Toronto Programs

Outgoing TTC CEO Andy Byford's goodbye message to Toronto: 'keep building'

Weeks out from his departure to helm New York City transit, Andy Byford spoke on Metro Morning about his experience dragging the TTC out of the 1970s.

Byford says number one priority must continue to be downtown relief line

TTC CEO Andy Byford — who once answered transit questions from Torontonians live from the back of a 501 streetcar — will soon depart to head up New York's transit system. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

After five years in Toronto, TTC CEO Andy Byford is bidding farewell to the city to take over New York City's problem-plagued transit system. He sat down with Matt Galloway on CBC Radio's Metro Morning to discuss taking the TTC out of the '70s and improving the company culture.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Matt Galloway: Patrick Brown was on the program talking about the province perhaps assuming control of things like the subway — what do you think of that idea?

Andy Byford: My view would be, ultimately, governance is one thing, funding is another. The most important thing for me isn't the structure, it's to make sure that the TTC, and other agencies for that matter, are properly funded.

Certainly, one of the big challenges for me in my five years is that while city council had been very good at keeping the TTC going... we are still by far the lowest subsidized transit in North America, which does make it a real challenge.

MG: You are leaving this city for a city that has a transit emergency. The subway in New York is a nightmare, it's iconic but it is actually falling apart. Why did you take that job?

AB: I've always enjoyed a challenge.

I think back to my early days at the tube when my former boss said to me, 'You've cut your teeth on a suburban group of stations, it's time for one of the big three: Liverpool Street, Baker Street, or King's Cross.' The first two were pretty modern, not too difficult. King's Cross was an absolute mess — I took it in a heartbeat.

Going to Australia wasn't easy. Coming to the TTC I knew was really a big challenge for me because it's a multi-modal system but it was stuck in the '70s. It needed to be modernized.

I love a challenge, and they don't get any bigger than this. Any transit professional worth their salt wants a crack at the big three: London, New York, or Hong Kong.

MG: What was the biggest challenge here?

AB: It was obvious lots of good work had been done by my predecessors, including my brief boss Gary Webster. But Gary brought me in to introduce a customer ethos at the TTC. I think there was certainly issues around customer service, and the need to focus more on valuing customers and making them feel special while they were with us.

There was also the urgent need to upgrade underlying infrastructure, and that's been a real theme of my tenure, which hasn't always endeared me to customers because we have been taking subway closures, we have been shutting the line periodically, but to make it better for the future. I remain convinced that will be one of my team's legacies; that service will be more reliable and we've avoided the kind of emergency and complete shut-down that have happened in places like Washington and New York so it's been worth the pain.

MG: How do you square what you have achieved — the system was named best transit system in North America — with what people face on a daily basis, the delays?

AB: What [the] APTA (American Public Transportation Association) awards for is action, they're not awarding for perfection.

What they were acknowledging was that in five years, we've made such huge changes across the piece in terms of bringing in new fleets, new streetcars beginning to arrive, introducing a smart card, building the Spadina subway extension, huge effort on culture change, huge effort around customer service, bringing in around 1,000 new buses. We've made huge progress. To me, it wasn't about saying the system's perfect, I acknowledged that at the time. We achieved that accolade in spite of being the lowest-subsidized transit.

Six new TTC stations are set to open on Dec. 17 along the Spadina line, with a final stop in Vaughan. (CBC)

MG: We saw in the census data last week that more people in the city are using transit to get to work, and yet the TTC has seen stagnant and now dropping ridership numbers. Why aren't more people taking transit?

AB: I think you need understand the context. If you look across North America, this is not unique to Toronto.

The TTC is largely holding its own but you're right it has flatlined. I think there's a number of factors: gas is very cheap at the moment, the rise of Uber, the system is stretched. There's crowding on certain routes at certain times of the day.

If the service is super crowded, you may choose to take your private car. So what are we doing about it? We're bringing in new vehicles, new bigger streetcars, bigger buses, we're rolling out progressively this new signalling system that will add 25 per cent capacity.

But what you can't do is click your fingers and make that happen overnight, and that's certainly going to be one of my mantras in New York.

MG: When are we going to not see the scenes like at St. George Station, where there are people crowded up the stairs, down the hallway, trying to get to the trains, and it's just a crush of people.

AB: What we need to do is keep building. I am pleased to see that with 13 days to go, the Spadina extension will be open. Metrolinx are progressing Line 5 across the middle of town that will add capacity. The Scarborough subway, whatever people think about it, will add capacity. Finch LRT is beginning to get some traction.

A twitter user captured this shot of a crowded subway platform during a delay last year. (Tariq Fancy/Twitter)

I've said since the day I got here, what we need to do is keep building though. Waterfront LRT is a priority, the pressing priority is that downtown relief line, which I've talked about since the day I got here.

MG: What are you going to miss about the city?

AB: I'll miss the vibrancy of the neighbourhoods. I'll miss my favourite bar, The Rebel House in Summerhill. I'll miss the sports teams. I've been following TFC a lot and I'll be there on the 9th, cheering them on, hoping they'll beat Seattle, get revenge.

MG: What is your one word of advice for the person who follows you?

AB: My one word of advice would be: do the right thing. Stick to your principles, do not allow yourself to be steamrollered by politicians, media, into not doing the right thing for Torontonians. Stick up for your customers, advocate your employees — that's what I've done since the day I got here, and I'll do it until the day I leave.