For most of its history, riders on the Toronto Transit Commission would have had little idea who ultimately was in charge. When the bus didn't show or the train stopped in the tunnel, the only explanation being incomprehensible noises from the PA, they had no target for their ire.
Andy Byford, who is leaving within weeks after more than five years as chief executive officer, put himself forward as that target. He was an incredibly visible CEO, making regular media appearances to explain screw-ups and often travelling to the site of the worst of them to deal firsthand with the problems. He rode the system wearing a prominent name-tag and encouraged senior staff to do likewise, engaging daily with passengers and hearing their complaints.
It was part of the focus on customer service that Mr. Byford brought when he was elevated, surprisingly quickly, into the top job. He had come to Toronto with the expectation that he would be groomed before taking over, only to have predecessor Gary Webster unceremoniously sacked for running afoul of his political masters. Mr. Byford now exits a system that is cleaner, more polite and more efficient, but one that is struggling with softening ridership and the taint of political interference in transit planning.
Leaving this month and taking over in January at the New York City Transit Authority, Mr. Byford sat down recently with The Globe and Mail to discuss his tenure, why he feels he acted appropriately on the hottest transit issue in the city and his advice to his successor.
Did the nature of your predecessor's departure lead to a studiedly diplomatic Andy Byford, who didn't give voice at certain key moments in transit debates?
I don't believe so. I really try to say the right thing and speak truth to power. But equally, I don't think I'm doing Torontonians or the TTC any favours if I'm just cavalier and said something that would just cause me to be sacked. I would rather play a longer game and persuade of the right thing. There are people who said to me, you should have stood your ground and stood up on the Scarborough subway. Well I believe I did. People have still said to me, you should have stood up and said it should not be built. But my view is, my job is not to thwart the will of democratically elected councillors.
There were opportunities during the debate where it wasn't a question of you saying, council you're wrong, but where people were seeking professional expertise. Should you have said, I've worked in transit agencies around the world, you hired me for my professional expertise and I believe that either could do the job but that A is better value for money than B
You have to have the evidence in order to do that. I constantly have people preach to me that there should be evidence-based decision making. I agree. We need to take the cost design to stage three in order that you can say, this now makes a better option. I think that every time I've been asked about this, I have given straight answers.
New York let things run down until the wheels basically started falling off the trains. They dug themselves out at great cost and difficulty, and have started to slide again into that same hole. How big of a risk do you see that for Toronto, that slide into transit obsolescence?
I think you always need to be very alert, as the head of an agency, to avoid that happening. We have been doing a lot of state-of-good-repair work, stuff that you don't see reflected in photo-ops.
When the economy turns, when the real estate market turns, does what you're describing screech to a halt? Is the future for transit bright only if the economy is good, or is it going to go downhill?
We need make sure that the TTC's financial sustainability is safeguarded. I think there comes a point where the model is unsustainable, the city manager has certainly said this, where you cannot continue to gouge the customers. The province should be making a sustainable, continued contribution to operating expenditure, to avoid the scenario you just described. The province might say, the TTC is the city's problem. Well, I don't think a declining Toronto affected by a disintegrating TTC helps the province in any way. Toronto is the powerhouse of the Ontario economy.
How much does it damage Toronto's future if the downtown relief line does not get built?
That would be a huge risk. Line 1 will basically be unable to cope with the interchange at Yonge and Bloor [by 2031] if the relief line is not in place. So that, to me, is absolutely essential. As a bare minimum, the southern section. The good news is the relief line as a concept is now progressing. We have done consultation and a basic alignment has been agreed. There's a linkage to the Yonge North extension, which brings the province into the equation, because they want that.
How much do you attribute softening ridership on the TTC to crowding, that the service has become less attractive to people?
I think crowding has to be a factor. I think other alternative transit models have arisen, such as Uber. I think subway closures [for repair] have meant some drop-off in discretionary travel. We're not passive to that. The phenomenon is not unique to the TTC. It's being seen all over North America.
What's your advice to your successor?
My strong advice and plea would be to maintain the momentum on customer service and culture change. Because if the culture at the TTC is allowed to slide back to where it was – which was not particularly focused on the customer and a very militaristic, top-down, macho hierarchy – I think that will not serve the TTC well in the future.
Finally, advice to the city?
Please continue to believe in, fund and support the TTC. The TTC performs miracles every day for the subsidy it's given, the lowest subsidy in North America. The people who work for the TTC are almost without exception fabulous, hard-working, decent Canadians who deserve support, not the relentless criticism they get.
This interview has been condensed and edited.