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With work-from-home here to stay, the entire model of moving people around needs to be rebuilt. Wholesale service reductions are not the solution

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Andy Byford is the former head of Transport for London, New York City Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission.

Throughout the vast majority of my 33 years in public transit, one of the biggest challenges facing my various employers has been how to match insufficient capacity to ever-growing demand.

In my work for transit authorities in Sydney, Toronto and New York, one of our biggest headaches was figuring out how to squeeze ever more people into networks that were limited by fleet size and line capacity during ever-widening peak periods. Off-peak and weekend travel were also booming, fuelled by increasing urbanization, improvements in product offering and a shift away from the private car in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.

This transit renaissance developed over many years, with cities such as London and New York carrying record numbers of riders, enabling them to rely heavily on fare revenue to cover day-to-day expenses. Transport for London (TfL), more specifically the London Underground, was virtually at the point of break-even back in the halcyon days of 2019, a remarkable achievement born of booming ridership, tight cost control and targeted system expansion.

In both Toronto and New York, my focus was on enhancements to system capability across the various modes. Our plans included upgrades to signalling systems to enable trains to run closer together (thereby increasing the number of trains that could be run each hour), procurement of larger vehicles, expansion of vehicle-storage facilities and progressive (and expensive) enlargement of customer facilities such as subway stations, all designed to accommodate what seemed to be a limitless pipeline of new customers. Business cases were compelling and political support was (largely) forthcoming; we’d never had it so good.

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Andy Byford, former CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, checks out the controls of a new articulated streetcar in 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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Kirt Browne demonstrates the TTC's enhanced cleaning measures on March 3, 2020, less than two weeks before the pandemic was declared.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

And then came COVID-19.

Almost overnight, ridership collapsed as agencies scrambled to implement government directives to restrict transit usage to key workers, and customers stayed home to avoid perceived or actual infection risk.

London’s tube ridership dipped to levels not seen since Victorian times, a situation mirrored on the capital’s previously clogged streets and bridges. The financial impact was calamitous, as the risks of an overreliance on fare revenue became horribly apparent. Where most transit agencies enjoy a fare-box recovery ratio of around 40 per cent to 50 per cent (meaning the proportion of fares paid by riders compared with other sources of funding, such as subsidies), London was exposed to the tune of 72 per cent. That can work in good times, but the pandemic brought realization that such a model cannot withstand a major prolonged economic hit.

The previous challenge of how to match insufficient capacity with excess demand was reversed. Where marketing efforts previously tried to encourage ridership outside the peak, campaigns now need to win riders back. In London, Toronto and New York, ridership is recovering as the pandemic and its associated restrictions recede, but there is still a major shortfall from the previous norm – and some evidence suggests patronage will never get back to its previous highs. The work-from-home genie is proving hard to force back into its bottle.

This all comes at huge cost. One of my main priorities as commissioner of TfL was to secure government support to keep the organization going while we worked on changing the funding model to one that reflected the new reality and reduced exposure to future economic shocks. We successfully secured £6-billion ($9.6-billion) in funding through arduous negotiation with central government, but it came with conditions that honed in on costs and commitment to structural reform. It was never easy to persuade government to support transit, but that job became exponentially harder.

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British commuters travel through London Bridge station at rush hour in 2021.Toby Melville/Reuters

Given this new reality, what are the choices that face mass-transit authorities in a post-pandemic world, and what considerations should be front of mind?

One choice – and one that many advocate – is to reduce service. With ridership 20 per cent to 30 per cent lower than was previously the case, transit leaders face calls to cut capacity, to decrease frequency and to slash operating, maintenance and other staff. Some adjustment makes sense, especially where demand patterns have switched from the traditional downtown office commute to more localized journeys based around subcentres.

Likewise, efficiency is not a dirty word. It does not need to equate to job cuts; rather, management and unions should constantly seek to find more efficient ways of working in order to protect and nurture the transit system. After all, that is surely common ground for both sides of the bargaining table, and it’s often the expert, front-line colleague who knows where things can be improved.

But wholesale service reductions are not the solution, and I have always warned of the “death spiral” of such an approach.

Transit history has many examples of management forcing through (or being forced to force through) cuts in service owing to the financial impact of reduced ridership. The trouble is, riders faced with longer waits and intolerable crowding as a result of lengthy service intervals are less likely to continue their patronage. Ridership falls again as a result, the bottom line worsens and the cycle is repeated.

Other negative consequences ensue. As people abandon transit and get back into their cars, conditions on the road deteriorate, leading to buses and streetcars getting stuck in traffic, in turn leading to increased wait times and further exacerbation of the aforementioned death spiral – not to mention worsening air quality on increasingly clogged arterials. This is highly topical in Toronto, and I feel for my former colleagues at the TTC, who I am certain do not want to initiate the death spiral and have raw memories of how long-lasting the negative effects of cuts can be.

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An out-of-service TTC streetcar sits on Adelaide Street East.Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

Even if cuts were the answer, the financial benefit is not as quick to materialize as many assume. While operating expenses can be reduced over a reasonably short time frame on surface transit, subways and heavy rail networks are not so able to deliver quick relief, owing to the high fixed costs and long life of capital assets such as rail, stations and vehicles. Poorly thought-through staff reduction is also no panacea. My previous point about efficiencies stands, but wholesale reduction of skilled workers has often been carried out in haste and regretted at leisure when transit authorities find themselves suddenly bereft of specialist skills and with long lead times for replacements.

That said, doing nothing is not an option. It is unreasonable and unsustainable for any transit executive to simply demand eternal top-ups to maintain a model based on yesteryear. Rather, a new paradigm must be adopted both in how transit is delivered and in how it is financed.

On the latter, the days of overreliance on fares are gone. While it is reasonable to ask riders to pay their fair share, constant increases in cost will exacerbate the death spiral and disproportionately affect those least able to pay but who are most reliant on transit. A more sustainable, more imaginative solution needs to be found, and it should include a mix of funding sources. It should also be one that reduces exposure to seismic economic shocks, and recognizes the broader social, environmental and financial benefit that well-run transit systems contribute to successful cities.

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Construction cranes in London as seen from Hampstead Heath.JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

A good example of this is London’s approach to property development, itself a version of the one pioneered by Hong Kong when the Mass Transit Railway was established in the then-British colony, back in the late 1970s. Where London once conducted fire sales of superfluous property to generate one-off cash injections, a more sustainable and enlightened policy now sees TfL work with private partners to develop such land while still retaining ownership, thereby generating rental income and, in the case of housing development, future ridership on top of existing transit infrastructure. Not all cities have the urban density of Hong Kong and London, but most transit authorities have more land or air space than they realize, and this represents an opportunity to adjust that all-important fare-box ratio.

In terms of delivery, more thinking outside the box is required. In addition to continued focus on service quality in key areas such as punctuality, reliability, cleanliness, safety and security, transit agencies must seek new partnerships to service evolving customer requirements and to retain and attract riders. While the office commute may have fundamentally diminished (at least in the medium term), strong off-peak and weekend ridership recovery suggest burgeoning demand for the wider cultural attractions of city centres and an argument for closer ties with such venues, to reflect the symbiotic relationship between a destination and the means of getting there. Municipalities should also bear this in mind when considering the broader implications of changes to their transit offerings, especially if the current trend toward office conversion and city-centre repopulation truly takes hold.

Productive partnerships should also be sought with specialist last-mile providers, who are able to service areas that are uneconomic or impractical for mass-transit penetration, and where micro-transit operators can feed into the broader network.

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A New York police officer patrols a subway station after a shooting in Brooklyn last year.Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Service quality also requires constant focus and attention. Customers need to know that their transit system is clean, safe and secure if they are to be attracted back. Both Toronto and New York have seen an uptick in random attacks on riders and transit staff in recent months, a worrying trend that must be reversed through increased security personnel in the short term, coupled with concerted action to identify and address the societal root causes and political policies that are leading to such actions.

Finally, transit authorities must continue to emphasize their significance in delivering the broader environmental agenda. Electric vehicles are increasingly the norm and new technology such as hydrogen propulsion carries huge promise, but such investment comes at a capital cost that cannot be borne by the authority alone. Our successful pitch to government in London always reinforced the point that a large proportion of TfL’s capital expenditure is made with suppliers from outside the capital, thereby enabling a broad sharing of economic benefit.

I passionately believe that mass-transit systems – and the cities they serve – have a bright future. The siren voices of doom assert the end of mass transit, but calls for service to be slashed and investment to be halted must be resisted. Transit authorities must think radically and adapt to new realities in order to survive.

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