The tens of thousands of parents who spend countless hours online trying to register their children for city-run recreation programs will have access to an “entirely new system” by 2017 that should reduce wait times and ease frustrations, Mayor John Tory says.

Tory made the announcement at the Regent Park Aquatic Centre on Tuesday morning, several hours after the registration window for city-run programs in North York opened for the spring and summer sessions.

The registration window for programs in Etobicoke and Scarborough, meanwhile, already opened this weekend while the window for programs in East York and downtown will open at 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Over the coming days, the city anticipates that it will process more than 145,000 registrations for everything from swimming lessons to summer camps. About 80 per cent of those registrations will be processed online while 19.5 per cent are done over the phone.

“Next to public transportation, I think the one thing I hear the most about as I travel across the city would be to do with how we sign people up for these programs,” Tory said. “I have heard over and over again how incredibly frustrating it is, how people literally arrange their entire schedule for days and sometimes have to have multiple people in the same house on different computers who keep hitting refresh to try to get their kids into these programs. It is an unacceptable situation for a city as sophisticated and successful as this one is.”

Tory said the current online platform used by parents to register for city-run recreation programs is about 20-years-old and badly needs updating.

Specifically, Tory said he would like to see a new platform include a geographic search function that would allow parents to search for programs in their neighbourhood and an automatic bumping function, so if one program is filled the system would give parents the option of signing up for the same program in the closest time slot with open spots.

As well, Tory said he would like to see an automated waitlist function. Currently, city staff manage the waitlist and contact parents over the phone to see if they are interested in slots that become available.

“It is crazy we are still using a system that is 20-years-old,” Tory said. “If you look at any other technology you just know that 20-year-old technology is just not going to be able to do things for people in a robust manner.”

The city has made some improvements to the capacity of its online registration system in recent years, notably adding about 2,000 additional registration windows so up to 5,600 users can search and sign up for programs at the same time.

The interface itself, however, has not changed, and Tory said he believes that is the biggest factor in the delays that people face.

“I think the answer may lie more in the fact that people are taking longer to do the process because we don’t kick up the next available course when one is full and that is what is resulting in the jam in the system,” he said.

Some improvements could be made in a matter of months

While efforts are underway to completely replace the platform used for recreational program registrations by 2017, Tory said he also wants to see “substantial improvements” made to the existing one in the interim.

As part of that process, Tory has appointed a three-person advisory group that will make recommendations on both short-term and long-term improvements that can be made to the sign-up process.

The public is also being asked to share their feedback with the city at the following link.

“It is a big task to try to modernize a city that let itself fall so far behind and it is a shame because we have beautiful facilities like this that they write articles about and it is not accompanied by the type of back office functions that we should have,” Tory said, referring to a recent New York Times profile on the Regent Park facility. “It is just a lack of investment but we are going to make the investments now.”

Big lineups in North York

Tory’s announcement came on the same day that numerous parents physically lined up in North York, so they could try to sign up their children for recreation programs without relying on the online system.

Some parents lined up as early as 4 p.m. Monday afternoon outside the North York Civic Centre to register their children in camps and recreation programs.

“There are a lot of disappointed faces down there with people who lined up way before me,” Joachim Bonin said after registering his children for swimming and most of the other programs they were hoping for.

Bonin said he showed up to register his children at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, three hours before doors opened at the centre on Tuesday.

While the city encourages parents to register for programming online, Bonin said showing up in person usually yields better results.

“I’ve tried online several times and I’ve been disappointed every time,” he said.

After 8 a.m. Tuesday, the cars of several parents who parked their cars illegally and went inside to register their children were towed away.

Each year, the City of Toronto processes 600,000 registrations for 80,000 programs and classes, many of which are offered for free.