Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The TTC, Not What She Was

Listening to the usual diatribe on talk radio about Toronto's so-called war on cars, which is really just about cars being forced to share the road with all the other users, makes me want to use the TTC just to increase bus and streetcar traffic getting in their way. And then I get to the subway platform, and I want to turn around and run as I watch a train pull in.

I have to say this is the first year I loathe, really loathe, the TTC. The breaking point for me was watching one more slovenly train pull in after tolerating years of waiting for slovenly trains. In my decades of using Toronto's TTC, I've seen old trains, rickety trains, graffiti-decorated trains, but none of them fazed me quite like what we have to put up with today. It's watching a train pull in to the station, knowing I may not find a clean seat without garbage at the feet that really gets me down. The young and new-to-Toronto have no idea how venerated the TTC used to be, how clean and safe, how fun to ride. And their lack of long-term personal history with The Better Way means that the TTC can get away with their claims of better service today. And believe me, it's crap compared to what it used to be and what it should be.

Back in the old days, there wasn't garbage everywhere once smoking was banned, you could sit in the front seat and chat with your regular bus driver, you could stand at the front of the train, watching the thrill of tracks coming at you, and look over and say hello to the driver because he had his door open. If you needed to you could easily find the conductor as he leaned out to check the crowds before blowing his whistle.

Whenever I travelled to other countries, comparing others' public transit to our own made the TTC look like a shining beacon in a sea of public transit dreck. London bus drivers snarled at you; Rome drivers yelled and gesticulated; Paris was just plain hostile; New York ignored you. Meanwhile, Toronto drivers were friendly and never snarled or yelled (to me anyway). They were professional, knew their routes, served the public. The subways were also a big contrast; they varied from permanently blackened like in London, dark and confusing in Paris, bright in Rome, and crumbling shades of old glory in New York. Ours was utilitarian but so efficient and clean in comparison, not only on the platforms but in the trains too. And even better, the trains always snugged up to the platform edge; no scary leaps across a gap to get into or off the train like in some old cities.

Now, we've joined the big leagues. In response to the rude riders, who've always been with us, the TTC union and bus designers have gone more and more isolationist, creating buses that prevent friendly interaction between public and driver and systems that reduce the need for drivers to interact with the public, even simple things like calling out stops. I've had drivers who don't even know the route they're driving (which makes me wonder how they knew when they got to the end and had to turn around). Subway drivers and conductors don't even want to acknowledge that people exist on their train, not only by always closing their compartment door or not sticking their heads out when closing the doors, but also by refusing to call out stops so that we had to pay millions on a stop-announcement system instead of, oh I don't know, garbage pickup. We have grand announcements of providing better service, yet we still see on the subway platform signage "train temporarily delayed" or my favourite when standing on a crowded platform "next train in 5 minutes". The only good thing about these new, fancy signs is they tell us we'll be late, instead of leaving us to guess how long. We also have as much garbage as ever to sit next to or tiptoe through in some stations or station entrances. Gross. We have people so oblivious and uncaring of their fellow passengers, we get to listen to their music, watch them hog three seats by the way they sit and place their bags, leave their garbage behind (even TTC workers, wish I'd taken his picture), and read about stations shut down for this personal injury and that assault while the much-trumpeted increased security is nary to be seen. In fact, is it just me or is TTC subway service interrupted more and more this month than any time before? For all of this, we get to pay such high fares that they've become unaffordable for many of us, the very people for whom public transit was originally created for.

The TTC was already on the demise when the Bob Rae NDP government approved the building of four subway lines in Toronto. Yes, four lines! That was almost 20 years ago. Since then a truncated Sheppard line has been built, nothing else. Meanwhile, the one east-west line strains to accommodate the crowds, and the Yonge north-south line is heaving with people. Overcrowding, being forced to stand while people hog seats and toss their garbage on the floor or place it thoughtfully under the seats, just puts everyone in a bad mood, especially when they've had to wait and wait and wait in the cold for a subway or bus.

The TTC is no longer the better way. It's the expensive, slovenly, slow way.

The response of announcing a blue ribbon panel to study the issue is pathetic and won't do much when a culture of unfriendliness, diminishing professionalism, and lack of pride has taken root in the TTC and its riders. But then what else can the peach-faced mayor-wannabe-TTC-Chair, who couldn't even bother to listen to his constituents over Lansdowne reconstruction, do but look like he's listening.

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