Joshua Hind: It's time for some radical honesty about what's broken in Toronto
The city's new mayor may need to call some people on the carpet.
By: Joshua Hind
Regardless of whether you voted for her, your heart should go out to newly elected Toronto mayor Olivia Chow, who officially takes office today. Toronto isn't just facing a mountain of problems; it has an entire mountain range of seemingly insurmountable challenges. The fact that Chow volunteered to be the lead mountaineer doesn't make the coming ascent any less harrowing. The new mayor must overcome gridlocked traffic, failing transit, disturbing violence, disintegrating infrastructure, and overlapping crises of homelessness and affordability. And at the centre of it sits Toronto's Everest, its budget, which is billions short with no immediate prospect of relief.
If the budget is Everest, Toronto’s K2, the second-highest but far more challenging mountain, is bureaucratic inertia. A growing chorus of Torontonians thinks the city's bureaucracy isn't effectively serving its people. Whether obfuscating about park washrooms, deploying doomed-to-fail programs like CaféTO, lying about encampment clearing (does anyone believe they did it to preserve the grass?), or finding ways to bury any good idea in process, it's clear that regardless of how good and noble individual city staff members may be, the environment in which they work is having an increasingly tough time producing good results.
To make matters worse, those with the power to address the condition are discouraged from speaking out, as Councillor Josh Matlow discovered earlier this year when he faced censure by his council colleagues for accusing staff of lying.
With problems so big and plentiful, it helps to find an exemplar. For my money, there are few better than @TTCHelps, an apparent public service that's anything but. Created 11 years ago on Twitter, the TTC's "Customer Service" account is supposed to field complaints and compliments in real-time from riders.
But everything about the TTC's approach to taking direct feedback is ridiculous, starting with the fact that it only exists on Twitter, the smallest of the major social platforms (which has between 200 and 300 million users, only eight million of which are in Canada). If you want to complain to the TTC on Facebook (three billion users), Instagram (two billion users) or TikTok (one billion users), you're out of luck. If you're one of the majority of Torontonians not on Twitter, the first option on the TTC's website for submitting a complaint is a snail-mail address.
One could fill hundreds of pages with descriptions of pointless interactions between @TTCHelps and TTC riders, but we can instead distill them all down to three recognizable examples:
A rider lets @TTCHelps know their bus is late. Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, the response from TTC Helps — which you only ever receive after you're in an Uber paying 10 times a TTC fare to get to work on time — will be, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. Has your bus arrived yet?"
A rider is waiting for a streetcar and looks at a transit app to see when the next vehicle will arrive. The app says it will be 30-plus minutes. The rider reaches out to @TTCHelps and is told, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience. I'll pass your feedback along to management."
A resident who lives across from a streetcar loop informs @TTCHelps of an ear-splitting screeching sound happening at all hours of the day, interrupting sleep and generally making life miserable. TTC Helps will, as always, apologize for the inconvenience, might offer a vague reason, then promise to inform management. They might also offer an online form.
How very Canadian. Polite, conciliatory, favouring good vibes over bad and of little practical use.
That brings us to the story of Sabrina Maddeaux, a political columnist for the National Post who has the misfortune of renting an apartment across from a screeching streetcar loop. If you're unfamiliar with Toronto's maligned or beloved streetcar network — a distinction which has increasingly become a bellwether for one's political leaning — each streetcar line has a large loop at either end so the cars can turn around and run back along the route in the other direction. The streetcars have wheels made of steel and run on tracks made of steel; turning causes the steel bits to rub and create a brutally loud noise. It's like God's fingernails on the Devil's chalkboard.
For years, Maddeaux has repeatedly taken to Twitter to beg @TTCHelps to do something about the ear-splitting sound that resonates through her apartment every time a streetcar uses the loop. She has also, according to her thorough documentation of the problem on her own Twitter account, contacted the TTC both online and offline, called 311, the City of Toronto's general purpose helpline, and reached out to local councillor and former mayoral candidate Brad Bradford. With each attempt, she's either been ignored, redirected or sloughed off.
The TTC is an arms-length agency, so the 311 line can't help. Councillor Bradford has presumably been too busy politically dismembering himself to weigh in, and the TTC, perhaps most frustratingly, will listen to your complaints on Twitter but won't officially file them. To make a complaint official, they make you fill out a form.
Neither of these problems, the frustrating comms and the wailing streetcar loops, are new. The TTC has acknowledged the streetcar track noise issue and has been selectively addressing it for decades. In June 2020, they issued a report related to streetcar noise at King St. East and Sumach Street in the older part of downtown, where streetcars turn south to service the new Canary District and the Distillery, a popular tourist destination. In that memo, the TTC notes the action they've taken, including lubricating the tracks and even tearing up an intersection to change the shape of a turn. But they also put considerable faith in the impact the new Bombardier streetcars (which have built-in wheel lubrication) will have on the noise.
If that was the plan, it hasn't worked. The noise keeping Maddeaux awake every night comes from the new self-lubricating streetcars. Since the introduction of new vehicles in 2010, dozens of news stories have been reported about track noise, from McCaul Loop across from OCAD University, which sits directly under a residential building, to Bathurst and Fleet Streets, High Park, Queen and Broadview and College and Lansdowne. If a streetcar turns a corner near a residence, there's a good chance someone's cringing at the sound of the squeal.
The highest levels of Toronto's political and bureaucratic leadership seem to have forgotten that Toronto isn't just an economic engine or a centre of productivity. It also has to be a liveable city. And while I tend toward the side that believes the convenience of living in a city requires one to put up with a degree of dirt, noise, and other people, even that tolerance has a limit. Maddeaux and those like her have been living with teeth-shaking noise for years.
The screech itself is ultimately an engineering issue. The TTC claims to regularly lubricate the loops and blames elevated track noise on environmental conditions. Rain washes away lubricant and heat causes metal to swell and make more contact which equals more noise. Those explanations are perfectly reasonable, but they don't solve anything or help us understand why the problem is happening in the first place. Don't explain metal-on-metal friction, tell us why the loops, many of which were rebuilt in the past 10 years, still make so much noise. Was it a design flaw? Why hasn't noise reduction been a default component of track replacement for years? Why doesn’t the city apply grease more frequently when it’s hot, or quickly reapply it after it rains?
I understand that all these systems, be it @TTCHelps, or just the public service in general, are staffed by real people generally doing the best they can, but this isn’t good enough. We're owed straight answers.
When I ask @TTCHelps why my bus is late, the last thing I want is an apology. I want to know why the bus is late so I can decide what to do next. Then I want to know whether something failed in the system. Will I have to take an Uber tomorrow too? A well-informed citizenry is critical to good government, but government communications are all about promoting good news and burying bad.
It would be naive to suggest it was ever different, but perhaps it's easier to accept being lied to when times are good, and things are working. Amid a decline, when we're clinging to the faint hope that our problems have achievable solutions, smokescreens begin to feel like an attack.
Complaint-based issues management only works if the people believe their problem might be solved. Year after year seeing tangible issues go into a black hole never to be resolved has contributed to an erosion of trust in government, a trend that won't be reversed with more of the same. Governments need to risk some radical honesty. If busses are late because the TTC can't afford more drivers, tell us. We can vote based on that knowledge. If streetcar tracks scream because they put new tech wheels on old tech tracks, please say so and tell us what's needed to fix it. Public servants are supposed to provide elected officials with the best, most accurate and most honest info so they can make decisions. Don't they owe the rest of us the same?
The alternative to admitting problems is to carry on fixing them with Band-aids. As if on cue, late Monday, Councillor Brad Bradford emerged from his shell and reported that the TTC, which spent two years sending Maddeaux's complaints into the void, would start lubricating the streetcar loop three times a day to reduce noise. That's the same fix they deployed at the loop across from OCAD … again after two years of pressure.
And while we rejoice for Maddeaux, who’s surely relishing her long-deserved relief, we still don’t know why this was a problem in the first place, or if the solution is sustainable. We also learned this week that the TTC only has one staff member watching the 11,000 or so security cameras spread across the entire system. What’s the likelihood that there’s only one TTC worker responsible for greasing tracks?
And why now? Is it genuinely due to a flash fire of bad PR from lowly Twitter? There’s reason to worry that Twitter, and social media more broadly, does indeed have a troubling amount of influence on Toronto’s local government. During the mayoral campaign, a leaked city memo about the cancellation of Canada Day celebrations at Toronto City Hall created an even bigger Twitter firestorm which forced the city to backtrack and commit to bringing the show back. The only problem is that the city doesn’t actually normally have Canada Day shows at Toronto City Hall. But the bad PR spread quickly and the city panicked.
Sometime in the next hour or so, Olivia Chow will become the 66th mayor of Toronto and she's arguably been handed the worst starting position of any mayor in the "megacity" era. From day one, she has dozens of peaks to summit, including the budget Everest, a shortened term, and an understandably skeptical public. If she's going to meet any of the city's many challenges and earn a second term, she'll have to be willing to state plainly what's broken and why.
And she may have to call some people on the carpet. Above all, she'll have the unenviable job of proving to the people of Toronto that its government can solve a problem in less than two, five, or, in the case of mass transit, 25 years. It'll be a heck of a climb. Good luck to her.
Joshua Hind is a designer, writer and content creator based in Toronto. Find Joshua on Twitter at @joshuahind and on YouTube at @nohumbleopinions.
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