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Getting where we need to be

February 13, 2010

In another month I will have lived in downtown Toronto for 10 years. I’ve never owned a car during that time; I’m always used the TTC (Toronto Transit Combobulation). I moved here to work a night shift, and for four years had to take the night bus home at 4 or 5 in the morning, so I think I’ve seen many or most sides of transit in this city.

That said, I have to believe that the guy who made the video below did so solely for my own amusement. It brings back memories of all those many nights waiting (and waiting…) to take the bus home; I wish I could share some great old memory from those bad old nights…

…but the best one was from just a couple months ago. I don’t work a night shift anymore, but I had to come in at 6am to cover for a co-worker on vacation. The subway doesn’t open until 6, so I had to take the night bus; I hadn’t taken it in a long time, and it was the first time I had taken it to work rather than after.

So the bus is packed with people. The driver hits the accelerator hard, then slams on the brakes when we reach the next stop. Then repeat. And again. Each stop, everyone on the bus lurches back and forth, first suddenly starting and then suddenly stopping. At one point he gained too much momentum*, and had to drive right past Richmond St., which kinda pissed off the passengers who work on Richmond.

Finally, a guy starts yelling at the driver to drive more carefully. The driver starts yelling back at the guy, telling him to “Get off my bus!” They yelled some more, tossed in some profanities, and the guy got off; the driver then loudly complained to the rest of us for several more blocks. That was my return to the TTC night bus.

That was in November; since then, the TTC has had a tough time of it. First, a viral photo (and then several others) of TTC workers sleeping on duty. Then video of a driver taking a coffee & doughnut break while passengers waited on the bus. Toss a fare hike into the mix, and the simmering anger I saw on the bus that day has boiled over.

(also, the guy in charge of fixing the TTC launched a mayoral bid a few weeks ago, but had to abandon it after revelations about his penis personality problem. Now he is dogged by questions about his organizational skills)

One day I hope to have some useful ideas about improving the TTC – but in the short term, it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s just too small. I’ve never been to Columbus, Ohio, but I’m going to guess that the TTC, in its current form, could do a pretty decent job of servicing the City of Columbus. But Toronto is a big-ass city – really, really, big – with a midsize transit system.

And it’s not something that can be embiggened any time soon. People can complain all they want about lazy unions or obnoxious passengers or city council whatever it is they want to complain about; it’s like taking the tires from a Nissan Pathfinder and trying to put them on Bigfoot. It doesn’t matter how clever or efficient or tough you are, it ain’t gonna happen. And it’s demoralizing for anyone who wants to “fix” the system.**

But still, we’re stuck with this system so we may as well try to do what we can. In the ten years I’ve been here, I’ve never been able to understand the TTC’s complete inability to communicate information to passengers. There have been countless times where I have been waiting (and waiting…) for the subway to arrive, and then heard this announcement:

“Attention subway passengers: gurblegurblemurmelgurble delay murmelgurble southbound gurblemurmelgurbelgurbelgurbel buses murmelmurmelgurbel. Thank you for your attention.”

The speaker systems are hopeless overmatched by the cavernous subway platforms, and the persons speaking always have marbles in their mouths. It’s not just the announcements; the signs are often confusing or badly placed or just plain missing. But lack of information about why there is a delay is frustrating beyond all else.

(And I don’t want to sound naive here; I’m sure someone has brought this up, and I’m sure it’s been rejected some good reason. But whatever the financial/bureaucratic obstacles, I would still push for better communication as a necessary first step in repairing the system. It’s small, but it would be helpful, and friendly, and humanizing.)

They didn’t do even the small things, like fix that front door, that would significantly improve their lives. The place was a technological, social, and moral calamity. It was a disgrace.

– Thomas Homer-Dixon, describing the Indian Airlines building in Patna

And as for the song, I liked it. It DID remind of one night, after Caribana, around 4am, when I waited 45 minutes for the bus before I decided to walk home, from the lake shore to College. I saw lots of things – the last diehard Caribana partiers were still going; some of them were quite attractive, and scantily clad – but I never saw any sign of the TTC.

* I should also point out that the entire city slopes down towards the lake. When you’re on a southbound bus, you can sort of tell that the front end is slightly lower than the back, which means that when the driver is accelerating towards the next stop, you have to kinda wonder about the stopping part.

** This point was hit home last year, when the entire downtown core – the financial capital of the country – started work an hour late because TWO PEOPLE pulled the passenger assistance alarm on the same subway line. If you’re an anarchist who wants to bring down Canada’s economy, you don’t need bombs or computer viruses or anything like that; just a carefully coordinated triggering of passenger assistance alarms on the subway is enough to bring us down.

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