Thursday, December 16, 2010

Essentially a disservice

The last time I wrote about public transit was February of this year, and in Toronto, Canada's largest city, the only thing that has changed is the city's administration. I think the change was for the better, but that doesn't mean I agree with the administration on this (or any) issue. The new mayor of Toronto wants to declare the transit system an essential service, effectively eliminating the right to strike for TTC employees during a labour dispute. The argument for, centres around avoiding a citywide disruption by holding the riders hostage, the argument against points to the fact that compulsory arbitration generally favours the employees and usually hurts municipal budgets or requires a fare hike. With only those alternatives many will say lets declare this an essential service and ensure the smooth operation of the city, no matter what the cost. Of course that attitude has escalated budgets, taxes, debt, entitlements, etc.
What has not changed since the election, is that the TTC is still a monopoly in cahoots with its unions! What needs to be asked is: how difficult is it to drive a TTC vehicle? Does driving require years of schooling, or can just about anyone who can drive do that job? The job requires a Grade 12 education and a 30 day training course, and pay starts at about $22.56 per hour rising to $29.43 after 2 years or just over $60,000 per year, not including overtime. A non-unionized truck driver gets about $18 per hour, a school-bus driver can make just over $16 per hour. Yes, truck drivers do not interact with riders, but the jobs are similar and in many instances the truck driver has a tougher more demanding job. The school bus driver also has a special responsibility. How to reduce the cost of TTC employee compensation?
Is it possible to automate some of the TTC jobs? Absolutely! For example, when was the last time you personally interacted with a bank teller to do your banking? I require a human bank employee maybe two or three times a year, at all other times my banking is done remotely by phone, computer or ATM. Are there TTC jobs that can be done by machine? Yes, but the important question is, is it possible to automate jobs and get around the public sector unions? I suspect automation will come eventually happen as it has in many other cities.
But I'm avoiding the elephant in the room. Is it possible to break up the TTC monopoly and give transit riders real choice? How about getting the city to sell the bus routes to a private company or consortium? The subway and streetcar lines may be kept in the public sector for the time being, those being the easiest to automate eventually. The private sector bus routes could become directly competitive with the remaining public system. TTC administrators would have less responsibility and need a much smaller budget. The two systems would operate in parallel, supporting one another where it was mutually advantageous. The private sector bus drivers could be offered a profit sharing deal, maybe shares in the company, dividends and other incentives. Is this crazy? Only if you are still stuck with the idea that government is there to solve all problems, look around, it's not working. Competition will improve transit, to consider anything else at this point is essentially a disservice to riders.    

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