Recent months brought much hand-wringing to TTC meetings where the mysterious decline of ridership threatens the stability of budgets and undermines planned service improvements.
In reality, ridership is not dropping, but for years the rate of increase has been in decline and this caught up with the TTC in 2016 when they overestimated potential growth. Politically, an optimistic projection is useful because this inflates anticipated revenue, provides the basis for planning service increases, and sets the stage for chest-thumping claims that the disasters of a previous administration have been reversed.
The problem is that when the projections fail, there is a budget shortfall. This is small on the scale of the overall TTC budget, but large in its potential effect on subsidy needs and pressure for more fare revenue.
The debate always looks at recent years and asks why ridership growth that once appeared almost as reliably as the sunrise has fallen off. It is worthwhile, however, to take a longer view and examine how ridership has been changing over decades.
There are two sources of data for this review. Neither is perfect, but at least the numbers exist over an extended period.
- TTC’s Ridership Analysis spreadsheet available from the City of Toronto’s Open Data Website. This file gives annual breakdowns of the type of fares sold, the location where these are paid, and a subdivision of weekday and weekend riding.
- TTC Service Plans and related reports for many years included tables of route-by-route performance. These were once published annually, but in the past decade less frequently at least in part because the idea of improving service was not on the Ford-era agenda. Information for 2011, 2012 and 2014 can be found on the TTC’s Planning page. I have been collecting this information for years since its publication originated as an outcome of the Service Standards process established four decades ago. The format changes from time to time, but the basic information remains.
Each of these sources has its challenges.
The Ridership Analysis is based on fare collection at the point of trip origin. If I pay my fare at a subway station, but later transfer to a streetcar or bus, I count as a “subway” rider. In theory, I will be a “streetcar” rider on the return trip and so things should even out, but this breakdown does not reveal the modes used in the course of multi-hop journeys.
Another recent problem is that ridership is assigned by vehicle type in this analysis, not by route. A rider on a 504 King bus counts as a “bus” rider, not as a “streetcar” user.
Passes are a particular challenge because they are only actually counted on entry to a subway station through a turnstile. Passes flashed at operators (including station collectors) leave no trace for the statistics.
The Route Performance figures come from two sources: counts of riders on TTC vehicles, and scheduled service mileage. (Much of the data in this series is stated in miles, and for recent years I have converted kilometres to miles for consistency. The unit of measurement is less important than the trend in service provided.)
Riding counts are not conducted often on busy routes because of the resources required, and it was common to see the same values reported on streetcar routes like 501 Queen for many years in a row. In theory, this should not be a problem once the entire fleet has Automatic Passenger Counters, and assuming that these produce reliable data, but we are years away from that.
Mileage is a standard unit for transit maintenance planning because many aspects of vehicle repair depend on how far the vehicle travels. In practice, some factors are really more time than mileage sensitive, but in a system where most routes operate at comparable speeds, time and mileage are interchangeable. However, a bus garage serving mainly slow inner-city routes will see different performance figures from its fleet because the time-sensitive factors will occur more frequently on a mileage basis.
From the point of view of service, vehicle capacity affects the meaning of “mileage” as a surrogate for the quantity of service. With the shift to low-floor vehicles, about 10% of the fleet capacity has been lost, and so 100 bus miles are not the same as they were two decades ago. There is also, of course, the question of varying mix of vehicle sizes in the bus and streetcar fleet.
The Ridership Analysis gives full year figures, while the Route Performance numbers come from counts conducted on a wide variety of dates. They are daily figures, but they do not represent a single point in time. The Ridership Analysis figures were recently updated to include 2016, but there are no Performance figures after 2014.