Imagine being on your way somewhere and the TTC bus you’re in is not moving, because it can’t get up the hill in the snow.
That is exactly what happened to many passengers on Monday February 2, when at least one bus on York Mills Road east of Yonge Street was struggling to get up the hill, due to the 22 centimetres of snow that walloped Southern Ontario overnight Sunday and into the morning commute.
As the snowstorm began overnight, not all roads had been cleared by Monday’s rush hour. Bus drivers were already having a hard time getting through the snow, but it was especially difficult for those whose routes included having to drive up a hill.
TTC operator Lester Moseley was on duty on the day of the snowstorm, and witnessed a bus in front of him get stuck in a snowbank for 25 minutes near Bathurst Street and Eglinton Avenue.
“It was a little tricky, but the thing is when it snows like that, we just slow down because you don’t know what you’re driving on. Is it slush? Is it ice? It’s so easy to get stuck,” Moseley said in an interview at the food court of York Mills Centre, at the base of the hill.
Fortunately for the York Mills bus passengers, a Good Samaritan, Peter Voulgarakis, who works at Euro Touch Homes and Renovations, was driving up York Mills Road East in his company pick-up truck equipped with a snowplow, when he spotted a TTC bus stuck in the snow.
Voulgarakis reversed his truck, brought it up right behind the bus, then used it to help push the bus up York Mills.
“It was interesting,” Moseley said. “I’ve never seen a tow truck, or any vehicle push a bus up a hill. It’s better to have a truck push the bus up so the bus can be in service again, than have a bus sit at the bottom of the hill going nowhere.”
Most of the passenger vehicles made the climb just fine: likely they were equipped with snow tires.
However, TTC’s buses do not use snow tires. The regular buses use Bridgestone R192 tires in the 305/70/R22.5 size , according to Danny Nicholson of the TTC. Articulated buses use Bridgestone M788EZ tires, size 385/55/R22.5. According to a 2011 Bridgestone Belgium brochure, the latter falls into the category of a winter tire.
“I don’t even think they [snow tires] exist [for public transit buses],” said Brad Ross, a spokesperson for the TTC.
Ross explained that most buses travel at very low rates of speed in snow-covered road conditions. During a storm, they are usually travelling 30 km/h or less. The only problem buses face on city streets, Ross acknowledges, are hills.
“If we’re unable to negotiate a hill because it’s snow-covered or icy, we divert service until the city is able to come and plow that hill or salt it to the point where we can then negotiate safely,” Ross said.
95 York Mills diverting eastbound via Yonge, Sheppard, Bayview due to inclement road conditions at Yonge and York Mills. #TTC
— Official TTC Tweets (@TTCnotices) February 2, 2015
ALL CLEAR: The delay at Yonge and York Mills is clear. 95 York Mills has returned to regular routing. #TTC
— Official TTC Tweets (@TTCnotices) February 2, 2015
It may come as no surprise that the intersection of Yonge Street and York Mills Road is considered one of the worst spots in Toronto for drivers. According to files from the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) and the TTC, Toronto’s worst roads and hills for driving also include Dufferin Street, Bayview Avenue, Lawrence Avenue East, and Pottery Road.
When TTC buses encounter problems with hills, it is usually in the midst of a major storm, and the problem goes away after a couple of hours or the next day. The TTC would like more attention from the city salters and sanders for problems spots during bad weather.
“We do rely on the city to clear the roads we operate on and they do that,” Ross said. However, roads did not seem to be clear at York Mills Road where buses were getting stuck.
“It would be better if they focused on clearing the roads and getting salt down where there’s inclines. If there’s an incline and a bus stop, that’s a red flag,” said Ross. “Get it plowed, get it sanded, get it salted, and just be proactive.”
While equipping buses with snow tires for the Canadian winter may seem like a reasonable idea, experts say the idea also has its shortcomings.
The head of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents 9,000 TTC personnel, points out that the cost to install snow tires on all the buses would be enormous. There are 1,851 TTC buses, and the cost for each snow tire would be somewhere from $500 to $700.
“The reality is, the cost for the TTC to have all the tires changed is substantial,” said Bob Kinnear, the ATU president. “I don’t think it would be utilizing our resources to the best of our ability.”
Brad Ross is of the same opinion.
“It would only be an extraordinary cost, not just in the tires themselves, but the storage of those tires, the maintenance, asking to put them on more than 1,800 vehicles every fall, it just wouldn’t make any sense,” Ross said.
Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, released his first budget January 20, which included a $95 million investment towards transit. It will see some service improvements including adding 50 new buses, offering 10-minute bus and streetcar service six days a week, and two more rush-hour subway trains on the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth lines.
As for installing snow tires on TTC buses? That’s probably not happening any time soon.
“Not a penny of the new budget will be spent on it,” Kinnear said.
Ross says there is a bus maintenance fund within the new budget, however snow tires are not something that they are considering at all.
According to the chair of the TTC, Josh Cole, the key is to finding a better all-season tire that is more robust, and performs better in bad weather.
“It’s difficult for us to do winter tires because of storage and costs,” said Cole, in an interview at Toronto City Hall. “But at the same time, we need more reliability on all of our fleet during those cold winter months. It’s Canada: we should expect that kind of cold.”
The TTC currently has three bids on the table to replace its entire supply of tires: one each from Bridgestone-Firestone Canada, Attersley Tire Service Canada, and Goodyear Canada. The TTC paid Bridgestone-Firestone $37 million in 2007 to supply three kinds of tires for its fleet and that contract ended in September 2014. The new tender bid closed in November 2014, and an award was expected to be made this week. But according to the TTC’s Nicholson, the award has been delayed.
“The current contract has been extended to allow the TTC an opportunity to review purchase or lease options and determine whether we would continue to offer the purchase option,” wrote Nicholson in an email.
TTC driver Lester Mosely recognizes the huge price tag for equipping the buses with snow tires, and suggests instead, better and quicker snow clearing from the city. Especially the bus routes.
“I think really they should recognize that this happens all the time, on the same hills, and maybe what they should do is having trucks plowing that strip of road continually and laying down sand and salt, because it happens all the time,” he said. “You have twelve buses sitting there.”
Snow tire use by public transit systems in the Greater Toronto Area
The TTC is not the only municipal transit system in the GTA that does not use snow tires.
York Region Transit (YRT) uses Goodyear Urban MCS tires for their buses.
“We rotate the tires every three weeks, and do a check every 5,000 km,” said Dave Partington, manager of capital assets with York Region.
Drivers are also trained in winter driving techniques, and York Region has a prevention maintenance program.
Other transit systems such as GO Transit, Durham Regional Transit, and Brampton Transit are not outfitted with winter tires, either.
“Studies show that snow tires do not help larger vehicles,” said Jodi MacLean, a spokesperson for Durham Region Transit.
In New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced in November it was retrofitting its fleet with all-season tires, and, in some cases, snow chains, to prepare for inclement winter weather. In Montreal, snow tires are mandatory on private passenger vehicles, and taxis.
Toronto police cars: No snow tires either
Along with TTC buses, Toronto police vehicles do not use snow tires either.
On Feb. 2, Toronto police officer Randall Arsenault tweeted about this. The tweet received 45 retweets, 54 favourites and quite a few responses from his followers. Many were surprised to hear that police cars did not use snow tires.
Shortly after this tweet was sent out, someone in the Ontario Ombudsman’s office replied to Arsenault.
.@PCArsenault Snow tires for cop cars.Would you like us to look into this? 1-800-263-1830 – Complaints Line. Operators standing-by.
— Ontario Ombudsman (@Ont_Ombudsman) February 2, 2015
While regular civilian drivers in Ontario are often recommended to use snow tires, the TTC and police do not plan on outfitting their vehicles with snow tires anytime in the near future.
“In a storm, things are happening very quickly, and nobody is moving fast, everybody’s moving slowly,” Ross said. “So the real message here for transit users is to pack patience.”