Why ridership has plateaued and what can be done about it
After many years of growing demand, the Toronto Transit Commission’s system hit a plateau of 535 million rides in 2014. Give or take a few million, the TTC has been stuck there ever since. Toronto may be the envy of other cities with a great economy and a highly-touted transit network, but that system has been losing the travel market share. Even before 2014, the growth rate was falling, but this went unnoticed.
No transit growth in a booming city whose population rises every year is a red flag–the TTC is in trouble. This is not the message managers and politicians celebrating a fresh award as “2017 Transit System of the Year” want to hear.
How did the TTC lose its momentum, and what can they do about it?
A History of Strangled Growth
Both the subway and streetcar systems have been capacity-constrained for years. On the subway, signalling technology limits the number of trains per hour that can operate. Both Yonge-University (Line 1) and Bloor-Danforth (Line 2) have run the most scheduled service that will fit for many years. The streetcar system has a declining fleet of 30-to-40 year old cars, with the recent addition, well behind schedule, of Bombardier’s new Flexitys. The SRT fleet, itself over three decades old, runs below full capacity while trains are rebuilt for service into the mid 2020s when the Scarborough Subway will open.
Only the bus fleet has been free to grow, but even that has its limits thanks to budget cuts.
|Date||Era||AM Peak Buses|
|January 2006||2nd Miller term begins||1,328|
|October 2010||2nd Miller term ends||1,468|
|March 2011||Start of Ford cuts||1,478|
|January 2015||Start of Tory term||1,504|
Very little bus service was added to the system during the Ford years, and not much more during Tory’s either despite claims that more buses were funded. Yes, they were purchased, but the extra vehicles went mainly to increasing the maintenance pool and to back-filling on the streetcar system.
Because the TTC had some leeway in its service capacity, the Ford and Tory constraints did not hurt ridership in the short term, although growth when it came tended to be more in the off-peak periods when vehicles had more room than during the peak. As off-peak demand grew, the TTC burned through its spare capacity, and little was added to peak periods.
Recent gains in ridership have masked an underlying problem in the bundling of statistics. Increases in student, senior and (free) children’s riding has been offset by a loss of adult and other riders (mainly day passes).
Even when the totals were rising, the TTC was losing its primary rider type, adults. There are now about 20 million fewer adult rides, about 4.5%, than in 2014. [Source: TTC Ridership Analysis 1985-2017]
Waiting for a Strategy
In March 2016, Councillor and TTC Board Member Shelley Carroll moved:
That TTC staff report back to the Commission by the third quarter of 2016 with a development plan for a comprehensive multi-year strategy to address current ridership stagnation and to achieve a steady rate of ridership growth annually thereafter.
Despite former CEO Andy Byford’s focus on customer service, TTC management did not rush to complete the report. Fall 2016 came and went, as did all of 2017. Eventually a preliminary report appeared in December. The delay was so long that some events overtook the “strategy” with a TTC/GO co-fare announced by Queen’s Park, and the TTC Board and Mayor Tory embracing the two-hour transfer, subject to Council approval.
During this long wait, TTC concentrated on the APTA Transit System of the Year award.
The last five years have seen significant improvements and modernization efforts in all areas of the TTC. This transformation has been acknowledged by customers, who report a significantly improved satisfaction score, and the organization’s American Public Transportation Association peers who awarded the Outstanding Public Transit System of the Year Award to the TTC in 2017. [p. 4]
This award’s primary focus was on organizational turnaround through Byford’s five-year plan, work that was needed to position the TTC to move forward. However, during this period, the budget marching orders from City Hall were to keep down expenses and limit the demand for greater subsidy. This continues into 2018 when any improvements will come by shifting resources between routes, but with no overall service growth.
2018 Ridership Growth Strategy
The Ridership Growth Strategy (RGS) flags three strategic objectives for the TTC’s future.
1. Retain current customers
2. Increase transit rides per current customer
3. Attract new customers to the system [p. 4]
None of these is surprising, but the challenge will be to decide which approaches will yield the greatest effect. Although the RGS contains many proposals, it is not clear on the benefits these will bring to each of the objectives.
Past studies have shown that retaining existing customers and encouraging more trips by them is cheaper than wooing new riders to transit. Current riders have already decided to use the TTC, while new face the biggest change in their travel style moving from a personal vehicle. If the TTC can lure them in, new riders have the potential to generate lots of new rides, but how much will it cost to get them?
The subway extension to York University and Vaughan was a big event, especially for those directly served by the new line. There is no question that the quality of transit service has improved for those who use the extension, but much of the city receives no benefit. Riders far from the subway corridor can only look on with envy at the new service. As for ridership growth, that will be limited to net new riders, and demand projections indicate that most riding on the extended subway will be by people who were already on the TTC.
Rapid transit projects have a role in transforming how transit is perceived in the newly served areas, but they cannot address demand issues across the city, especially in the short term. The TTC might have high customer satisfaction scores, but more is needed to shift auto users to transit.
The TTC’s five year plan includes rapid transit changes–Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West LRTs–but these are actually Metrolinx projects and they will not contribute new ridership in the short term. Many other projects are planned further out–Waterfront, Scarborough, SmartTrack, Richmond Hill, Relief line–but all of these lie outside of the planning horizon. Even the Bloor-Danforth renewal project gets only a passing reference in the plan even though it is critical to rejuvenate and improve Line 2 service and operations.
Census data shows that more people in Toronto are commuting via transit, but that growth is not reflected in TTC statistics. The King Street Pilot shows that there is a latent demand for better transit service even when the measured change appears to be less than what riders perceive. King cars are packed, and the TTC is caught flat-footed with limited additional capacity. For system-wide growth, there must be system-wide change, and this will not be easy in a climate where higher spending does not fit the prevailing political mindset.
A key chart in the RGS report shows the factors affecting customer satisfaction.
Riders-specific items address system usage from the point of view of someone who is already a customer, while non-users factors affect speed and the absence of boundaries that are invisible to auto users. Any proposed improvement must be measured against the common transit basics–total trip time, comfort and cost. The relative importance and benefits must be considered too. Real time information and fare discounts are “good to haves”, but without service people can and want to use, they are window dressing.
The first big challenge will be to know and understand existing ridership. For decades, the TTC counted riders on its vehicles infrequently, and a major route like 501 Queen could go years between updates of riding data. Published route-by-route counts are now four years old. Recent technology can change this.
PRESTO’s data will provide the TTC with insights into travel behaviour that will assist in transit planning and budgeting, while the implementation of automatic passenger counters on the TTC’s surface fleet will increase the frequency of ridership counts. Thereby allowing the TTC to respond more quickly to changes in demand. [p. 6]
One might ask whether City Council is prepared to fund better service if actual demand today and potential demand tomorrow are greater than the TTC can handle by shifting a few buses between routes.
An issue for TTC and Council is that there are two ways of looking at “ridership”. This was evident during staff responses in a recent TTC Board meeting debate. For Service Planning, ridership is “bums in seats”–real riders counted either by hand (the old way) or with new technology (automatic passenger counters and Presto). For the financial folks, ridership is really a revenue question, but it is this measure that is commonly reported. Revenue figures drive budget debates about service levels, not actual counts of passengers.
The problem will grow with the move to two-hour fares where a “ride” as we know it ceases to exist, replaced by a limited time pass. Passengers might take more “trips” on the TTC, but the link between “trips” and “fares” will be tenuous. Reporting of actual demand on routes will be vital to understanding where there are shortfalls in service.
The split between claims of flat ridership while actual rider experience is of growing crowding clouds the funding debates, and out of date counts have masked growth. The TTC quite recently updated its ridership estimate for the King Street corridor from 65,000 to 71,000 daily even without the effect of the transit priority pilot. How many other routes suffer from out of date counts, and what latent demand would push these even higher if only service were improved? Riding counts see only passengers on vehicles, not would-be customers who give up waiting.
What’s In Store for 2018?
The focus for 2018 is on consultation, and this kicks major decisions on transit improvement beyond the election. However, some pending reports will inform debate.
On fares, the principal changes are already in the works–the co-fare with GO Transit and the two-hour transfer. A report is planned in the first quarter of 2018 on a “framework” for implementation of a post-secondary student “UPass”. The RGS is silent on the “Fair Fare” proposal within the city’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, but the TTC advises:
As the report indicates, the RGS is a live document subject to further stakeholder consultation. The Fair Pass is very much part of the strategy and will be added in. [Email from Stuart Green, TTC Communications, January 23, 2018]
A potential landmine in the regional fare debate is the Metrolinx Fare Integration Strategy which is expected in February 2018. With a provincial election in the offing, Queen’s Park might prefer that substantial changes be left for the future. A big step to “integration” would be a funding scheme to allow cross-border recognition of two-hour transfer privileges between the TTC and the transit systems in the 905. This would have obvious benefits for TTC ridership, and the TTC plans to work on its development and implementation this year. However, budget considerations put this option in 2019 or beyond, according to the TTC’s Stuart Green.
On service, a report in the second quarter will analyze the RGS initiatives including changes to the crowding and wait time standards, and a review of weekend service.
Aside from the operating cost, this will take the TTC into thorny debates about increasing the bus fleet and providing a new garage. With current facilities already overcrowded, this has been put off for too long, and the ability to run more service is limited by the space available to store and maintain buses.
The TTC will open the new McNicoll Bus Garage in 2020. The new total design capacity of for the eight garages will be 1881 and the new total buses available, by design, for service will be 1554.
When McNicoll Bus Garage opens, the TTC will continue to operate above capacity with reduced spares ratio beyond 2020 to accommodate service requirements. The planned overcapacity will accommodate 2007 buses at the eight bus garages with 1673 buses available for service. The TTC is assessing locations and available properties for a ninth bus garage. [Briefing Note, p. 6]
The design capacity of 1,554, even with McNicoll Garage, will be only slightly higher than the current peak requirement of 1,528. This is not mentioned in the RGS.
The TTC also plans reports on area studies considering how routes in various parts of the city can be reorganized to better serve riders, but the RGS does not list the affected areas.
The streetcar system will gain some capacity from the continued delivery of new cars by Bombardier, but this will be partly offset by retirement of old ones. The TTC’s budget, keyed to staffing and vehicle hours of service, does not provide for a net increase in the total number of vehicles on the road.
The Briefing Note [p. 4] lists the routes where improvements are planned for fall 2018. Unless you are a customer of these routes, don’t hold your breath waiting for more service.
|7 Bathurst||56 Leaside||113 Danforth|
|11 Bayview||72 Pape||122 Graydon Hall|
|23 Dawes||79 Scarlett Rd.||165 Weston Rd. North|
|25 Don Mills||88 South Leaside||185 Don Mills Rocket|
|26 Dupont||91 Woodbine||195 Jane Rocket|
|29 Dufferin||96 Wilson||199 Finch Rocket|
|36 Finch West||107 St. Regis|
|43 Kennedy||109 Ranee|
Notable by their absence is the proposed expansion of the Express Bus Network. This is directly linked to the bus shortage, and the TTC does not expect to begin implementation until 2019.
Between 2019 and 2021, we’re planning new or enhanced Express Bus service on 13 routes, and other routes have been identified as candidates for our Express Bus Network in 2022 and beyond. [Five Year Corporate Plan, p. 67]
Advance the implementation of service enhancements that are currently planned in 2020 to induce ridership growth (i.e. express bus services, new services etc.) [Briefing Note, p. 6]
Transit Priority on Streets
An important part of any plan for the surface routes is a transit priority plan.
Create a Transit Surface Priority Plan in collaboration with City staff that allows buses and streetcars to operate more quickly and consistently on key corridors [RGS, Attachment II, p. 2].
- Initiate plan development
- Implement transit signal priority on key corridors
- Implement up to three queue-jump lanes
This will also include “engagement” with the Toronto Parking Authority “to align parking strategies to support transit.” This will inevitably run headlong into protests from businesses and councillors about the removal or restriction of on-street parking along transit routes, a delicate issue in many wards.
Queue-jump lanes, bypass arrangements for buses at key locations, have been on the TTC’s wish list for years, but they address only local pinch points and require reconstruction of roadways.
How much Toronto will progress beyond having a plan remains to be seen. The proposed plan does not include any rights-of-way, only improved priority on existing streets. Changing the way streets worked was an integral part of the 2003 RGS, and that evolved into the Transit City LRT plan.
A main feature of the strategy is the construction of surface rapid transit rights-of-way on major roads and “Avenues” as identified in the City’s Official Plan. These partially-exclusive transit rights-of-way, in the centre of major roads, will allow surface transit services to be provided on key corridors at speeds and reliability comparable to the subway, and very competitive with the automobile. The strategy highlights the need for the City to act to improve transit operational efficiency on the street system. The City has identified this need, in its work on the Official Plan, and the City must now operationalize its Official Plan by implementing effective policies and regulations to improve surface transit operations. [2003 Ridership Growth Strategy]
Several projects are listed in the RGS although they already exist outside of it:
- The Easier Access Program continues with completion of elevators at St. Patrick Station, and start of work at Wilson, Runnymede and Chester. Elevator retrofits are a multi-year plan stretching into the mid 2020s.
- A study of subway platform gap reduction and a wayfinding pilot involving electronic beacons for the blind will begin.
- The Wheel-Trans “Family of Services” roll out will continue. This is a challenge for the TTC to execute because of variation in the levels of service and physical infrastructure around the system. Politically, the pressure is to cap the growth of expensive services and shift riders onto the “conventional” TTC network wherever possible.
Stop location and design will be reviewed.
As part of a comprehensive review and improvement effort for surface stops across Toronto:
- With consultation and support from local councillors and communities, review and optimize stop spacing to improve safety, accessibility, and reliability at approximately 300 bus stops across the city.
- Make additional stops on different routes accessible to meet AODA mandated standards.
- Continue to support City staff in adding shelters and improving shelter amenities at transit stops across Toronto [Attachment I, p. 1].
Consultation, Communication, Commitment
The RGS includes an extensive consultation plan, although who will be included varies greatly from topic to topic. Councillors and communities are essential not just for advising on components that might go into the plan, but as key players who must understand what might be happening.
There will also be communication both about the studies and about changes already in the pipeline, notably Presto, but communication is no substitute for real change. Without that, there will not be much to tell would-be riders and lure them onto the transit system.
For 2018, there is not much on the table because the Mayor and Council decided in 2017 to continue on their tax-fighting ways. We do not yet know how many of the proposals for 2018, notably the fare changes and the limited amount of service expansion, Mayor Tory and his crew will support. The provincial election in June could bring further complications depending on whose view of transit funding, operations and importance rules at Queen’s Park for the next term.
Toronto is at a point where it must decide whether continued austerity in the quality of municipal services will bring the future city we see in announcements and photo ops.
The core of a Ridership Growth Strategy is not simply to have a document, but to integrate advocacy for better transit throughout the organizational and political debates. Just getting by should not be an acceptable way to run the transit system. Those who tout cutbacks by whatever name should be called out for their true role in undermining the network’s future.
Why We Need Ridership Growth
Transit is an essential part of moving many, many people around the city. Without it, they would be forced into the extra expense of driving, or face much more limited choices of where to travel. Congestion, already bad, would be intolerable.
The change would not be overnight, but a deliberate decision for “business as usual” would bring a gradual decline in transit use, and a concentration on two markets: those who live and work along major corridors and will support whatever service remains to bursting, and those who have no option but to use transit no matter how bad it is.
This would skew political support and hamper the ability to build a network of services beyond high capacity, commuter oriented lines. For someone who is not a transit user, the primary desire would be “to get those (expletives deleted) streetcars/buses out of my way”. They might support a new subway if they would use it, or if they perceive that it would reduce congestion on their commute, but there is no guarantee. Indeed, many who live in Toronto work in the 905, and new subway proposals offer little incentive for them to support transit spending.
In a regional context, if transit cannot work in a city where the population and travel demand is growing, why hope that it can make a difference outside of Toronto?
The more people who use transit not from necessity but because it truly is “the better way”, the more political support there will be to build on that success.