Fun With Figures at the TTC

After a long hiatus, we finally have a Chief General Manager’s Report for the first quarter of 2008.  Over the past few years, the CGM’s report dwindled, and the online version of this one is a threadbare five pages long.  There are three appendices with the meat, no doubt, but you have to actually attend the meeting to read them.  Within those five pages, however, we still see the TTC’s inventive approach to reporting ridership.

Last summer, in the midst of the financial crisis, the TTC suddenly discovered that Metropass riders were taking too many rides.  Even though they were selling more passes, probably due to the tax incentive for pass use bringing a new demographic into the Metropass cohort, they were collecting less revenue.  This brought out the thundering forces of the TTC’s right wing who demanded that the price of Metropasses go up to compensate for the lost revenue.

However, after the City’s new taxes (and their revenue for 2008) were safely in place in the fall, we learned that the TTC had been counting those passholders as more “rides” than they actually represented, and retroactive to July, they dropped the calculated  total ridership by using the new, lower multiplier.  Nobody bothered to apologize about the erroneous claims of how Metropass users were ripping off the system.

This year, ridership for the first quarter is not doing as well as projected.  It’s 0.7% above budget, but ever so slightly below last year.  Never fear!  TTC New Math to the rescue!  If we use the lower Metropass multiple for all of last year, then the ridership for Q1 last year goes down by 3.3-million and — Presto! — we have a tidy jump in riding this year.  The TTC seems to have missed the point that adjusting their ridership for last year downward throws off all their claims about a banner year for transit and causes a slight increase in the overall average fare per ride, but we’re not supposed to notice that.

You can count the riding increase in 2007 or you can count it in 2008, but double-dipping ain’t allowed in my transit planning 101 class. 

The Metropass Multiple is supposedly calibrated every month by selected riders keeping trip diaries.  Even I did it years ago.  There will always be some month-to-month variation, but over time there should be a good trend (rather like the headway charts for the Queen car).  However, you can make the ridership numbers, and the imputed impact of passes on the revenue stream, jump all over the place simply by twiddling that multiple.  It’s a basic piece of data that should be published so that we can get some sense of how it shifts around over time and in response to external factors such as tax regimes, the price of gas, and seasonal changes in tripmaking.

It’s particularly odd to think that a value that is recalibrated as part of a monthly moving average can be changed retroactively over a year backward in time.  Have they only now gotten around to looking at those early 2007 trip diaries?  Of course not.  If the multiple was actually dropping in early 2007, the TTC would have known it by early Q2 at the outside, and certainly should have known it by the time of the fare and budget debates in the summer, Q3.  However, that was news best kept under wraps as long as goading the Commission into approving a jump in pass pricing was the real agenda.

This is a case where the TTC has that classic choice:  admit that you presented faulty data because you were asleep at the switch and didn’t know what was happening on your own system, or admit that you misled the public into thinking that a Metropass increase was essential.

Postscript:  Recently, we’ve seen media reports that the TTC faces a big jump in fuel costs later this year and is thinking of adding a fuel surcharge to the fares rather like the airlines.  Please don’t insult everyone’s intelligence.  If total costs go up, you raise fares or subsidies.  Period.  Don’t call it a surcharge when we are in an era of higher prices as part of the landscape.  Or does the TTC know something about the oil market they’re not telling anyone?  Do they have some magical access to cheap diesel fuel a year or two out?

That’s hardly the message for a transit system to send to motorists who, we hope, are in mortal fear of never affording to drive their SUV to the corner store again, much less to work.  Don’t worry, folks, it will all be over in a little while and you’ll be back to 70 cents a litre before you know it.

If the TTC wants more money, call it a fare increase and be done with it.  Or is someone not wanting to break a political promise to hold the line on fares?

The creative accounting at the TTC has got to stop.  It takes X dollars to run the place, and Y dollars are needed from the farebox.  Period.  Decide how you want to divvy up the revenue among available fare classes and get on with it.  If we ever do get back to 70 cent fuel, I will expect a reduction in the cost of my Metropass.

11 thoughts on “Fun With Figures at the TTC

  1. What about turnstiles? I realize they don’t count all rides (obviously any ride that uses only surface routes is missed) but surely the trend there could be used to confirm or refute what the TTC is reading in the pass-diary tea leaves. 3.3 million rides in a quarter is well over 2%; that sort of swing shouldn’t go unnoticed.

    Steve: The turnstiles only count, at best, the number of swipes, not the number of swipes per pass. Also, many people enter the subway by flashing their card at a collector or crash-gate attendant (I do that most afternoons at STC station). Your thesis is that there should be a fairly stable ratio between swipes and numbers of passes sold. However, if there really is a change in the behaviour of pass users, how can you be sure which type of trip they will take more, and whether this will upset the turnstile ratio.

    One thing I can say for the proposed automatic fare system is that we will know where every single rider uses their farecard, even if it costs a quarter of a billion (by the latest estimate) for us to get the information.


  2. Amen. The postscript did it for me right there. Things definitely need to change in the way the TTC is managed, for fear that car drivers will never consider the TTC an alternative because of all these consistently useless issues that come up to discourage new ridership.


  3. Is there any evidence that the TTC uses any kind of statistical tools to estimate the number of rides per Metropass per month? A few riders keeping “trip diaries” sounds very fishy to me.

    Steve: One way or another, you have to ask people how many rides they take. Unfortunately, if you do this at the end of the month, they will give answers that vary considerably from what they actually did day by day. One way or another people have to write down their travel, and a large enough sample has to do this each month to be statistically meaningful.


  4. Presto=Waste of money! 250 million dollars just to track passengers, and give them a convenience? Here’s a simple solution, a flat fare of $3, to anywhere that GO Transit touches. Screw counting passengers, if the bus is full improve the headways.

    Like you said it would cost an arm and a leg for good cheap service … ok so it ain’t cheap but our tax dollars have to count for something?


  5. The sample of people who complete diaries is also self-selected, so it’s a representative sample only of the population of people who agree to fill out diaries. Be interesting to know the refusal and completion rates. Essential, really.


  6. $250 million to install a smart card system? For what, a few thousand fare card readers, a few hundred vending machines, a few million cards, and a mainframe somewhere? Something in me thinks that this could be done for a lot less by shopping around suppliers.

    Steve: There is a huge cost to install the facilities in all subway stations — power and network cabling. Part of the high cost is also driven by the current plans for fare-by-distance that requires “tap in, tap out” operation. Not only do you have to capture people entering and leaving vehicles and stations through their trip, you have to create the back-end infrastructure to charge them for the privilege.

    As I have said before, this is an IT project, not a transit project.


  7. Let’s say there are two routes which are full to capacity. The answers above go “well put on more buses then!” Except if you knew that 60% of the passengers on those routes connect, and between specific catchments, you could introduce a third direct route which would be cheaper to operate and allow service on the other two routes to reduce to what’s needed to serve them.

    There is also the question of surges such as sports events and carnivals – if you can see that every time the same event comes up a disproportionate number of travellers come from one or two areas of the city then you can add specific service rather than just ramping up the whole system. You can also advertise the additional service since if people are taking the TTC there it’s likely there will be drivers too who might be tempted by a more direct service or the likelihood that vehicles will not be jammed.

    Operators and booth collectors can provide some guidance on ridership but that depends on their motivation to do so and on their managers to seek it out.

    Now your $250m IT project has saved you a bunch of money and improved your utilisation of buses and drivers. What you don’t measure, you can’t react to.

    Smartcards can be leveraged for other purposes and thereby cost-sharing – for example, you could load your smartcard in the morning and use it to pay for a subway ride and pick up a zipcar at the far end which also would be paid with by the same smartcard. You could take the streetcar to the Ex and pay in with your smartcard.

    As John Fitzgerald points out, people who fill out diaries may be self-selecting – those who have an interest in public transit and who don’t conform to the general population profile of transit users.

    That said, this quote from former head of GE Jack Welch is telling – it should be posted in every TTC facility from HQ down:

    “Too often we measure everything and understand nothing. The three most important things you need to measure in a business are customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and cash flow. If you’re growing customer satisfaction, your global market share is sure to grow, too. Employee satisfaction gets you productivity, quality, pride, and creativity. And cash flow is the pulse—the key vital sign of a company.”

    Steve: I agree with you in principle. My problem with Presto! is that is was advertised as a “solution” to the problems of cross-border travel. That is nonsense, because the real problems lie in poor service levels in the outlying areas. You cannot integrate what isn’t there to start with.

    The original cost to implement on the TTC was pegged at $150-million and this has now grown to $250-million. We could buy a lot of buses and run better service for that money to solve the alleged problem for which Presto! was conceived.

    Knowing where passengers go is useful, but we cannot tailor the network to every permutation of demand. Indeed of route A has a lot of passengers connecting to route B, it does not follow that the two routes should be integrated.

    Knowing what customers want has to take a wider view of the system as a whole. They want reliable, frequent service between many origins and destinations. Our grid network is designed to provide flexibility in this regard rather than the purpose-built routes we find in so many small-scale suburban transit systems.


  8. Something else seems strange with the report. The first item listed in explaining the reason for higher than budgeted expenses is “the $2.8 million budget cut from the City”. It seems to me that should go in the “subsidy available” line, not the “expenses” line. If that was the case, suddenly the expenses are increasing by only $6.0M, and the subsidy required is only increasing by $2.0M. The shortfall remains $4.8M, but of that, $2.8M is the City’s budget cut.

    I also couldn’t help but notice the numerous references to $300k for route supervisors for the 501, which have increased the TTC’s expenses by all of 0.026%…


  9. Brent writes:

    “I also couldn’t help but notice the numerous references to $300k for route supervisors for the 501, which have increased the TTC’s expenses by all of 0.026%…”

    I brought up this penny-wise-pound-foolish behaviour at the last Queen forum, and will do so at the next one.

    Two ALRVs running in convoy on Lake Shore is a waste of one ALRV. The car is out running up kilometres, and the operator is being paid, but this is an expense that benefits no one.

    I wonder if there’s any way to figure out the money wasted on Queen alone where the trailing cars in packs are providing remarkably little benefit. It would not surprise me if 10-20% of Queen operating expense is simply a waste of money because the car is the empty last car in a pack, or is laying over in some random loop.

    I am guessing that even 10% of operating expense for the Queen car is more than enough to pay for those supervisors, assuming that they actually cut 10% “waste” from the Queen line.

    Of course, there’s the Rob Ford approach, which says that if there are empty streetcars following packed streetcars, then the empty streetcars should simply be cut. If north Etobicoke is fine with packed streetcars on Queen, then those downtown people should be fine as well.

    Steve: As you say — “waste” in quotation marks. What is the real waste is that all the capacity that the TTC claims to be providing whenever people complain isn’t really there. They report average loads over the peak hour, even if all of the passengers are on half of the cars. This makes the service look good, even excessive, while the actual experience is from from it. Indeed, this sort of brilliant analysis led to many service cuts over the years, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that people are using transit less and less even though the service is good on paper.

    One major goal of the next Queen forum would be to get riding counts reported on an invidual car basis — headways and passengers — not just hourly averages. Let the TTC prove they are running good service that’s not overcrowded.


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