No Time For Panic on TTC Ridership Numbers

The TTC’s Ridership Update report will be discussed at the March 23, 2016 Board meeting. Its publication triggered an unwelcome round of hand-wringing about transit service and financing that could well undo momentum seemingly regained by the Tory regime at City Hall. How did we get so quickly from a pro-transit stance to one where just avoiding cuts will seem a victory?

Fun With Budgets at City Hall

During the Ford years, TTC ridership continued to climb despite the best efforts of Council to throttle the TTC budget, but a good deal of that growth came at the margins, filling up less crowded routes and time periods, and stuffing the busier ones to the extent any new riding was possible. John Tory ran on a platform that SmartTrack would fix absolutely everything, but once in office acknowledged that day-to-day service had taken a hit and needed fixing. Improvements to date have not addressed peak capacity for the simple reason that there were no spare vehicles, and that is only now being addressed.

Some of the new buses bought by the TTC will not directly address capacity shortfalls, but instead will be used to bolster the pool of spare buses so that maintenance standards can improve and fewer vehicles will fail in service. The streetcar system remains hobbled by a car shortage thanks to Bombardier’s missed deliveries, and this cascades down into the bus fleet. On the subway it is physically impossible to run more trains, a problem that will not be eliminated until 2019-20, and then only on Line 1 YUS. Riders might be forgiven for wondering if things will ever improve, especially for peak period travel.

Schedule adjustments have reduced the amount of short-turning on some routes, but gaps and bunching of vehicles remain a problem.

The TTC is far from out of the woods on service quantity and quality, and this situation cannot be fixed overnight.

The problem with a shortfall in ridership has been with us for some time, although it is important to define just what “shortfall” means.

  • In 2013, ridership was 2.4% over 2012, but 0.5% below the budget target (525 million actual vs 528m budget).
  • In 2014, ridership was 1.8% over 2012, but 1.0% below the budget target (535m vs 540m).
  • For almost all of 2015, ridership was consistently below the budget target, but it also began to fall below previous year actuals in June. This situation persisted through to January 2016. Ridership was 0.1% below 2014 (not including the extra one-time Pan Am trips), and 2.0% below budget (534m vs 545m).


[Sources: CEO Reports for February 2014, 2015 and 2016]

Despite this situation, the TTC planned aggressively with a budget target of 555 million for 2016. It is no surprise that this target will be extremely hard to reach.

An important factor in budget presentations is that there is an advantage in aiming high because this inflates the projected fare revenue by about $2 per rider. On a base of 500m rides, 5m extra (1.0%) is worth $10m in revenue. Whether that is actually achieved is less important than simply putting a high number there as a starting point. Why would the TTC do this? It all has to do with City budget controls.

If the TTC aims low and does better than expected, the temptation in past years was to use the money to improve service. However, Council has reserved to itself the right to say what happens, and the TTC Board cannot just launch new services that could affect future year subsidy requests. To put it another way, Council wants any “surplus” to come back to reduce overall spending and tax requirements rather than leaving it in the TTC. If the revenue (and projected high ridership) are in the budget to start with, the TTC has the elbow room to make or defer improvements based on actual conditions.

An important factor over the years when ridership fell short of budget is that on the expense side of the ledger, the TTC more than compensated for the missing revenue. Fuel prices have been consistently lower, and other cost areas have balanced out in the TTC’s favour in some cases simply by deferral of spending, in others by the luck of actual costs being lower than projected.

However, the 2016 budget tried too hard to pull off this trick in the face of stagnating ridership and at a time when Council, for all their fine words about supporting transit, actually stripped $30m out of the TTC’s budget request leaving only a $20m increase instead of the expected $50m. Now there is a sense of panic because the TTC projects that revenues will be $30m below budget thanks to a shortfall of 13-18m rides (year end projected at 535-540m rather than the adjusted budget of 553m allowing for effects of the fare increase).

That number represents more than a 1% tax increase if it were funded fully through subsidies. The problem is not just for 2016, but for future years when new costs such as the TYSSE (Vaughan subway) and better Wheel Trans service will land on the City’s budget table without enough new fare revenue to pay for them.

Politicians who wish to seem both as friends to transit and hard nosed tax fighters will be challenged to reconcile their two personae.

In short, yes there is a “shortfall” in ridership, but its severity is magnified by the presentation of an unduly optimistic TTC budget and by Council funding cuts that removed headroom within which the TTC might have adapted to what could be a short-term situation.

Does The TTC Understand Its Ridership?

The Ridership Update identifies several possible factors for their falling numbers.

  • The rate of economic growth has fallen below projections, although it is still positive. The degree to which this growth affects ridership is not quite as direct a link as TTC management often claims, and there have actually been years where the two factors headed in opposite directions.
    • Depending on the physical location of growth or loss of jobs, the effect on TTC ridership could vary depending on transit market share in the affected areas.
    • Over half of TTC riding occurs outside of the peak period where there has been room for growth, and riding during this period is not necessarily tied to the economy.
    • Factors affecting the cost of auto use could push more demand to the TTC even if job growth weakens.
    • The TTC estimates that the lower growth rate could cut 2m rides from the 2016 projection.
  • Metropass sales were down in January 2016 by 6% over 2015, and in February by 2%. The TTC hopes that the Metropass price freeze in 2016 will arrest this fall and possibly even turn it around.
    • There is a basic statistical problem with reporting of Metropass ridership. The pass is priced at the equivalent of 49 fares although the typical user takes about 73 trips per month. The TTC counts ridership for pass holders by the simple formula of (Pass Sales x 73).
    • If someone decides that buying a pass is no longer worthwhile, they revert to token purchases, and the TTC sees this as a “loss” of about 20 rides. However, the people who would make such a decision were almost certainly not taking 73 rides to begin with, and there is no real “loss” of riding. If this effect is big enough, it should show up as a rise in the average trips/pass for all remaining users, but that number will not be recalibrated until later in 2016.
    • The TTC estimates the lost trips for 2016 at about 3 million, or by their methodology, the equivalent of 150,000 passes at 20 rides per pass. This does not represent a loss of $2 per ride ($6m for the year) because the “lost” rides might never have existed. Only if a frequent TTC rider decided both to abandon their pass and cut back substantially on transit travel would this mean an actual loss of trips, and the revenue side could still come out equal if those fewer trips were paid for with higher cost/trip tokens or Presto.
  • Service improvements made by the TTC in 2015 (with more just beginning in 2016) are estimated to account for 3m rides out of the shortfall, although this number is not based on any analysis in the report.
    • In reviewing the system for possible slowdown of better service or even for future cuts, the TTC needs to understand just where ridership is lost. Is it a case that improvements have not attracted the expected demand, or that riding is down on existing routes and/or periods of operation? There is no sense in the Ridership Update that the TTC understands its changing demand at a granular level.
  • The factors above total a drop of 8m rides, and the TTC cites a range of 8-13m in their report leading to a projected 2016 ridership of 540m.

A fundamental question at the heart of any transit operation should be “are the buses full”, but this does not appear anywhere in the “ridership update”. Moreover, “full” is a relative term as it is linked to Service Standards regarding the quality and comfort of service provided to riders. The Ford years absorbed more demand simply by relaxing the standards and stuffing more riders on transit vehicles. This can be counterproductive both in making transit less attractive as an option, and slowing service because vehicles spend more time squeezing riders on and off at stops.

Among the concerns raised by management (and routinely by members of the TTC Board) is the question of fare evasion which can take many forms:

  • Abuse of Proof-of-Payment to enter vehicles without paying
  • Abuse of reduced fares or free rides by passengers who are not eligible for them
  • Abuse of transfer privileges

A common thread through all of these must be the matter of enforcement. Both the TTC and Council have been loathe to increase the number of fare inspectors as “head count avoidance” is a classic, if simplistic, way to control costs. The problem is that the fare system will increasingly rely on some form of inspection with the move to PoP and with the transition from fare media that can be quickly “eyeballed” as passengers enter vehicles.

The TTC plans to take riding counts to determine whether fares collected match revenue, but this is a challenge without doing fare inspections at the same time. Many people on the system do not pay their fare on the vehicles they ride, and raw riding counts and farebox revenues will not necessarily mean much when the combined effect of boardings with passes, transfers, and free entry at subway stations are all taken into account.

Abuse of concession passes will sort itself out with the transition to Presto assuming that a mechanism to audit eligibility is included. For seniors, this is a one-time check. For post-secondary students, the status could be refreshed annually based on eligibility.

Transfer abuse has two aspects: outright fraud (a transfer that is clearly invalid) and the bending of transfer rules to squeeze more travel out of one fare than is strictly allowed. A move to a time-based transfer embedded in Presto would eliminate both of these problems. There would be no question about validity based on location and elapsed time, and “recycling” of old transfers would be impossible.

Where do we go from here?

The Ridership Update contains some troubling observations:

• The impact of low gasoline prices and ridesharing is difficult to quantify; however, both factors are generally seen by GTA transit agencies as contributors to declining ridership;
• The consensus opinion from GTA transit agencies is that the main driver of ridership is economic growth, in particular, employment growth, which is beyond the control of transit agencies and could potentially have a long-lasting impact on ridership growth; and
• If current trends persist, TTC’s current service levels may be higher than is required to accommodate future ridership.

This has an air of resignation, a sense that transit demand will simply stop growing and with that the need for better service. This plays right into the hands of those who say we do not need to spend more on transit, not to mention those who claim that subway extensions will not overload the network.

Before Toronto goes down that path, TTC management might like to check with riders who cannot get on buses, streetcars and subway trains because there is no room.

Their is an air of panic, the idea that the TTC must “do something” to prevent a catastrophic budget shortfall even at a time when the politicians claim that they want to encourage more transit use. They just don’t want to pay for it.

TTC management makes two proposals for dealing with the supposed excess of service:

• A freeze on further service additions until it can be determined if the year-to-date ridership results are only temporary or more indicative of a lasting trend;
• Expense reductions that would be achieved from across-the-board service reductions in 2016 and 2017.

Just what the doctor ordered – a return to the simplistic service cuts of the Ford era without the bother of finding out where, when and why ridership is down, or where, if anywhere, the system can actually absorb service cuts.

The alternative, also cited by management, would be an increase in the operating subsidy, not to mention adjustments to fare levels. The fare debate will be further complicated by the as yet undefined effects of regional fare integration and proposals for zones, distance fares, and making rapid transit a separate fare class.

The TTC Board has long abdicated its responsibility for conducting such a debate, and Council prefers to save on taxes except to the level needed to produce a few photo-ops and small-scale improvements. Nobody shows up to trumpet higher fares or taxes.

Meanwhile, Toronto is on the verge of debating a huge transit expansion plan, one with a chicken in almost every pot, all to be funded from a magical combination of new provincial and federal spending and dubious schemes such as tax increment financing.

If your bus doesn’t show up as often as you would like, or you still can’t get on the subway, don’t worry, in a decade or so there will be a shiny new train.

14 thoughts on “No Time For Panic on TTC Ridership Numbers

  1. The funny thing is – that I am fairly sure, that the lack of capacity for peak growth will be one of the reasons for a slowing of general growth. Many do not have the flexibility to ride that far away from peak, and if there is not room, well… Also travel, like shopping is a habit. If I know where everything is in a store, I will tend to go back there. If I am comfortable with transit, I will use it for more trips, and one of the keys is daily trips – like work (perforce many of these in peak).

    The lack of space on the subway, and buses at peak , will discourage ridership and not just at peak. The lack of consistency off peak will further discourage ridership. Transit , high quality transit is a must to making a city like Toronto succeed. It is also the only way you can even begin to approach a big part of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars with drivers only, take too much space, and fuel for the city or environment to work, but transit must have space, and be attractive, for people not to drive.


  2. I literally slapped my forehead when I read this in the Star last week:

    “TTC management is proposing several ways to slow costs and increase riders… for example, by not adding any additional buses during busy hours.”

    There are no words.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There is one BIG word that no-one in Toronto ever mentions regarding transit. Speed.

    The TTC is absurdly slow, especially on the streetcar network.

    Why would anyone want to wait for a transit vehicle that comes at inconsistent intervals, arrives packed to the rafters, then crawls along at somewhere between the pace of walking and jogging.

    People are not blind, they see how the city prioritizes automobile traffic at every turn. Streetcars packed with hundreds of people constantly waiting behind two or three cars (thus two or three people) to arrive at the stop, then missing the green light, and then having to wait again for a left turning vehicle to clear the intersection. What an inefficient mess. Maddeningly this is barely improved on roads with dedicated streetcar lanes. Streetcars are easily “out walked” on Spadina.

    If our city planners continue to give cars 100x the priority at intersections (hundreds in a streetcar vs. a handful in cars) why would anyone who doesn’t have to want to use transit?

    Want to get to the Beaches from Queen west on a Sunday summer morning? It’s going to take a good part of 90 minutes. So people simply don’t go. Or they take an uber and get there in 30. Or a bike and arrive in 40.

    Want to increase ridership? Increase speed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thought experiment:

    Imagine if metro pass prices increase and fewer are sold. But those who switch to tokens continue to consume the same number of rides.

    TTC metrics will show a fall in ridership and revenue. They will reduce service to compensate.

    But the actual number of rides consumed will not change. So the reduced service will only increase crowding.

    A smarter strategy would be to lower metro pass multiples, increasing the number sold, but leaving actual rides consumed constant.

    The artificial ridership number would be higher, but real rides the same.

    TTC is a prisoner of a dumb measurement system. Weird thing I’d that they have not figured out. Are they not smart enough?


  5. That the first thing the TTC suggests is to freeze service expansion should be a huge red warning flag for anyone on the board.

    Management is essentially suggesting that there are no full buses, there is no capacity problem and we should just stop all this expansion nonsense because nobody wants to use our service. We can’t be bothered to figure out why, or try to resolve it in any way other than to just stop.

    Yet we have full buses, streetcars and subways well outside of rush hour, there is clearly service and value problems that are related to sub 50% on time performance on a large number of routes even in evenings and weekends. Gas dropped by 50% but fares and passes have not gone down in price to be competitive. There is clearly grid-lock around the city.

    That management would even suggest stopping or delaying service expansion in the above situation tells me that they don’t understand their city or their transit system. If I was on the board and management suggested something like this I would summarily fire then all.

    Steve: There is a big problem that we are still living with the hangover of the Ford/Stintz era of minimal service as a way to constrain taxes, and Tory’s bone-headed embrace of the same philosophy. Until the board and Council give management different marching orders, they will tend to be gun shy and won’t advocate a course that, on paper, will cost the city a lot of money in extra subsidy. Josh Colle doesn’t want to challenge Tory who, after all, is responsible for Colle having the TTC Chair’s position.

    What we are missing is a sense of advocacy, not to mention in this case a management who really don’t understand what is happening on their own system. This is Byford’s Achilles heel: there are areas where bad advice and incomplete research by his staff can make him look bad. You can only fire and early-retire so many people before the buck finally lands on your own desk.


  6. Tue, 22nd of March, 2016 would go down as a Great Day for Toronto when the Trudeau budget has finally relieved Toronto of the chokehold ten successive Harper budgets had on Toronto. Let us celebrate late into the night tonight and worry not about the freezing rain and ice pellets, let us celebrate for Toronto was reborn on Tue, the 22nd of March, 2016 years after the birth of our Lord.

    Steve: I am guardedly optimistic. Toronto and its funding “partners” have a long history of spending money on the wrong projects, and then when the tap is finally turned off, wondering why so much we really need still hasn’t been built.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One big advantage of Presto is that rider counts will become much more accurate.

    Steve: There will be better counts of unlinked trips (counting each boarding separately), but deciding how to assemble these into “rides” will be challenging particularly if the fare structure shifts even more to pass-equivalent forms such as the two hour transfer or an automatic cap on costs so that riders benefit from “pass” pricing whether they explicitly opt for passes or not. The linkage between revenue and individual trips will weaken further than it already is today. What will be important will be actual utilization of services, not a raw count of tokens in the farebox.

    Of course that has always been what is really important, but it’s simpler to count “trips” even if over half of them are implied as a multiple of a fixed monthly payment.

    Regional integration will also bring its statistical problems. Does a trip on Miway, then GO, then TTC count as one trip or as three? The number of unlinked trips does not change, but an amalgamated fare structure (never mind an even bigger step to an amalgamated system) begs the question of whether the artificial distinction for each segment should remain. This is an important issue in an environment where subsidy funding is based on “trips”, whatever they may be.


  8. Steve said:

    “Regional integration will also bring its statistical problems. Does a trip on Miway, then GO, then TTC count as one trip or as three? The number of unlinked trips does not change, but an amalgamated fare structure (never mind an even bigger step to an amalgamated system) begs the question of whether the artificial distinction for each segment should remain. This is an important issue in an environment where subsidy funding is based on “trips”, whatever they may be.”

    The funny thing, is that from a network design basis, one of the keys, that we do not really see much of as the public, is demand by portion of route. I cannot help but believe what we should really be focused on is not just how much ridership is on say Finch East, but how many riders on each segment of the route, same for subway etc. Whether these are counted as 1 or 3 trips, does not matter to how full the bus or streetcar, or subway is.

    How we think of network extension and capacity improvements really needs to focus on the usage of capacity over each segment of the network. The TTC should really be publishing a regular map of capacity and its utilization for each segment of every route. King Street, as per a previous article being a case in point. Knowing more specifics of point of boarding and alighting and load past each point will be as important as the number of trips.


  9. I would hope City of Toronto doesn’t reduce the TTC budget, to cancel out the tentatively good news of Toronto’s share of forthcoming federal transit funds.

    There is so much work TTC needs to do, but cannot do quicker due to financial constraints. This “TTC infrastructure deficit” has been going on for many years.


  10. “Regional integration will also bring its statistical problems. Does a trip on Miway, then GO, then TTC count as one trip or as three?”

    I think this is a statistical perspective redo.

    Trips per passenger per agency.
    Totals for the above.
    Then separate total for trips per passenger, multi-modal/multi-agency.

    That way, both are counted, and we’ve got a basis of comparison with a backwards-compatible way to compare to old statistics. It will also show on a GTHA-wide basis, for the first time, reliably record multi-agency trips in one day.

    This statistical transition really needs to be done delicately, as the bean counters will be all over this…


  11. My opinion is we need to wait and see.

    There are a bunch of express routes coming. Will the new express routes increase ridership, or just shift ridership? If for example more people take the Don Mills express and not the 25 will they reduce frequency on the 25 and shift the bus or buses to another line? Or will they take those buses off the road to be used as spares?

    What needs to happen as well is the city needs to remove parking on streetcar routes and to turn King into the transit only roadway. That will speed King up but also other routes that get crowded by all the vehicles using one lane.

    I may be in the minority in thinking this but once the subway extension and the Crosstown are built I believe that will improve routes in those areas. Instead of running as many routes in certain areas they can be shortened to just connect to the train service. That to me will make a big difference as buses will have shorter routes to travel.

    Once these things happen I am sure ridership will increase. The lack of express routes in a city of this size is baffling but Toronto is slowly adding more. Hopefully it makes a difference


  12. Ridership and revenue are unrelated concepts. Gyms don’t sell memberships based on the number of steps you take on a treadmill. TTC should take lessons from gyms, airlines, cable companies and other high fixed cost – low variable cost business.

    The perfect TTC customer is one that pays for a monthly pass and rarely uses it, but is still happy to have the potential transit freedom. How can the TTC get more of these?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Some good points but an overall downtown bias here. From a Scarborough residents perspective (and not looking to derail the thread for a subway debate so don’t bother) where Streetcars have little value, unfortunately we just cant share that pain. If anything we need the opposite as these slow down our car commute & WE NEED to drive because of this inefficient, unattractive, unequitable transit system. If we had similar forms of transportation available we would likely share your pain and work together. But that’s not the reality for now.

    TTC is even more unattractive to Toronto’s suburbs due to many issues already mentioned here like speed & crowding, that is in addition to having the transfers, being poorly integrated, using a less attractive infrastructure, & GO transit being a non integrated premium service.

    I certainly believe if the latest plan goes forward you’ll see a “unexpected” sizable jump in ridership which although may compound others issues it will go a long way for Toronto commuters to start working together on pressuring our Political heads to effectively improve service levels.

    Steve: This thread is about fares, and if that isn’t a concern to the suburbs I don’t know what is. Are you looking forward to fare-by-distance for long trips? To a separate fare zone for the subway? You really need to pay attention to what is going on with this issue because downtowners like me will actually benefit from some of what Metrolinx proposes. You, on the other hand, will pay and pay and pay. And I am sure Metrolinx will tell us that higher fares for longer, faster trips are more “equitable”.

    Maybe it would be useful if all of the Scarborough politicians (local and provincial) woke up to what is in the works if nobody makes enough noise.


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