Andy Byford reformed transit in Toronto. Can he do it in NYC?

New York City's new transit chief innovated in Toronto. His new home could use some of that.

A red streetcar in Toronto's Chinatown with overheard wires and a station in the middle of the road.

A red streetcar in Toronto's Chinatown with overheard wires and a station in the middle of the road. (

Amid widespread angst over declining service and decaying facilities, New York City has welcomed Andy Byford as the new president of the New York City Transit Authority, charged with cleaning up its festering problems. He comes to the job following five years as head of the Toronto Transit Commission, where he was responsible for turning around another large transit agency that had fallen in the public’s esteem.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the TTC had been seen as a model transit system. It avoided the precipitous postwar decline that devastated most North American systems. It was seen as clean and well-run, in sharp contrast with many of its peers.

But by 2012, when Byford took over, its continuing strengths were taken for granted and it was seen to have stagnated, with reliability issues, dated technology and more grime than Torontonians were used to. Byford did a lot to turn the situation around, and perhaps he can do the same for New York City, which faces those same challenges today.

Byford came to the TTC as its first general manager with significant overseas experience in the U.K., where he had a number of roles with the London Underground, followed by positions as head of operations for several large London-area railways and then a railway in Australia. In Toronto, he both implemented new ideas drawn from Europe, and successfully pushed through projects that had been discussed for years but dismissed as politically infeasible.

Byford rose to the position of CEO from COO unexpectedly, after his predecessor was abruptly ousted following a dispute with mercurial right-wing populist Mayor Rob Ford. At the outset, he proposed a five-year plan with quantified objectives and frequently updated the public on its progress. While not all of the goals were achieved, he can claim considerable gains and can also point to several other major initiatives that have improved transit in the city. He was also able to achieve these goals despite remarkable political turmoil during his early years, including a mayoral crack cocaine scandal that blanketed international headlines and paralyzed the Toronto City Council for years.

Overcoming considerable political and institutional reluctance, Byford overhauled the fare system on streetcar routes, which make up much of central Toronto’s surface transit network.

Byford introduced a proof of payment system, in which riders do not have to pay upon entering but may be asked by a fare inspector to show a ticket while riding. If they have no ticket, they can be assessed a hefty fine. This saves time at every stop, where streetcars no longer have to idle while passengers pay their fare.

Though proof of payment systems are widespread in Europe, fear of lost revenue makes it controversial in North America. While New York has thus far limited its experiment with proof of payment to limited-stop Select Bus Service routes, the benefits are more significant on local routes with more frequent stops. In Toronto, the cost in lost fares from riders who don’t pay has thus far proven to be manageable, and the time savings are modest but meaningful.

Before Byford’s arrival, the TTC was notoriously pugnacious in dealing with customer complaints, generally blaming riders for issues like train delays. He made a point of turning this around in his early days, producing videos apologizing for train delays and promising to do better. He also placed a great deal of emphasis on better informing riders of service disruptions, mimicking London, where the Tube may be perpetually undergoing planned maintenance but at least the bad news is conveyed clearly and with an apologetic tone. A key element is the proliferation of electronic information screens on both the subway and bus network, not only listing the next train or bus, but also any disruptions. New York subway riders will inevitably be facing frequent construction-related disruptions in the coming years; an effort to improve customer information and an apologetic tone may go a long way toward softening the blow.

Again emulating London, Byford has sought to shift many collectors out of their glass booths to be repositioned as customer service agents that travel around the station and answer questions. This has long been an objective in New York as well, but there has been limited movement thus far. Byford was particularly committed to this change, and he can be expected to press for it in his new job.

Perhaps Byford’s most visible accomplishment is one of his last, a pilot project to eliminate through traffic on King Street, a major downtown street, in order to improve the reliability and speed of the city’s busiest streetcar route, which moved over 65,000 riders per day in mixed traffic. The change had long been needed, given the importance of a line that is considerably busier than any New York bus route, but opposition from local businesses and drivers had always defeated it. With the support of the mayor, Byford was able to implement the project as a yearlong pilot, and riders have hailed the change. Despite continued protests from businesses, it looks likely to be made permanent. It has been credited with a 25 percent ridership increase on the route as well as fairly significant travel time and reliability improvements, especially in peak periods.

The project, which forces all drivers on each block to turn right at the next intersection, is more ambitious than New York has been thus far in prioritizing mass transit over cars. In New York City, even comparatively modest projects to paint special bus lanes on streets along busy transit routes, while still leaving much of their space dedicated to cars and trucks, have faced fierce opposition, such as on 125th Street in Harlem and Fulton Street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Of course, it would require considerable political support that may not be forthcoming, but Byford will likely seek to bring more aggressive transit priority measures to New York as a means to revive the city’s struggling bus network.

Byford’s tenure as head of the TTC can be considered a success, but there is still considerable unfinished business in Toronto. Many workers still feel that their concerns are not taken seriously at headquarters. Management of maintenance issues has not always met promises, one example being a rash of failed subway air conditioners during a stiflingly hot summer.

Construction cost projections for new subway projects have also crept up, but not yet to New York City levels. Most importantly, the TTC hasn’t been immune to the slowing of ridership growth that many North American systems are facing.

There are limits to the change that can be achieved in only five years, but Byford shifted the agency’s path in an innovative, modernizing direction. New Yorkers have reason to hope he can repeat the trick.