It was a blackout a decade ago that Brad Ross says inadvertently led him to invite the potential wrath of 1.7 million transit users down on him every day.
Ross was less than a year into his job as director of corporate communications at the TTC, when on the evening of Jan. 15, 2009, a malfunctioning sprinkler flooded a city transformer and knocked out power to 250,000 residents and much of the west end.
Subway service was suspended on a portion of the Bloor-Danforth line, and Ross dutifully did interviews with local media to alert riders of the disruption.
But then he logged onto Twitter, which until then he’d mostly used to post messages about the Toronto Maple Leafs, to spread the news. And something happened:
“I started to get questions, and it started to get retweets, and it started to really pick up. That’s when the light kind of went on for me,” he said.
That real-time engagement with TTC customers that social media offers soon came to seem imperative for Ross, 55, who for the past 10 years has been the face, voice and online personality of the public transit system many Torontonians love to hate.
He’ll end his time at the TTC on Friday, and next month start a job as the City of Toronto’s chief communications officer.
In his time at the transit agency, he’s had to defend unpopular policies, talk customers through a transit strike, and even faced serious harassment, but has also earned praise for what many see as his direct, transparent and personable approach.
“You want to like the people you’re hearing from, even if you’re hearing bad news (about) TTC closures or shutdowns. If it’s someone that’s relatable, that is liked, that you know, that you see, it’s sort of easier to take.”
As a member of the TTC executive, Ross oversees about 50 staff members. Still, nearly every day he takes time to answer questions posed to him online by members of the public, whether they’re asking about misfiring Presto fare card readers or why their bus was late.
Sometimes he simply says “Hi!” when one of his 30,000 Twitter followers messages to say they saw him on the subway, which he rides to work every day from his home in East York.
He said while “people are not shy about letting us know how we’re doing,” the vast majority of customers are polite — if a little fed up.
“When people yell, or virtually yell anyway, they’re frustrated, right? I get it,” he said. “I’ve ridden the system all my life. So I know how frustrating it can be waiting for a vehicle.”
Ross grew up in North York and Scarborough and initially wanted to be a radio DJ before he got into communications. His Indochino suits conceal about 15 tattoos, the first of which he got when he was in his late 40s. The text beneath a grinning skull on his left forearm proclaims any spokesperson’s favourite stock phrase: “No Comment.”
On one wall of his office at the TTC’s Yonge St. headquarters hangs a black leather jacket; on another a bus station map the transit agency removed after customers complained it looked too phallic. Ross says he kept it as a conversation piece.
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Ross’s personality and sense of humour are evident scrolling through his Twitter timeline. But what’s as notable is how often he admits to customers the TTC got something wrong, be it inadequate service or his recent admission the agency should be paying artists whose work is posted in subway trains.
“Brad’s abiding achievement at the TTC was to encourage us to own bad news,” said former TTC CEO Andy Byford, who was Ross’s boss between 2012 and 2017 and who considers him a friend.
“So many big corporations try to ride out a controversial issue by pulling up the drawbridge and hoping it goes away, but Brad insisted that such a strategy was flawed and that it was far better to get out and tackle it.”
From the start, Ross had no shortage of bad news to talk about. Three weeks after he joined the TTC, transit workers went on an unexpected strike. Employees took vehicles out of service at midnight on Saturday, April 26, 2008, hours after union members voted down a contract settlement their leadership had reached with TTC management. Torontonians woke up the next day without a working transit system.
“I believe that strike, because we inconvenienced so many people, it turned people against the TTC,” Ross said.
“That really was the beginning of what became two years of a really bad news cycle for the TTC.”
The controversies culminated in an incident Ross said remains the biggest regret of his TTC career.
On Jan. 9, 2010, a passenger snapped a photo of a subway collector asleep inside a station booth and posted it to on social media. The image of the “TTC sleeper” garnered widespread media attention and was broadly disseminated online, with web users competing to create satirical doctored versions.
The employee, a 29-year TTC veteran named George Robitaille who had once saved a disabled customer’s life, later said he had a health issue that explained his sleeping on the job. He died of a stroke 10 months later.
Ross said management was initially unaware Robitaille was sick, but he regrets not publicly standing up for the collector when the public and media piled on.
“I wish I could have it back,” he said. “Did we ask the right questions? Did we push back enough?”
Ross says his very public role has recently exacted a toll on him and his family. Since the summer of 2016, he has been the target of what appears to be an online harassment campaign that became so serious he contacted the TTC’s special constables and the Toronto police.
He also began receiving late night calls to his cellphone (he gives his number out on TTC press releases). The first time he answered, he said, someone “clearly disturbed” was on the other end. He no longer picks up.
He now takes precautions that include leaving his office by a different route each day, and removing his agency name tag when in public. He’s installed a security system at his home.
Ross and his wife both have two adult children from previous relationships — three daughters and a son. At times his family has been drawn into the harassment.
“If it were just about me that would be fine. When disgusting things are said about my family, and pictures of my family are used, that is a line that gets crossed and I need to deal with it,” Ross said.
When the harassment began, it made him rethink whether he needed to be so public in his work, but those doubts soon passed.
“I just thought, either I’m going to do this or I’m not going to do this,” he said.
Among Ross’s few detractors are the leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents the majority of TTC workers. Secretary-Treasurer Kevin Morton said that during Ross’s tenure the TTC has misled the public about the depth of the problems on issues such as Presto fare card system and the delayed Bombardier streetcar order.
“He is a product of his environment, and his environment right now is to mislead and not tell the public the truth about Presto and the new streetcars,” Morton said.
Ross rejects the assertion. “There isn’t a public agency that I can think of that is as open and transparent and under as much public scrutiny as the TTC,” he said.
Ross said the initiative he’s most proud of is changing the way the TTC talks about suicides on the subway system. Instead of cloaking such incidents in technical language about “injuries at track level” or “priority ones” (the internal TTC code for a suicide), Ross will bluntly tell the public when someone has ended their life on the TTC.
His frankness about such a sensitive topic has surprised some transit users, but Ross said he believes speaking honestly about suicide humanizes the deceased and raises awareness about mental health issues.
Ross said there was no one reason he decided to leave the TTC now, but admitted he won’t miss the 5 a.m. calls from transit staff alerting him that subway service is down and he has to tell the public.
When the job at city hall opened up, he said, he saw an opportunity to take “what I’ve been doing here and see what I can apply down there to make the city more accessible to people.”
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr