Crowding on the TTC

With recent events of major subway delays and discussions at the TTC Board about a “Ridership Growth Strategy”, the whole question of “what can we do” is swirling through the Toronto media and online. This article is an attempt to pull together threads from several reports and discussions.

This is a very long read and I salute those who stay the course to the end.

In brief, there is a capacity crisis on every part of the TTC system that is the product of years of pretending the problem is not as bad as it looks, and that a few magic bullets can solve everything. This is compounded by underinvestment in the bus network, by Bombardier’s sluggish delivery of new streetcars, and by subway planning that leaves major components either unfunded or missing from the long range capital plans.

There is no easy fix to any of this, but that is no reason to throw up our hands in hopeless resignation to further decline of our transit network. Recovery has to start somewhere even though the benefits will take time to appear. Politicians are afraid of spending money and driving up taxes. Staff act as enablers by concocting budgets that fit within available funding. The numbers “come out right” only because we ignore the full scope of our needs and how badly we have deferred addressing them.

This article does not propose specific remedies, but sets out the history of what has been done (or not done) over past years. Reading through all of it, I cannot help thinking that “Ridership Growth” is a laughable goal considering how hard Toronto has tried to stifle transit’s capacity and attractiveness. But at least the TTC Board is talking about trying to build more demand on its system. To do that, they must first acknowledge the accumulated shortfall between transit we think we would like and transit that is actually on the street.

For convenience, the documents referenced are all linked here:

  • TTC Ridership Growth Strategy (2003) Report
  • TTC Ridership Growth Strategy (2018) Report & Presentation
  • TTC Corporate Plan (2018-2022) Report and Presentation
  • TTC Crowding Standards (January 18, 2018) Presentation
  • TTC Subway Crowding (January 18, 2018) Report
  • TTC CEO’s Report (January 2018)
  • Toronto Budget Committee (January 23, 2018) 2018 Capital and Operating Budget Reports & Minutes
  • TTC Presentation to Budget Committee
  • TTC Briefing Note on Overcrowding
  • Yonge Subway Extension – Final Report on Transit Project Assessment Process and Future Actions (December 17, 2008) Report
  • Yonge Subway Extension – Recommended Concept/Project Issues (December 17, 2008) Presentation
  • Yonge Subway Extension Post Transit Project Assessment Process Technical Amendment (May 1, 2012) Report & Presentation
  • Yonge Subway Extension Conceptual Design (March 2012) Report [Large PDF]
  • VivaNext Yonge Subway Extension Page
  • Metrolinx Yonge Network Relief Study (June 25, 2015) Presentation
  • Amended 2012-2016 Capital Program and 10 Year Forecast – Shortfall Reduction Plans (September 16, 2011) Report

2003 Ridership Growth Strategy

Although the 2003 RGS was recently dismissed by current TTC Chair Josh Colle as if it were yesterday’s answer to transit problems, the context in which it was written is as fresh today as it was 15 years ago.

There is a growing expectation that transit in general, and the TTC in particular, must take on an increased role in providing travel for people in Toronto if the City is to grow and thrive economically and in an environmentally-sustainable way. Each level of government has recently announced plans and policy initiatives, that highlight the need for greater use of transit in urban areas – the City with its Official Plan, the Province of Ontario with its “Smart Growth Council” and “Gridlock Subcommittee”, and the Government of Canada with its approval of the Kyoto Accord. Achieving these policy objectives will require a fundamental shift in transit’s role in Toronto and the relative importance of automobile travel.

Unfortunately, these initiatives follow on the heels of a consistent lack of government support for the TTC in the past decade. Provincial funding was reduced a number of times in the mid-1990’s and is only now being partly restored. The TTC’s ridership and market share has fallen significantly during this period, to a large extent because of lack of government support. While there is no simple “magic answer” that will reverse this trend, government support for the TTC must be real and pronounced if the current widespread public and government expectations for improved transit are to be met.

The TTC’s mandate is to operate and maintain transit services that provide safe, fast, reliable, convenient, and comfortable travel in a cost-effective way. The TTC’s highest priorities are to our current passengers, and to maintain the existing system in a state-of- good-repair. The TTC needs a substantial, ongoing, funding commitment to meet these basic priorities and fulfill its role of providing transportation services to a large proportion of Toronto’s population. Once these needs are met, the TTC could attract more people out of their automobiles and onto transit with a stable source of increased funding and a commitment on the part of the City to implement policies that support efficient transit operations and transit-oriented development in Toronto. [Executive Summary, p. E-1]

Two points here cannot be made too strongly:

  • There is no magic answer, and
  • Looking after the system and riders we have today is essential to attracting new riders.

Investing in improved transit service makes sense for many reasons, but it must be done in a way that provides significant, measurable, and real returns on investment. If taxpayers’ funds are to be used to improve transit services, there needs to be a strong business case to prove that the money is well spent, and that any funding provided will generate significant additional ridership. There is no simple, low-cost solution to achieving increased transit ridership, or to reduce congestion and pollution. Attracting new riders to transit will require substantial increases in government policy commitments and subsidy, on a consistent basis, over a number of years. One-time funding arrangements and individual mega-projects will not result in significant changes in overall travel patterns over the long term or over a wide area. A consistent, long-term, staged program of providing priorities for, and investing in, expanded existing transit services, using proven technologies and operating strategies, provides the best opportunity to achieve sustained increases in transit ridership.

The underlying issue will continue to be the extent to which the City and senior levels of government will be willing to take the steps necessary to invest in transit to achieve their broader objectives. [p. 3]

There is a section titled “Why people choose to use transit” that is too long for me to quote in full here [see pp. 5-6], but a few excerpts are worth including:

The key factors governing mode choice are speed, reliability, comfort, convenience, and cost. Different segments of the market put differing values on these factors, and an understanding of market segments is critical to determining the potential for attracting transit riders. In addition, some modes of travel are simply not available or practical for some trips – few people will make very long walking trips for example – and people do not necessarily have an automobile available for any given trip. The availability and attractiveness of various modes is also very dependent on the location of both the origin and the destination of the trip being made.

The situations where transit can compete effectively with automobile travel are those where there is good pedestrian access to transit at both ends of the trip, and where transit can provide comparable speed to automobile travel when all factors are considered. Under these conditions, transit travel becomes attractive to many potential users. These conditions exist for travel to and from downtown Toronto in peak periods, where the roads are congested and rail lines (GO and subway) provide a comparable travel speed to automobile travel. There is also excellent pedestrian access from the downtown rail stations to destinations in the downtown. Transit achieves a 60%-to-70% mode split to transit in these favourable circumstances.

There is an obvious problem with this observation, and it applied even in 2003: much GTHA travel is not oriented to downtown and its concentrated destinations, and riders will not fall into transit’s lap simply because this is the obvious way to travel. Indeed, in many cases transit will be the last, not the first, choice. This begs the question of whether there are some trips for which making transit even grudgingly acceptable simply is not economic, but at the same time whether there are trips that are poorly served by a downtown focus on travel. This question is not new to transit debates.

If we abandon trips that are harder (or more expensive) to serve, or provide only minimal service to “show the flag” with a route map whose many lines hide less-than-ideal service, do we risk alienating potential riders especially in an era of population and density growth? Market conditions could evolve to give transit a greater role provided that it is there to establish credibility and a base of demand. This is not just an issue for the far suburbs in the 905, but for areas in both the outer 416 and in more central, redeveloping industrial neighbourhoods.

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