The TTC Has a Design Problem, Not a Transportation Problem

It’s obvious to Torontonians that our city is at a transit crossroads. But while debate rages on about what kind of vehicles to use and where to build tunnels, there is a huge element of commuting that is being ignored: user interface.

Ultimately we do need to expand the system to service more people in more places. Look at a subway map of Paris, New York or Barcelona and it’s obvious. But revamping the way customers interact with the system is just as important. User interface is a term generally reserved for software and technology, but it also applies to the TTC.

When it comes to tourists and business travellers, the transit system – how it looks, feels and functions – can play a huge role in how they view our city, which is crucial in a global economy. As it stands, a visit to almost any major European city will leave you deeply embarrassed for the TTC.  

From here we can either innovate and make living in and visiting the city a richer, more accessible experience for everyone, or we can continue down the current path and make Toronto an increasingly challenging city in which to live and do business.  

Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogotá, stated the issue perfectly:

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It is where the rich use public transportation.”

We need to make the TTC something that makes everyone’s life easier, not something that people are stuck with if they don’t have cars.   

I recently heard Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat speak at a Creative Mornings session. She said it was shocking how little it would cost each of us to build a truly spectacular transit system. The problem, Keesmaat said, is that people don’t believe it’s possible. So we do things halfway and we continue to pay through the roof for a subpar system.

Our real estate boom, architecture and restaurant scene are putting Toronto on the world map and establishing it as city worthy of attention. But while Toronto is a wonderful place to live, the city has grown much faster than its infrastructure. Traffic congestion is the sixth worst in North America and long commutes are robbing people of home-cooked meals and downtime with their families before they crash for the night and do it all again the next day. No wonder morale is low.  

If the system for paying fares, making transfers and getting information was clean, intuitive and beautiful, it might be the spark that makes people excited about the TTC’s potential.     

Information that pops
During the Ex I entered Dundas West station to find a glum-looking woman wearing a blue smock with a giant ‘i’ on it. She was a member of the TTC ambassador program introduced in 2011, and is there to provide information to confused passengers. There was nobody asking her questions. People are great, and we still need them. But they’re also prone to error and being in a bad mood.

Instead of paying more people by the hour to stand around, the TTC should invest in touch screen (or even Kinect technology) kiosks that can easily be updated with route changes, special events and nearby attractions. The key to success will be coming up with an intuitive system with an interface that’s easy and fun to use.

The same information should also be made available on a downloadable app. Most toddlers can use an iPad and navigating a well-designed app is a pleasure. Interactive maps with options to layer route information and explore key locations with a clean, simple, colourful interface would be much more pleasant than shouting through the glass at a token collector. It would also be easy to include multiple languages and collect data on customer searches.

The maps on the TTC’s website are all PDFs and offer no functionality, with the exception of the subway map which gives a little bit of basic information when you hover over a station. The streetcar routes are shown vertically, because that’s how they fit on the poles at the stops. Makes perfect sense.

If you can’t imagine how figuring out which bus to take could be fun, look at what Hailo did for getting a cab in the city.

Something as simple as paying to get on a bus should be, well, simpler. It’s great that they want people to save money with Metropasses and day passes, but removing some of these layers and streamlining the system could be cheaper for everyone.

London’s Oyster card, a reloadable card that you tap to get onto any vehicle, is a great place to start looking for inspiration. The TTC is trying something similar with PRESTO, but the cards can only be used at fourteen subway stations, and not at all on buses and streetcars. There’s also a bizarre glitch where they allow you to overdraw your card and then lock it, forcing you to go to a special customer service counter to unlock it.

There should be one card that can be loaded online or via an app and a place to tap the card at every subway station and on every surface vehicle. They could still offer the benefits of a Metropass by having people pay the lump sum online. Everyone would still tap their cards, but the card’s balance would not be affected until the month is over (and the month wouldn’t have to start on the first).

Get rid of transfers
For one thing, the current transfer system makes fare evasion incredibly easy. It’s also difficult for people to understand, especially tourists. It’s frustrating to be on a bus or streetcar when there’s a delay at every stop while the driver explains to people how transfers work.  

Those big red boxes in every station that do nothing but dispense these little slips of paper that end up littering the ground just don’t make sense, and someone has to maintain them.

Switching to a time-based transfer system might mean more people getting free rides, but it would be much harder to cheat. You tap your card and don’t pay if your last tap was recent enough.   

Take it further
Transit systems are just one of the many ways to experience a city. Think of how minding the gap has become integral to London. A beautiful interactive information kiosk in a subway system can be carried through to above-ground signage outside subway stations at bus and streetcar stops. More than helping people get from point A to point B, a reinvented user interface for the TTC has the potential to serve as great branding for the city as a whole.