A Little Accuracy Would Be Nice

The National Post reported comments by former City budget chief David Soknacki at the Board of Trade in which he claims that in the past decade:

  • The TTC staff went up 13%, while the service operated rose by only 1.3%.
  • The cost to Toronto taxpayers for the TTC went from $125 to $250.

This sort of statement gets red-blooded, tax-chopping politicians, not to mention the Board of Trade, hopping mad.  If only the information were accurate and in context.

First let’s look at service levels.

In 1998, the TTC operated 106.6-million km on its surface network, and by 2008, this was up to 126.3-million.  That 18.5% more, and even allowing for the fact that 2008 was a leap year (and had one more day’s operations in it), that’s a lot better than 1.3%.  The surface fleet rose from 1,744 buses and streetcars to 1,985, or 13.8%.

On the rapid transit network, service rose from 71.7m to 78.2m km, or 9.1%.  Most of the increase came from restoration of mid-90s off-peak service cuts and a small bump from the Sheppard Subway opening.

During this period, the TTC was subject to changes in labour laws restricting hours of work in the transit industry, and this triggered a requirement for more operators to perform the same work.

We can have long debates about the merits of Local 113, not to mention the non-union staff at TTC, but the simple fact is that over the past decade the TTC ran more service and hired more people operate the system.

Second, the “transit tax” per capita.

During the mid 1990s, funding for transit and other municipal services was butchered by Queen’s Park, and the City of Toronto (among others) is still digging its way out of that hole.  Transit services were scaled back, ridership dropped, and the farebox recovery rate went above 80%.

Over the next decade, City policy favoured a return to better service quality (the Ridership Growth Strategy) and to a farebox recovery at the so-called historic level of 68%.  There is nothing magic about this figure.  It just happened to be the level when Toronto and Queen’s Park came to an agreement about the amounts of subsidy each would provide, locking in at the then-current level.

In 1998, an adult token cost $1.60 (and had done so since 1996), while the Metropass cost $83 and was not transferrable.  Today, the token costs $2.25 and the Metropass $109 (leaving aside various discounts available).  That’s an increase of 41% on tokens and 31% on passes.

Better service and a higher proportionate subsidy for service combined to drive up the subsidy required by the TTC.

  • In 1998, the total operating subsidy was $146.3-million paid entirely by the City.
  • This rose to $299.6m by 2007, of which $208.0m came from the City with the rest from other governments. 
  • The next year, 2008, the City contribution dropped back the 1998 level even though the total subsidy continued to rise to $316.9m.
  • For 2009, the total subsidy will be about $400m thanks to the combined effects of inflation and the 2009 fare freeze.

Over the 1998-2008 period, it is roughly correct to say that taxpayers somewhere (local, provincial, federal) roughly doubled their contribution to the TTC, but that increase was paid back to riders in better service and lower fares, relative to the total cost of operation.

Many politicians pay lip service to the need for better public transportation, and if anything, spending is far behind where it should be, especially for system expansion.  None of that will come without higher subsidies.  We can debate whether those the TTC and other transit agencies get today are spent wisely or effectively, but the need for more transit is inescapable.  Talk about efficiency plays well to the mythical taxpayer, but more often this is code for “no more transit money” at a time when that’s the worst possible choice.

For a detailed look at TTC fares and operating statistics, please visit Bob Brent’s website.

9 thoughts on “A Little Accuracy Would Be Nice

  1. Media don’t care. Nor do many of the politicos. Much of this world is built for home owning people in suits who work 9 to 5. If you are a home owning person who wears a suit and works 9 to 5 then this is news you want to hear. If, however, you are not, then you don’t matter. At least that’s the message I’ve been getting.

    If they do start hacking away at transit, I for one won’t be sticking around. I will move to Ottawa, or even the Waterloo region, or if I have to, Vancouver or Edmonton. Even Calgary cares more about its Public Transit system than we do.


  2. The inaccuracies of the article to one side, your post got me thinking about value-for-money.

    No there is no rant here, no examinations of details of service quality or what have you. Rather, I took advantage of your referral of Mr. Brent’s website to peruse historical fare info. Then I popped over to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator page. A crude tool, but I was curious.

    In fairness to the vagueries that can occur from using any one year and comparing it to present, I opted to select 3 different years.

    I chose 1976, as I recall you (Steve) posting about service declines beginning in earnest that year, particularly for the Queen Car I believe.

    Steve: Actually the big declines started later, particularly after the ALRVs were introduced and compounded the effect of the service cuts.

    I chose 1988 to sample a year close to, but before the wave of service cuts and fare hikes in the early 90’s.

    Finally, I chose 1992, as that was the year of the 18% fare hike and the end of a five year long series of hikes that amounted to 49% (for token users).

    Here is what I found:

    1976: Inflation since: 264%

    Resulting fare
    .40c x 3.64 = $1.47 per token

    1988: Inflation since: 60%

    .875c x 1.6 = $1.45 per token

    1992: Inflation since: 36%

    1.30 x 1.36 = $1.76 per token

    Proposed 2010 price $2.50 per token or equal to 625% inflation from 1976 OR 42% inflation from 1992:

    A difference not less than 6 extra per cent from the worst level of fares in then Commission modern history; but more importantly, some 361 per cent above the inflation-adjusted fare of 1976.


    Now I’m not sure how service hours compare over that time,

    I’m dubious as to whether they have risen by 361% from 1976 levels.

    Certainly my local bus route Dawes is only comparable in service levels to when I was young, despite more housing in the area, and a greater City population. While crowding has increased dramatically.

    At first blush it does seem difficult to discern what I am getting for a vastly higher fare.

    Perhaps you would be so kind as to share your thoughts Steve.

    Steve: Your analysis is valid, but it misses a few key points. First, the system is a lot bigger today than it was in 1976, but people are still paying a single fare to travel the length and breadth of the city. Second, some aspects of the cost base have risen faster than inflation overall. One element of this is labour. Without getting into the whole question of whether we pay TTC workers “too much”, the fact is that they are paid at levels comparable to other GTA transit systems. That may be a systemic transit/labour issue, but it is not unique to the TTC.

    As I mentioned elsewhere, the legislation regarding working conditions (hours, breaks, etc) have changed substantially over the years, and it takes more operators to provide the same level of service. Some increases in employee wages and benefits have resulted from arbitrated settlements following back-to-work legislation. As you can see in Bob Brent’s charts, wages have gone up at a higher rate than inflation.

    The capacity of buses has fallen with the move from high-floor GM “New Looks” to the low floor models now on the system. The TTC has to run more buses just to provide the same capacity. This affects not only operator costs but also garage space and maintenance costs.

    1976, your first reference year, was before the early 1980s when the TTC discovered the mantra “tailoring service to meet demand”. This translated to running as little service as possible, a situation that is only now being addressed with new service standards that should trigger better service at lower levels of crowding than before. However, such increases are constrained by fleet size and availability and by the size of the workforce.

    Over a 33 year period many factors affect service quality and cost, not to mention fare levels.


  3. It should also be pointed out that the TTC isn’t the only transit agency to have undergone rapid rates of fare increases since 1988. I believe the Canadian Urban Transit Association has noted that, across Canada, fares have increased far beyond the rates of inflation.

    Why would this be? Steve covered a number of items, including labour wages. However, I think sprawl may have had an influence. We’ve continued to build low density suburbs in our cities, despite the emergence of the New Urbanism movement. Transit vehicles are travelling farther to serve fewer people. More buses (and streetcars) are needed to provide a comparable level of service, and that means there are more drivers to pay, and fewer passengers to pay for it all. And through the 1990s, governments were less willing to spend money to fund public transit’s operating losses. This means service cuts and fare hikes.


  4. It would also seem that some of the decisions in the 70’s/80/90’s with regards to the types of transit run would affect the %’s as well.

    ie. hybrid busses, SRT, not replacing busy bus routes with cheaper to operate LRT and building expensive to run subways to nowhere. It would be an interesting excercise to model a “ideal” system (where subways/lrt replace the buses on routes where it makes sense) or where these bad descisions weren’t made, to give an idea of how much is being spent on what are effectively poor descisions by politicians.


  5. I love Bob Brent’s stats. How do I get in touch with him? I don’t see any contact info on his site.

    Steve: Bob’s email address is buried in some of his presentations. It is bob (dash) brent (at) rogers (dot) com.

    Stats that I’d like to see in a table alongside subsidies and service levels, and fare increases:

    – rate of inflation (to track ‘real’ cost of ttc fare)
    – rate of economic growth in Toronto (to track how wealthy we are and therefore how much we are able to pay ttc drivers)
    – population of toronto est. year over year
    – amount of property tax per capita spent on road maintenance and infrastructure.

    Steve: Some of the inflation info you want is in it least one of the tables. The economic growth of Toronto is not necessarily an indicator of how much we are able to pay for anything. The important first question is what kind of services we want, overall. We may want more transit service for the benefits that brings even if these are “soft” and cannot be directly netted on a balance sheet. For example, avoiding the need to build more expressways and parking lots has a value to the city, and the availability of better transit has a value to the populace. Neither of these translate to revenue the city might obtain to offset higher transit costs.


  6. To follow on from James’ comment – while we’re building condos, a lot of the urban residential housing has gone from duplex or even triplex (rented basement) to single family, and those families are getting smaller as birth rates decline and as multigenerational households become less and less common.

    This is why despite the huge numbers of condos being built, Toronto’s population isn’t growing as fast as some would think going on the net square footage constructed.


  7. Enjoy the discussion yet get more and more puzzled as to the answers: Why are the following not addressed:

    1. Saving labour deployment through more efficient and world standard use? We see all over the world that trains are operated with ONE person, for example, and the ticket system of the TTC is clearly a different century and, through automation, could cut back on a lot of manual labour in that area. Also cost reduction programs seem to be not applied or highly invisible.

    Steve: The TTC is seriously looking at one-person operation of trains, but this has been opposed by ATU Local 113 so far. There are two issues here.

    First, this has to be implemented in a way that does not result in job losses. There is a constant need for new operators at the TTC (hundreds a year), and existing operators could easily be absorbed into the system on an attrition basis. The saving would come in using the existing work force better and allowing the system to grow without a concurrent expansion of the workforce. On a related note, the new streetcars will cut labour costs by increasing the passenger to operator ratio, although this will be partly offset by the fare inspectors needed to monitor self-service payments. The TTC will also be looking at larger buses in the 2012 time frame.

    The other issue is that the TTC talks a lot about safety, and mixed into this is the role of a separate crew member who operates the doors. This is built into the concept of the designated waiting area. The TTC needs a consistent message that doesn’t play up the value of having a train guard for safety at the same time as they propose getting rid of the position.

    2. Why can just about all other cities in the world do a better job? Madrid build from nothing a perfectly good system, why is ANY European system so much more user friendly and goes where people want to go, unlike the TTC?

    Steve: Madrid was able to build a huge system in short time for two important reasons. First, the city received massive support from the national government which, in turn, had a big dollop of money from the EU. Second, the mayor set out as an election platform that he would build a large network, and knowing he would get the money, did exactly that for a few election cycles in a row. The closest our mayor gets to doing that is to announce Transit City, be ridiculed for his efforts, and have to fight a provincial agency, Metrolinx, to get serious consideration for his plans. On the technology choice, Madrid is now moving away from subways as a cost-saving measure for lines that don’t need that kind of capacity, and is building LRT.

    Another European characteristic is that in many cities, transit rules, with pedestrians and cyclists close behind. They don’t build transit rights-of-way that let every other road users meddle in the effectiveness of the transit system. Traffic lights work to maximize transit flow first, not as an afterthought.

    The TTC goes “where people want to go” in the political sense. Do you have some land out in the suburbs where you want to build a mall? We will build a subway to it. Can you say “Yorkdale”? “Scarborough Town Centre”? ‘Vaughan Corporate Centre”? That’s why the “Spadina” subway is not under Dufferin or Bathurst Street.

    3. Why do we even think about expanding the TTC North, did we forget a lesson in geography that Toronto and taxpayers limit is defined as Steeles avenue? Where is the needs analysis of within Toronto? Where are new lines not tackled there? IF you get on at Finch today going South by the time to get to Sheppard (2 Stations) it is standing room only and by St. Clair the train goes without you. Now the plan is to add further North to worsen that problem? What happened to the ring concept of York U and back to Yonge street so that , during the many outages now, the trains could approach the problem area from both sides and continue service instead of always stopping? If Vaughan want a system why do they not build their own and meet TTC at Steeles avenue?

    Steve: Northerly expansion of the TTC is driven by the politics of York Region which manages to throw its weight around disproportionately. The Spadina extension is a direct result of influence at Queen’s Park. There is nothing inherently wrong with expansion to the north, and Steeles isn’t a magic line we should not cross, but the two subway extensions are products of an era when that was the only type of building anyone thought of. Metrolinx didn’t help with its early anti-LRT bias that is only now changing, and there is still no real plan to deal with the need for vastly improved local transit service throughout the 905.

    On a local political scale, it’s hard to get support for spending hundreds of millions, let alone billions, in cities where well below one in ten trips is taken by transit, and if you exclude the commuting trips into Toronto, the transit usage is miniscule.

    4. Where is the West/East relief?

    Steve: In the context of your other questions, I presume you speak of more rapid transit service. The Eglinton LRT/subway will start construction although it won’t open all the way to Kennedy until 2018. There is the Finch West LRT and the Sheppard East line as an extension to the subway (itself another political monument). A Downtown Relief Line is in the Metrolinx plans, and recent changes in planning priority mean that it will at least get a decent review in the larger context as part of the impact studies for the Richmond Hill extension.

    5. Where is the responsibility of the TTC management to toe the line and make do with what funds they have. With an aging population the constant fare increase will spell disaster of affordability.

    Steve: This issue has been raised already by the Commission, and I expect you will see some serious reviews as part of the budget process at Council over coming months. The TTC makes projections for future cost growth that are not in sync with the claimed assumptions about future service levels.

    6. Why are these glass cage ticket collectors always so rude to the fare paying passenger?

    Steve: How would you like to sit in a booth all day? And, from my experience, they are rarely rude.

    7. Why is the system always so dirty? It never gets cleaned but rather the dirt gets spread daily more evenly instead of removed!

    Steve: This is a big problem. The TTC claims to have a plan in place to increase system cleanliness, and it involves adding more staff, but their own surveys of system condition show very slow improvement. There is a separate problem that the outside of subway trains seem to be perennially caked with dirt even during the good weather when a cleaning should last.

    Getting back to budget debates, I fear that we will start to see more trimming around the edges rather than a serious review of how do to things better.

    8. Why do they call it ‘the rocket’, when it does not even qualify for 19th century elementary function.

    Steve: The term originally applied to the red “G” subway cars that opened the Yonge Subway in 1954 when the pace of surface transit was truly glacial. More recently, the term somehow migrated to the streetcar system. I had nothing to do with that, by the way, and the speed of some streetcar lines is more in keeping with ox carts than interstellar travel.

    9. Why does the system halt at least 2x per day now? I don’t know of any other system in the world where this is the case, and I know many!!!

    Steve: There are various reasons for service halts, typically passengers being ill on board and mechanical problems. These tend to be cleared fairly quickly, although there might be a hold of up to 20 minutes. The TTC does not attempt to work around delays like this because the length of time it takes to set up alternate service exceeds the time to fix the problem. There are also longer problems such as suicides (“passenger emergencies at track level”), and these take a while to deal with (I won’t go into the details or possible complications). Other systems have these problems too.

    From my own use of the system, which is daily and frequent, there are not two or more long halts per day that interrupt my travels. I had one recently, but it was the first in a while, and all the more annoying because of its rarity. There was an era when the TTC cut back on maintenance in a foolish attempt to save on budget, while claiming all along that everything was fine. The CGM in question went on to serve, if that is the word, Ontario as a cabinet minister. In those days, breakdowns and long delays were extremely common. We have not reached that point, and should not again.

    10. Why are escalators always being repaired and never working? For example Moscow and St. Petersburg have far worse climate then us and the escalators never stop there and in most cases are a lot older than the TTC’s!

    Steve: The TTC has a long problem with escalator reliability and availability. There are various aspects to this that have to be kept separate. One is that the older escalators are gradually being replaced/rebuilt and this takes quite a lot of time, typically a few months per site. There are some sites (the west end of Yonge Station is an example) where there is an ongoing problem with water getting into the works. Water is an endemic problem for the TTC given the number of underground streams in Toronto, and there is an ongoing problem to plug the leaks.

    There are some locations where the leaks have damaged or at least discoloured station walls (Yonge eastbound, caused by construction above) and in the worst case have even closed entrances (the brand new second entrance to Broadview is closed due to extensive water damage).

    Another problem is random stoppages. There are few escalator mechanics working outside of prime time, and current safety regulations prohibit the restarting of a stopped escalator without inspection. The ratio of staff to escalators is too low to keep everything running through random stoppages, and often station staff don’t even phone in the problems because the know nobody will be available. However, if we had more mechanics on call, there would be complaints about over-manning and efficiency. The TTC needs to address this issue because working escalators (and elevators) are an integral part of their accessibility mandate.

    11. Why is the system always that filthy? At track level it is disgusting, and why do other systems around the world not have that problem?

    Steve: It’s not as disgusting as it once was. However, all systems have problems with brake dust accumulation, and the TTC is no exception. See comments above about water damage to stations.

    12. Why do train drivers not obey the signs and run the trains like they are on a Indy 500 race? The thumping (polite) noise of the gaps in track switches is deafening and very intimidating. Why do other systems not have that, why only Toronto?

    Steve: Now you are just getting silly. It is impossible for the operators to run trains “like an Indy 500” because the speed is limited by the signal system. Deafening noises from track switches? Unless you are riding on an H4 with the roof vents open (typical in the summer), tunnel noise is muted inside trains by the AC/ventillation system. All subways make sounds like that. Until recently, I could have sent you to Boston where cheaply built cars on the Blue Line had no sound insulation at all. Wheel squeal on curves is always a problem, but there are lubricators that work most of the time. Some of the noisiest cars are those that have just been fitted with new wheels that have not yet worn in, but they are the exception.

    13. Why are the majority of platform width so small and dangerous. Under normal building standards such spaces would not be allowed to have public access. Why is this possible on the TTC? Same goes for staircase access! Why so long and small?

    Steve: “Majority” is a gross overstatement. There are locations, such as Union, where the platforms are too small. They were built for a time when demand was much lower and nobody foresaw the evolution of Union as a major commuter hub. Work is now in progress to build a separate Yonge platform on the south side of the existing tracks. Bloor Station was expanded some years ago. The problem is not the platforms but the number of people crammed onto the Yonge line. When we should have been building more capacity into downtown, we concentrated on a vanity subway for North York.

    Staircases and exits are built to the code as it existed at the time. There is an ongoing, but very expensive, program to retrofit stations with additional capacity. This is not easy when stations nestle within surrounding structures (for example, part of Yonge Station is physically surrounded by the substructure of the Hudson’s Bay building).

    You see I stop at lucky 13, but there is lots more! When do we the law abiding taxpayer get answer to some of these questions that address OUR needs? We only foot the bill!!!!

    Steve: The bill to achieve many of the things you rail against will not be cheap. I hope you are prepared to pay it.

    Lastly, why is it still close to a break even level to drive downtown instead taking the less and less convenient TTC? In other parts of the world you go to theatre and a TTTC TYPE TICKET IS PART OF THE THEATRE TICKET (OR SPORTS EVENT OR TRADE FAIR OR ….ETC…..)!

    Toronto and the TTC are cheating the tax payer big time. Where and when do i get any answers? After I die or 100 years from now?

    another naive taxpayer in Toronto!

    Steve: Anything, including transit fares rolled in with tickets to see the ever-losing Jays or Leafs, is possible if someone wants to pay for it. Of your long list, a few items can be addressed by changing the deployment of staff, but the vast majority can only be solved by better funding and system expansion. Far too many people in Toronto and the GTA care only about their own tax burden, want everything from the City (and Province), but will vote consistently for anyone who claims they can do it all for lower taxes. That is, politely speaking, a myth.


  8. Given the many (good) questions above I think your blog may need an FAQ section Steve 🙂

    In relation to Madrid, the testimony of Professor Melis to the Irish Parliament’s Joint Committee on Transport (RTF file) may be helpful in seeing how that project was delivered. Here are some excerpts:

    “To reduce the construction time, divide the project or the whole design simultaneously and award and sign the big contracts before August. This is possible and the design will be finished by Christmas. Most of the design companies and consultants will ask for many years to do the design. This is a waste of time. They need only six to eight months. Any more than this increases costs and is not useful. If the design is ready by December the construction can start in February or March of next year.” (emphasis added)

    “There will be no holidays in the next three years for the committee and the staff supervising the work. This is our life as engineers, otherwise we might be ballet dancers. Building a metro is a serious matter.” (imagine the laughter at TTC HQ/ATU113 HQ if that was proposed!)

    “The Paris métro was inaugurated in 1900 for the World Fair. The man who built it was a well-known engineer and character, Fulgence Beinvenue. He had worked on the railways before being put in charge of the métro. He lost his left arm in a construction accident but he built the first line, 11 kilometres and 18 stations in 20 months. He and his men had no plant and machinery but they built it, no problem. A century later what are the construction companies telling us?”

    “The design should be kept simple; do not confuse the idea of a museum or beautiful buildings for the city with railway stations. (…) The Jubilee Line station designed by Sir Norman Foster, took a long time to build. In the same amount of time we built 60 stations, possibly for the same price. It is essential to simplify the design.” Can’t see that going down well with our art critic Council Speaker!


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