal like a pig” scene from Deliverance despite the fact that both of us were fully clothed.

The problem, I’m lead to believe, could be traced to some kind of “signal failure” somewhere at either King or St. Andrew stations. Now, I don’t know if “signal failure” is code for “some asshole jumped on the tracks and we needed to peel him off before we could get the train moving”, or if it’s just the result of mismanaged maintenance, but either way it’s nothing new. Regular TTC commuters can attest to being delayed during peak travel times, anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, several times a week. And it seems to me it’s only been worse in the two weeks since the fare hike was introduced.

Some people will get on my back about this complaint for one of a couple of reasons. The most common I hear is the “I have lived elsewhere and you shouldn’t bitch because back in _________ you were lucky to see a bus once a day.” Leaving aside the fact that this argument sounds suspiciously like the one my father used to deliver about having to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow during a nuclear war, chances are the city they’re referring to isn’t one of the most populated metropolitan areas in all of North America. It’s one thing for a minor city like Newmarket to have sub-par transit in place; in a city the size of Toronto the kind of transit delays we experience like clockwork are patently inexcusable.

The other big complaint I hear is that the TTC is underfunded by the government, which is true when you compare the percentage of TTC funding that comes from the guys up top to, say, New York. I suppose that fact lends credence to the need for a fare hike. But what the high-ups at the TTC don’t seem to realize is that people expect a certain amount of return on their dollar.

Think about it this way. If your favourite restaurant suddenly upped their prices by ten percent (the same amount the Metropass has gone up) after a history of steadily-declining service and quality, and justified the inflation by promising a return to the high standards you had come to expect from them, you would anticipate they’d keep their word, right? If they didn’t deliver you’d stop going to that restaurant, because really, why pay more for less?

The problem with this analogy is that the majority of TTC customers don’t have another restaurant to go to. The TTC has a monopoly on transit in this city; the only other options available are either to take a taxi (prohibitively expensive), use GO transit services (incredibly limited in their scope), or buy a car (even worse than the taxi). We don’t have any other options, so the chances of any kind of public retribution for shitty service at increased prices is pretty slim, because most of us can’t afford to not go to work in order to make a point. Considering the fact that Toronto’s governing body doesn’t consider transit an “essential service”, it allows the transit union to strike whenever they want, effectively paralysing the city and strong-arming the local government and the population into giving them what they want. In fact, their scope of influence extends even farther than that.

Consider this entertaining little story, and the focus of my aforementioned unexaggerated fury.

A few days ago, I lost my monthly transit pass. Again. Now, that’s nobody’s fault but my own, because I’m clearly a klutz and not careful enough to keep my fingers on that slippery little card. But I had hope: I recently signed up for the Metropass Discount Plan, in which they send me a pass every month and automatically debit a slightly discounted price from my bank account. I already took some issue with this process as I understood by signing up early I would be locked in for last year’s price (which didn’t happen, of course, as I’m paying the new price) but I was willing to let that slide as an inevitability of dealing with the TTC. The biggest reason I signed up was because the Commission would keep a record of my purchases and therefore would replace a lost or stolen card.

Basically how it works, according to what I was originally told, is that each Metropass is encoded with a number attributed to me on their system. Therefore, if I lose a card they know I bought one and they replace it by virtue of there being a record of me buying it. The original literature on their website said they wouldn’t do this more than six times a year, which is fair, but at least, I figured, I wouldn’t have to shell out another $111.00 on the off chance I lost my card.

It took a few brief phone calls to determine that policy had been retconned out of existence at the same time the new prices came into effect. The website has been changed – in true Orwellian fashion, nobody at the TTC will admit it’s ever said anything different than it does now. What it says now is that defective cards will be replaced, but the only way to retrieve a lost or stolen pass is to hope some Samaritan turns it in at the TTC lost and found (not bloody likely when you consider how expensive the damn things are). Otherwise you have to buy a new one – albeit at the Metropass Discount Plan price, but that’s still over a hundred dollars.

You might think that buying weekly passes for the rest of January would be cheaper, and you’d be right, but only barely. The new weekly unlimited pass price is $36.00 and it’s only good from Monday until Sunday – if you buy it mid-week, it’s still only good until the next Sunday. With two and a half weeks left in the month, that’s a total of $108.00 – a scant three-dollar savings over just buying a new Metropass. It’s the same thing with tokens: purchasing just enough tokens to get me through the rest of the month will cost me $62.50, a considerable discount when compared with $111.00, but that’s assuming I only go back and forth to work, nowhere else. For a man-about-town like myself with responsibilities and people to see, that’s not really feasible. In other words, I’m pretty much railroaded into buying a new pass if I want to save myself a great deal of hassle above and beyond what I already experience Riding the Rocket.

Here’s where it starts to break down for me. As I said, they keep a record of my payment and have a code number embedded in my personal Metropass. This means, ostensibly, that they can track where the card is being used. Given I’ve reported it as lost, and it’s almost guaranteed that someone has picked it up and is using it, any reasonable organization would have a system in place whereby they could a) alert the transit operator (you know, the one sitting on his or her ass in the little glass booth doing very little other than watching people swipe cards and drop money) that a stolen card has just been used, at which point they could confiscate the card and give me a new one, or b) disallow the card’s swipe access (like you do with bank cards) and give me a new one. Either one of these options would make sense, especially given I’ve locked myself into a year contract – remember what I said about seeing positive turnaround for your investment? This is a perk that would motivate me to buy into a year’s worth of passes – and in fact, that’s exactly why I did.

Of course, that’s not the way it works. Apparently the tracking code is just that – it tracks the Metropass, nothing more. There is no option, according to the people at the TTC’s head office, to shut off the card, nor is there any way to alert those mushrooms at the turnstile that somebody just used my goddamn pass. I’ll leave aside what their literature originally said, because as of now I have no way of proving it, but it begs the question: what the fuck is the point in having a tracking code if all it does is track? You might suggest that it’s to give them more accurate numbers about who’s using the passes and where, but there are two arguments to refute this.

The first is obvious: the turnstiles themselves have tracking counters inside them. There’s no point in tracking card swipes, because all you have to do is flash it to the turnstile guy and walk right through, so you’re going to get more effective ridership data from the turnstiles anyway. That’s leaving aside all the buses and streetcars where the option to swipe doesn’t even exist.

The second is more insidious: are the Discount Plan passes the only ones with tracking codes? If every purchased pass has such a code, your data is going to be a mess, because as I said before, you don’t actually have to swipe to go through, and therefore all you’ll have is a bunch of meaningless numbers saying “this many people swiped their Metropass” which is useless when you don’t have any context. If only the Discount passes have the code, the same problem arises: when you don’t have to swipe, you just have a bunch of numbers that add up to nothing. The only reason I can see to have the tracking code is to track people – where they are and where they’re travelling – and even then the data will be spotty at best. My question is: why are they tracking me? If it’s not to help me out when I lose a pass, what’s it for?

When I spoke to the Metropass office I was blatantly refused a replacement card, because they had no way of “verifying whether the card was still in my possession”. While I’m sure that’s a fair statement – obviously there are enough dishonest people out there who would try to snag a free pass by claiming to have lost their original one – I still resent the very clear suggestion this particular employee was making, based on her tone, that I might be one of those people. Insinuating that your customer is a criminal isn’t good business in any other field, and it’s not good business here.

The bottom line is this: with the kind of money we’re paying for transit in this city, their services leave a hell of a lot to be desired. To quote Eddie Izzard, the infrastructure’s fucked. If you’re going to offer discount plans and the like, you better figure out a way to give me more than one free pass a year (the amount of money you wind up saving) that I don’t even get if I commit the human error of losing my existing pass. Otherwise I might as well avoid the hassle of the paperwork involved and just buy one at the beginning of the month like everybody else. It’s 2010 – I refuse to believe the resources to implement a comprehensive pass system don’t exist.

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to take an informal poll, so I turn it over to you: what do you think about the way Toronto transit operates? Am I completely off-base here, or have other people had similar problems? And how in the name of Great Googly-Moogly do we fix it, or at least have our voices heard?

A Correspondent suggested that I write a letter to the paper, but really, who reads papers anymore? Besides, that’s what this blog is for – to amplify my rage when it’s funny, and to deliver it in its pure form when it’s necessary.

Thanks for reading.

UPDATE: I called those transit pirates one more time to try and reason a pass out of them, and apparently my efforts have landed me with nothing more than a black mark on my file for complaining – they had a full transcript of my last two conversations on my file. Nice to know they can keep track of that, if nothing else. Anyway, there’s apparently been activity on my card since I lost it, so to whoever picked it up and decided not to return it to the Lost and Found, I hope you enjoy your free ride, asshole. I’d say I hope you fall in front of a subway, but that would just make me late for work. Again.

5 Responses to “Another Toronto Transit Fail: Discount Metropasses Not Worth The Trouble”

  1. Sarah Peacock January 13, 2010 at 2:37 PM #

    The worst is when the pass never shows up in the mail to begin with. When this happens you have to go to Davisville station to pick up a pass, and if you have to do this more than twice, they will discontinue mailing the pass to you. Apparently it is your fault that Canada Post didn’t deliver your Metropass. Like you said, enough people probably scam them, saying they never received their pass in order to get a second one, but if you’re not one of those people, the inconvenience of having to trek up to Davisville station to pick up your pass is infuriating. I canceled my Metropass and have decided to work from home. SCREW THE TTC!

  2. dianapoulsen January 13, 2010 at 2:42 PM #

    Crap ass. I love how they change policy so quietly. We got so hung up over fare hikes, it makes me wonder what else has changed at the TTC.
    Actually, the Viva, Go, and York Region transit in Newmarket are better than the TTC. It’s small city, but at least there are 3 options.

  3. Ed January 14, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

    The TTC doesn’t put a lot of effort into keeping customers happy, comfortable, or well informed. There is no denying that. The runaround they are giving you regarding your pass sounds like total bullshit. If there was a policy in place at the time you signed up for the Discount Plan, that policy should be honoured.

    On the subject of delays though, as much as people don’t like to hear it, most of the time when the TTC doesn’t run smoothly, it’s because of the people riding it. Signal problems are clearly a maintenance issue. No argument there. The track level fires though, are caused by discarded newspapers, which have been thrown on the floor, and blown onto the tracks. Trains that have to be taken out of service due to door problems probably had some hero jamming the doors open so all his friends could squeeze in, instead of waiting two minutes for the next one. Security incidents, unauthorized people at track level, personal injuries at track level, etc. can generally be attributed to fare-paying fuck ups. The TTC is a truly frustrating system to ride. I agree wholeheartedly. However, I sincerely believe that if you locked the doors, and ran the trains around empty all day, you’d eliminate 80% of the delays, easily.

  4. Enrico B January 14, 2010 at 10:51 AM #

    Speaking of blaming your customer for your problems, that poor 2009 fiscal year? One of the main reasons that the TTC stated for the lower-than-expected revenue in the past year was Metropass holders. That is, the TTC says the Metropass was too popular and therefore they lost a considerable amount of fare revnue. This is after the huge song-and-dance they did to get people to buy the passes, even going so far as to make them transferable to encourage people to purchase them to share.

    (Although I’m pretty sure the main reason they did that was to make the whole pass program easier to administer.)

    Imagine, blaming your most loyal ridership for your fiscal fuck-ups. Thumbs up to the TTC for being asshats.

    It occurs to me that one of the big problems with the TTC is that there aren’t enough subway lines. If there’s signal trouble between Union and King, the entire Yonge-University-Spadina line is delayed. Since the YUS line is the only North-South subway line, if that’s the direction you need to go, you’re fucked. You have no other option except the buses (which are exponentially slower) or not taking the TTC at all.

  5. Nintendo 3DS Screen Protect June 13, 2011 at 1:29 PM #

    Very interesting subject, thank you for posting.

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