Other cities are enjoying a ridership boom, but Toronto is struggling to just keep the riders it has. What could we learn from other cities?
On July 26, Translink, the transit agency for Metro Vancouver, released its ridership figures for the first six months of 2017. Compared to the same period in the previous year, transit use was up a stellar 5.7 per cent. Translink already saw ridership jump by 4.5 per cent in 2016, which made it the top city in Canada and the United States for transit growth. With a growth rate of 4.1 per cent in 2016, nearby Seattle was the only other city anywhere close to Vancouver.
Meanwhile, transit use in Toronto has effectively flatlined. The first three months of 2017 (data for the first six months of the year isn’t available yet) saw average daily TTC ridership minutely increase by 0.06 per cent, or about 115 times smaller than Vancouver’s growth rate. The TTC’s lacklustre 2016 ridership growth rate of 0.7 per cent attracted some media attention, but little of the kind of comparative analysis with other cities that could provide us with applicable lessons for the TTC.
Internally, the TTC seemed unwilling to engage in the necessary soul-searching. TTC spokesperson Brad Ross dismissed 2016’s disappointing figures, and incorrectly explained that “[c]ompared with transit systems across North America, all of which have seen a softening of ridership, the TTC is doing well.” In maintaining ridership the TTC does compare favourably to cities like Washington, D.C., which saw transit use plummet in 2016 as a result of massive service cutbacks and catastrophic reliability problems. But quite plainly, cities like Vancouver and Seattle have not only bucked the trend of declining transit use but excelled. So, what are they doing right, and what should Toronto emulate?
The recipe for success is fairly straightforward. Vancouver and Seattle have both built new infrastructure and improved service on existing routes.
Vancouver began the implementation of its 10-year strategic plan earlier this year. Alongside new infrastructure, such as a Skytrain extension along Broadway and light rail in Surrey, the plan calls for a 10 per cent increase in bus service on existing routes, and a 20 per cent increase in SkyTrain service by 2020. In 2017 alone, the plan has added 89,000 service hours to Translink’s bus network. On top of building new rail infrastructure, the plan will also see 5 BRT-lite routes added by 2019.
After decades of underinvestment in new infrastructure, Metro Seattle has adopted a similar program for transit growth. Since 2010, it has introduced 6 RapidRide BRT-lite routes, with plans for seven more by 2024. The three RapidRide routes running in Seattle itself have increased ridership by 87 per cent compared to the normal bus routes they replaced. Seattle’s Link LRT has also been a smashing success, with total ridership increasing by 40 per cent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. In November 2016, Seattle voters elected to raise a variety of taxes in order to fund a massive $54 billion (US) transit construction program to 2040.
Meanwhile for an urban region with more than double the population of Seattle, Metrolinx’s The Big Move calls for spending $50 billion on new transit in the same period across the GTHA. Except for GO Transit and the Union-Pearson Express, the provincial government has generally been unconcerned with improving existing transit service, and has failed to provide a meaningful increase in operating funding to the region’s transit agencies, although new transit lines will bring improved service to some areas of the GTHA. In contrast, Vancouver expects to spend $23 billion improving transit over the next 25 years, with $5 billion dedicated to increasing service, which works out to a per capita investment nearly 40 per cent higher than the Big Move. The Big Move is simply not big enough and fails to provide the sorely needed operating support that the TTC desperately needs.
As for the TTC, its service has for the most part stagnated or even slightly declined, despite considerable increases in population. Some bus service improvements in early 2016 were negated by a similar number of cuts late last year and in early 2017.
Modest plans to expand the TTC’s express bus network by 2026 were released in June. Despite capital costs of only $34 million, this plan is not fully funded. It is estimated that the implemented express bus plan would add 1.2 million new trips to the TTC, similar to projected gains from the Scarborough subway extension but at 1 per cent of the cost. Even something as simple as all-door boarding is relegated to a proposed trial on the 192 Airport Rocket in 2018, with no plans for a system-wide rollout. Improved express bus service could benefit up to one sixth of TTC passengers, but no councillor has emerged as a bus champion.
The TTC’s 2003 Ridership Growth Plan has not been revisited in nearly 15 years and was, at best, partially implemented. The TTC presently has no funded plans to improve service across its surface network. Even a measure as simple as timed transfers is not on the table due to a lack of funds.
To make matters worse, TTC users have faced annual fare increases since 2010. It is no surprise that TTC per capita use peaked in 1988, when service was better, and fares were $1.65 (in 2017 dollars). Without adequate operating support from the province, the TTC continues to be the least-subsidized transit agency in the developed world, with an average per ride subsidy of 90 cents. Translink receives $1.62 per ride, while Seattle subsidizes each transit journey to the tune of $3.91 (US).
While new infrastructure is certainly needed, other cities have learned that improving existing service as part of a comprehensive and reliably funded strategic plan is the quickest and most cost-effective means of improving transit ridership. Years of austerity that shows no signs of abating have left Torontonians with a transit system incapable of providing the service we deserve.
Alex Gatien is a planning student at York University; Jessica Bell is the executive director of the advocacy group TTCRiders and, as of last month, ONDP candidate for University-Rosedale.
CLARIFICATION: The story has been updated to clarify that the provincial government has been unconcerned with improving existing transit service and has failed to provide a meaningful increase in operating funding to the region’s transit agencies.