Why Declining TTC Ridership Growth is a Problem
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Why Declining TTC Ridership Growth is a Problem

Mind the $30 million gap.

Are Torontonians starting to give up on the TTC?

Schedule delays, increasing fares, and overcrowding are the norm for the transit system with the lowest per-rider subsidy in North America. At what point do riders decide they’ve had enough?

It’s worth wondering since a TTC report [PDF] raised the alarm on less-than-projected ridership growth in the past few months. This trend, staff say, could culminate in $30 million of lost revenue. The loss could result in the cancellation of planned service improvements, and declining ridership numbers could provide political cover for a reduction in the TTC’s operating budget.

TTC commissioners received the ridership report Wednesday, which considers multiple possible factors for missed targets. Among these factors, the report notes a reduction in employment growth, which is cited as the “single best predictor of TTC ridership,” from 1.9 per cent, to 1 per cent.

The report also noted that despite the price freeze this year, Metropass sales continue to decline, and could result in a loss of 3 million rides in 2016.

However, much of the board’s discussion centred around fare evasion as a source of ridership decline and revenue loss. Staff estimate the rate of fare evasion at 2 per cent, a number that hasn’t budged since the introduction of all-door boarding on streetcars. But TTC Commissioner Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s), armed with anecdotal evidence that suggests this number may be higher than staff estimates, tabled a motion [PDF] calling for a report on the Proof of Payment system, and actions to reduce fare evasion.

Even if fare evasion is a bigger issue than staff expect, it’s unlikely to explain away a trend where annual ridership growth has declined from 2.2 per cent in 2013 to just 0.5 per cent last year. As to the employment growth factor, one deputant pointed out the TTC has no power to budge that needle.

So what can the TTC do to give ridership growth a shot in the arm?

To answer that, Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) asked staff to produce a development plan for a multi-year Ridership Growth Strategy.

Toronto had such a strategy in 2003 [PDF], which Carroll credited with what was an all-time-high ridership in 2009, in spite of the global economic downturn, and its effects on local employment.

The key factors enticing riders away from other modes of transit, according to the 2003 document: “speed, reliability, comfort, convenience, and cost.”

To increase ridership, public transportation needs to be an attractive alternative to other modes; that means: affordable, and reliable. Currently, some advocates feel the TTC is failing many, if not all of the criteria established by the recession-proof 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy.

“There’s definitely a problem with the service levels not meeting the demand,” says chair Brenda Thompson, board chair of the TTC Riders advocacy group.

“Then, having fare increases for the last five years: it’s not an incentive for people to take the TTC.”

It should be noted TTC delay minutes decreased 13 per cent last year, compared to 2014. TTC customer satisfaction reached an all-time-high last year of 81 per cent, according to a 10-minute telephone survey of 1,000 riders in the last quarter of 2015 [PDF]. And while service enhancements haven’t produced the ridership growth the TTC hoped for, staff suggest this may just be a question of people being slow to catch on and make use of them.

The Commission does aspire to meet the criteria a new Ridership Growth Strategy would likely recommend. But there’s still that per-rider subsidy, the lowest in North America, recent operating budget cuts, and the perpetual wait for crucial service expansion like the Downtown Relief Line to contend with.

The TTC should draw up a new growth strategy, but it will likely echo its predecessor in calling for higher subsidies from various levels of governments—a call that’s frequently echoed in many TTC reports, and annual operating budgets.

When, not if, a future growth strategy calls for more government funding to operate and expand the service, it must not be ignored. And the city can’t just pass the buck to the provincial, and federal level indefinitely, in favour of keeping taxes low. Because dwindling ridership is not just bad for the TTC’s bottom line. If we, as a city and region, are ever going to tackle congestion, we need transit ridership on a steady upswing, every year.

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2016 TTC Ridership Update Q1