The Importance of Transit in a Changing Travel Landscape

My latest for NOW Toronto.

As ridership drops on the TTC, just as on transit systems across the world, there will be a temptation to make big cuts, but then to fall behind in the recovery when the crisis passes.

This is also a time to rethink the design of public spaces, streets especially, and the balance between all users and types of travel: cars and transit, cyclists and pedestrians.

19 thoughts on “The Importance of Transit in a Changing Travel Landscape

  1. I think you’re right Steve.

    Now is a great time to sort things out.

    If you have the time on your hands go look up how much the TTC misses monthly on fare evasion. It’s staggering that this amount of money is left on the table.

    If a system is well funded it can be well maintained. Rethinking the streetcar entry and swipe system would be a positive start.

    I mean just imagine if someone was to fix the entry system so it’s “1 swipe, 1 passenger entry”.

    Users swipe outside the door, the card is validated, it opens for entry and closes behind them.

    Just like the subway entry.

    Steve: No, not just like the subway. The people getting on trains are not swiping at all. What you propose would add immensely to boarding times.

    Slowpokes or anyone needing assistance would enter next to the driver. That should help TTC generate plenty more to keep things running.

    I can’t speak for the rest of the city but that Queen street line could be generating A LOT more money if all the riders paid.

    It’s pretty sketchy these days and fare enforcement officers are a poor attempt at a solution.

    A system like this would help the TTC and the riders too.

    Steve: The Queen line carries about 15m people annually. Let’s say that 10% of them do not pay. That would be about $2.25 (the average fare) times 1.5 million or $3.375 million. That’s not exactly small change, but it’s also not going to turn around the fortunes of the TTC either.

    My own experience on the Queen car does not support an assumed 10% evasion rate, although this does vary over the course of the day.


  2. I agree. But prov/federal/civic govts are not funding Transit properly and certain projects are approved with the wrong information given by staff.

    Canada is rich enough to have proper public transit in its major urban areas.
    We should not be behind so many other countries.


  3. Mark said: “Rethinking the streetcar entry and swipe system would be a positive start.
    I mean just imagine if someone was to fix the entry system so it’s “1 swipe, 1 passenger entry”.
    Users swipe outside the door, the card is validated, it opens for entry and closes behind them.”

    Apart from the obvious delays you, Steve, have noted, I think we need to look how other cities deal with fares. They use very visible inspectors and LOTS of them. I have certainly been inspected far more often during a 2-week trip in Europe than I have in the 2+ years we have had fare inspectors here.


  4. I was the only one on the St Clair streetcar last night from Keele to Yonge St except the driver. I was also the only one on the train last night from St Clair to Finch except the two TTC operators. How can you justify running empty streetcars and trains? It would be cheaper for the government to pay for everyone to take an Uber or Lyft vs having to subsidise running frequent empty transit services 24/7.

    Steve: I think the last thing many people want to do is be forced to use cabs even if they are “shared” sequentially. The TTC is already looking at service reductions, but has not announced the details yet. I would not be surprised, for example, to see reduced hours of service on subway lines, but even that is tricky for parts of the network that still have a reasonable load. Moving these passengers to buses could create a more crowded environment which is counter-productive.


  5. I think, by and large, the TTC has gotten this right. There are no perfect answers, and to those quibbling about ‘fare evasion’ at this point in time, the topic, compared to the absolutely massive costs of this event. are pizzing in the wind, and having the virus blow back on them.

    TTC to stop accepting cash, tickets, tokens on buses

    By Ben Spurr Transportation Reporter

    It’s non-paywall, and many excellent points. In these highly unusual times, this is surprisingly rational.

    As stated, it’s not perfect, but very pragmatic. The TTC has actually thought this through, listened, and made a call that’s best for everyone, considering the severe limitations on perfect answers.

    Steve: I have deleted your extended quote from Spurr’s article because, in fairness to him and the Star, people can read it on their site. I have already written a piece for NOW as a follow-up to Monday’s article, but it hasn’t been published yet.

    For those who claim I am too pessimistic, just imagine what happens if that gaping hole in TTC revenue is not filled. It’s very much a “Toronto problem” and the province cannot afford to spend a bundle here propping up the transit system when it is, relatively speaking, so much less important everywhere else.


  6. Toronto is still a very rich City, and while TTC is costly to run and build, the costs of cars are far greater though thoroughly buried in multiple budgets, including hospital/health care budgets. The Federal Minister of Health Hadju noted on the Current on Friday morning, that they’ve seen a reduction! in the amount of care required from the crash reductions of less traffic. As the TTC, and usually cyclists, and pedestrians, are NOT what create all that harm, (though yes, we can do unwise things), the reduction in harm from automobiles and other motorists traffic must also be a policy priority to free up the hospital/system capacity, whatever that is.

    While the cars are costly to own and operate, in Vancouver they analysed all the costs and found the annual subsidy they gave to cars was about $2700, or 7x what they shelled out for transit in 1996. Here in ‘carservative’ Caronto/Oncario – it’s caronic denial, and if only we could see 50 or 40 or better yet 30 as a common limit, with enforcement, along with stoppings.

    Less traffic on the roads is making them look and feel like highways, and at times enough of the drivers are figgering I can vroom, and there’s less enforcement anyways, which should have a Coroner’s Review as quite a few lives have been lost.


  7. Have you heard of Transit On Demand? It has been used in many cities as DART Dial A Ride Transit.

    In Metro Vancouver we have over 500 small buses (20 to 26ft) they could be used on routes that use 40 and 60ft buses and double decker buses. While these buses would not eliminate the need for taxis/ride hailing vehicles they could help now and in the future.

    Steve: A difficult problem for transit is that with the need for people to remain two metres apart, the capacity of any vehicle will be greatly underutilized, especially if a chunk of this must be reserved for a “bubble” around the driver.


  8. Steve writes: For those who claim I am too pessimistic, just imagine what happens if that gaping hole in TTC revenue is not filled. It’s very much a “Toronto problem” and the province cannot afford to spend a bundle here propping up the transit system when it is, relatively speaking, so much less important everywhere else.

    Thoroughly agreed for the *long term*. Perhaps I was remiss (I was rushed) when writing what I did in not making clear that considering the $Billions this is going to cost the economy until such time as the economy can sustain again, then the cost of running the TTC on a ‘war footing’ is relatively minuscule.

    Where the real debate comes is in who covers the TTC’s loss? That will be a long-term question, but for now, I think the TTC is handling this wisely, all things considered.

    Steve: This is really not up to the TTC, but to whatever governments are going to keep paying to run it with such little demand. The TTC might want to preserve service, but this cannot be done without substantial subsidy in a world where other areas, notably health care and income support, have a pressing need and government revenues will be falling.

    Other posters have mentioned using Ubers and Lyfts, etc in lieu of running the TTC. I highly doubt they can manage the load, let alone beat the cost of the present TTC role.

    Some figures, even reasonable estimates, would be telling. What I can state subjectively is that I’m not aware of any city shutting down transit systems. Vastly reducing service, yes.

    What may be a note of caution, even if not a fully linear comparison, is this:

    Transport for London (TfL) has suspended the Circle line and Waterloo & City line, and reduced frequencies on other parts of the Tube network. Bus services have also been cut. TfL has claimed the amount of people taking the Tube is about 87% down.

    Rail timetables were slashed today following a drop in demand, but the Department for Transport (DfT) is working with operators to reintroduce some services to avoid overcrowding.

    The TTC is in a similar situation, save that ostensibly the subways are only sparsely packed. Reduce service and they will be packed again. So ultimately it will be an even falser economy when health costs are added in. “Social Distances” must be maintained for economic recovery.

    The Feds have offered $27Bn in aid so far, with “more to come”. It would appear essential that a “one time emergency subsidy” to all of Canada’s major transit systems be offered. I can’t find any mention of that in news briefs so far.

    But in the US? I read with envy.


  9. I think we are rather lucky here, if we operated buses for profit like they do in the UK there would be very little service. I come from Nottingham in the UK and they have introduced a special timetable immediately after the announcement of the virtual lock-down. Its a skeleton (Sunday) service along the main routes and many areas of the city no longer served, not good for many essential workers who now have no way of getting to work. The morning peak service on my local route goes from every 7/8 minutes to once an hour (Sky Blue 45). Social or physical distancing and bus route profitability just do not mix. I’m hoping that the disastrous deregulation of the buses is well and truly brought to an end after this.


  10. Paul: It’s serendipity that you write on the bus franchises in Nottingham. Transport for London are actually happy with their bus franchises, albeit it’s a hybrid model of private sectors working franchises under the social whole of TfL.

    But here’s a telling point, albeit it isn’t a completely linear comparison to Toronto or the GTHA, but lessons can be learned:

    UK Guardian reports (similar copy appeared in all the UK broadsheets, FT did a feature special on it, but Guardian is non-paywall)

    Covid-19: government suspends rail franchise agreements
    Emergency measures will be in place for six months to avoid train companies collapsing

    England’s trains have effectively been nationalised, at least temporarily, after the government suspended rail franchise agreements to avoid train companies collapsing because of the coronavirus.

    Under emergency measures announced by the Department for Transport (DfT), train operators have been offered the chance to transfer “all revenue and cost risk” to the government and be paid a small management fee to continue running services.

    While the measures are temporary, they nonetheless signal the permanent end of England’s complex rail franchising system, which was already likely to be abolished by the government commissioned Williams review.

    The emergency protocol will be in place for an initial period of six months, the DfT said, in order to “minimise disruption to the rail sector”.

    Even though the governing structure and degree of previous privatization, in whole or in part, doesn’t directly compare to the TTC or GO, the business model does. And that’s raw economics: Running a system at a loss to ‘prop-up’ the economy during emergency times.

    It’s unavoidable, and Canada/Ontario is/are going to have to underwrite the present abject fare-box loss of the TTC and GO.

    Even the more ‘capitalist’ US is realizing this. Canada is an outlier…a laggard, in not realizing the necessity to underwrite change.

    And a further link to the NYC cycle use increase as posted in Steve’s last blog:

    Pandemic to reshape city resilience and technological investment, says report have a number of excellent articles up on the subject. What’s happened in New York City and the ’emergency temporary bike lanes’ appearing is not an isolated case. It typifies what’s happening in a number of World Cities.

    Can/will it happen here?


  11. Might as well implement transit on demand its way better than only running the bus route every hour.

    Steve: To implement transit on demand, one needs a fleet of vehicles and the underlying machinery for booking and dispatching. There is also the issue of physical distancing in a smaller quarters.


  12. Stephen: Deregulation was at a time when when Thatcher decided that everything would be privatized (like BT, Electricity and water…. “If you see Sid tell him” the slogans) and run for profit and the baloney that competition would drive down fares and give people more choice. All that lead to were more operators cherry picking the busiest route and take business from the main operator, and the main operator had to basically flood the route to turn a profitable route into a loss making one it lead to situations like this and this.

    No public subsidy was allowed to run these commercial services and they were not allowed to cross subsidize routes which meant prolonged battles until one operator was forced off the road. In some parts of the country the main municipal operators were forced out with the likes of Stagecoach (Coach Canada over here), First (Greyhound) and others. London was treated differently, the service was not fully deregulated like the rest of the country because they knew that multiple operators competing over busy routes would have literally brought London to a standstill, so they opted for TFL (then London Transport) put out routes for tender and invited companies to bid on the routes, much like what happened to the trains. It provided for a more stable service and you didn’t have to wonder whether your ticket was valid on the first bus that shows up. The result is that bus use since deregulation has declined severely except for London where it actually increased.


  13. Paul:

    I’m very familiar with the UK model, and as well as my being a Brit/Cdn Dual, and having done a number of work sojourns in electronics in London since my leaving as a child, my older brother worked for years on First Great Western.

    You’re preaching to the converted on the massive shortcomings of the UK ‘Conservative’ model, and I don’t want to belabour the point, but you’re undoing your own arguments.

    No public subsidy was allowed to run these commercial services and they were not allowed to cross subsidize routes which meant prolonged battles until one operator was forced off the road.

    I’m sorry, but you’re undoing your own argument:

    Rail subsidy per passenger mile

    Latest data. The total subsidy to DfT franchised train operators was 5.7 pence per passenger mile in 2015-16, up from 5.6 pence per passenger mile in 2014-15. For this indicator, total subsidy includes: (a) subsidy paid directly to train operators by government. Oct 13, 2016] [UK Government]

    And this is far from the full story. That’s an average, and some operators were enticed to run franchises that no-one would otherwise bid on by offering massive subsidies. Some franchises were so unattractive that ‘operators’ were assigned and paid on a ‘cost +’ basis.

    Thus the ‘lie’ that the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) were able to operate on a ‘profit making’ basis. Not to mention that the costs of maintaining the network were so inadequate that the ‘privatized’ Railtrack was the first massive failure, and thus taken back into government hands as Network Rail.

    To bring this all forward to the Ontario, specifically GTHA model, as it now stands, as if there wasn’t adequate funding prior to build all that was needed, there’s even less now. Ontario never went ‘overtly private’ but was reaching the point of being everything but in name, a whole discussion in itself. Compared to the UK Cons, the Ont Cons are even *less able* to use private capital to the full advantage the public needs and deserves.

    The ‘serendipity’ that I stated in a prior post of the GTHA fortunes to that of London (TfL) continues:

    The remaining tube service in London has the London Mayor (Khan) totally at odds with the Johnson national gov’t as to whether the building trades should be shut down. Sound familiar? In London’s case, they are not only crowding the 1/2 of tube service still running, many of the workers are carriers of Corona, and infecting the essential workers needed to keep the nation running and fight the virus war. [The Times of London]

    Back to Toronto’s transit future: At least for the next six months, and as is the case in other major cities affected, a massive infusion of Operating Funds must be made available to keep the TTC running at least a minimal service. I suspect this will happen, for no other reason than it has to.

    The UK, because it’s a privatized model, or what’s been touted as such has failed, even before the virus crisis hit, offers lessons of how not to go about involving private capital to build infrastructure let alone run services over it. And yet I favour it! But not the way fools and philanderers are doing it, and the Ford regime certainly fits that description.

    Considering “the construction industry” as an essential service couldn’t slide into Doug’s pocket any smoother than wet clay. And slippery money.

    Like it or not, investment in new transit infrastructure in the GTHA, and probably a lot of Canada, is going to be private or not at all.

    In the meantime, operating the present transit systems is going to drain all available monies for the next half a year at least. As to what happens after that remains to be seen.

    But an opportunity is presenting itself, albeit

    Steve: At this point, Stephen’s comment ends as if it were saved prematurely.


  14. Paul: The reason I raised the London bus franchise as (gist) an example of success (and Khan and many others agree) was because it is *different* to what happened in the rest of the nation (with a few exceptions, but I digress).

    Unlike those in the rest of the United Kingdom, the bus services in London, although still ultimately privatised, were not deregulated to the same extent. In London, details of routes, fares and services levels were still specified by public bodies, with the right to run the services contracted to private companies on a tendered basis. [Wikipedia]

    London is in fact *buying up* Network Rail services into Greater London. Best I quote and reference, and this is behind paywall, so I’ll be sparing:

    London Overground offers model for UK rail overhaul

    The model’s success in driving up punctuality and customer satisfaction has led to it being promoted as the template for the government’s promised overhaul of the privatised railway franchising system.

    Most rail franchising contracts run by the Department for Transport involve the operator retaining both fare income and risk.

    TfL admits this is not a panacea of how to fix the system but insists it goes some way towards ensuring closer co-operation between operators and Network Rail, pointing to a key problem of the franchising system — the running of tracks and trains was separated following the break-up of British Rail in 1994. [Financial Times]


  15. Maybe there can be some negotiations with the unions about this? Even if workers are laid off, the government would still have to pay for the safety net programs to support them, so I’m not sure how much the government would actually save. It’s probably easier to keep transit workers employed at a reduced salary and reduced workload while waiting to see how the situation evolves.


  16. My apologies, I had a computer partially freeze, and I wasn’t aware that [comment] got sent. I thought it was lost.

    What got missed was the bus subsidy link for the UK’s “privatized” model:

    Bus subsidy per passenger journey

    The impending overall rail review is previewed here and indications are that it recommends to reverse ‘wholesale’ privatization. Needless to say, the present Corona crisis will make findings even more abject.

    The bus subsidy link is fascinating reading, since it’s the Gov’t itself reviewing it’s own expenditure. Some routes are *heavily* subsidized, which raises many questions, pro and con, to whatever model the TTC and Metrolinx adopt moving forward. The comparisons don’t have to be directly linear to be valuable.

    And on that, Spurr (TorStar) has an excellent article just up.

    The Federal role for covering the present TTC massive operating shortfall is being broached.

    Steve: Over on Twitter I have already commented that whatever number we are seeing – $18 million or whatever – has to be considered in light of what the cost will be to maintain some level of TTC service, not the full level we saw only a few weeks ago. Remember that fares pay for 2/3 of the total cost, and the city subsidy pays the other 1/3. There is also the question of whether the feds will come to the table on this. We know from the provincial financial update just announced that their focus is on health care, and there is no explicit money for transit. The question then is what level of service, when and where, is required for the TTC to still be a credible alternative to move those who must travel, and how much will that cost.

    It is interesting that San Francisco just shut down their streetcar system, replacing it with buses running on the night routes, but the reason was that all lines share the Market Street subway and they can save a lot of money by not having to maintain stations, other than those shared with BART. Here, streetcars have the advantage of larger size and better isolation for drivers, and their few underground locations are shared with the subway which is still operating.


  17. My statement: “No public subsidy was allowed to run these commercial services and they were not allowed to cross subsidize routes which meant prolonged battles until one operator was forced off the road.”

    Maybe I’m getting it wrong but what I meant was that in the case of Nottingham, is that NCT couldn’t use the might of their organisation to fend off the cherry pickers like Your Bus who muscled in on one of NCT’s profitable routes, they even ran buses with the same route number. It took a long time for them to quit. Even now the NET (Tram) has to “compete” with the buses in Nottingham and not be part of a network which it was when it first opened.

    I’m just pointing out this this pandemic has really damaged the bus and rail model in the UK of profitability over service. As with here in the GTA it’s going to decades to reach the levels we saw prior to this, but if public transport is going to labelled as virus pools then people are going to be stuck in gridlock for years to come.

    Maybe Corbyn will get his way and the rail services are re-nationalized!!!


  18. Paul writes: Maybe Corbyn will get his way and the rail services are re-nationalized!!!

    It won’t be what Corbyn wants, I defer from commenting on the man or his politics, save that he’s responsible for the election of Boris, but a much more pragmatic outcome is in the offing, and ironically from the Rational Right.

    From the Financial Times, who’ve been running a series on this:

    UK’s rail franchise system has ‘had its day’, review finds

    July 16 2019

    A new body to run the UK’s railways is being considered by the independent chair of a review of the industry, who says that the current franchise system has “had its day” and greater priority must to be given to passenger needs.

    In his first major update since the public consultation for his government-ordered review closed in May, Keith Williams wrote in the Financial Times on Tuesday that he was asked for “revolution not evolution”.

    The deputy chairman of the John Lewis Partnership and former British Airways chief executive did not give details of how he would propose changing the franchising system. But he wrote that a wholesale shake-up was required to restore trust in the system.

    “Franchising in its current form has had its day. What worked 20 years ago is now preventing innovation, long-term decision-making and stopping the railway working as a system,” Mr Williams wrote.

    “We need a different relationship between the public and private sector. One that allows train operators to get on with running services in the interest of passengers. And where ministers take far fewer decisions.”

    If one enters the title into Google, and accepts the on-page cookies, there’s a good chance the entire article will appear non-subscription.

    As I’ve stated prior, a ‘new model’ is emerging in the UK. As to how the abject toll of Covid-19 affects that remains to be seen. All rail franchises have been suspended for six months, even before this report is released, and they’re being run on a cost+commission basis directly from Whitehall.

    That is similar to Steve’s SF example, and most likely a form of which will happen with the TTC … ostensibly overseen by QP, but possibly/likely with a grant from the Feds, and possibly for six months. Frankly, I’d like that operating grant to be paid directly from the Feds to the City/TTC. At this point in time, that’s as much my political bias as it is ‘usual decorum’. My opinion of the QP regime sinks ever lower with time.

    I’d like to see this string stay alive, the premise remains incredibly viable and will do so for the foreseeable future:

    As ridership drops on the TTC, just as on transit systems across the world, there will be a temptation to make big cuts, but then to fall behind in the recovery when the crisis passes.

    This is also a time to rethink the design of public spaces, streets especially, and the balance between all users and types of travel: cars and transit, cyclists and pedestrians.

    I would like to add that TTC drivers are still having to fight tooth and nail for their right to wear masks on-duty, and have a relatively safe work space. As much as the TTC management are doing some things right, they’re idiots to not be more pro-active on behalf of their front-line workers’ health and safety.

    This will become more apparent with time.

    Steve: An update on my earlier remark about San Francisco. The streetcar lines that have been shut down are those that use the Market Street subway. Two routes that do not run through the subway remain with streetcar operation. The issue is to save money and staff on station cleaning, not with any inherent problem with streetcars per se.

    I don’t know how that comment has anything to do with franchising, however.

    However, it will be interesting to see whether the interest in PPPs will decline both in terms of risk exposure and financial capacity in the private sector.

    Re your other comment, I deleted it by accident. Please resubmit it if you can.


  19. Re your other comment, I deleted it by accident. Please resubmit it if you can.

    I doubt I kept record of that, but will check, but hold the presses! Here’s what we were all pining for:

    Just up at the Globe by Oliver Moore:

    Canadian transit agencies seek more than $1-billion in emergency funds

    Canadian transit agencies are seeking immediate access to more than $1-billion in emergency federal funding and another $400-million per month to cover fare-box losses as long as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate ridership.

    The request to Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna was made late Monday by an umbrella organization that represents more than 100 Canadian transit operators, including the biggest in the country. The Canadian Urban Transit Association says that a number of its members are experiencing urgent liquidity issues.

    “CUTA has calculated that immediate relief funding of up to $1.2-billion could support up to 40 per cent of transit systems that would find themselves needing emergency funding to cover operations,” according to the request for assistance, obtained by The Globe and Mail.

    The association is calling also for Ottawa to cover steep drops in fare-box revenue, reimburse the cost of cleaning and disinfecting supplies, which it said are “straining already stretched operating budgets,” and to include the transit industry on the priority list of sectors eligible for the supply and distribution of cleaners and protective equipment should the Emergencies Act be invoked.

    I believe this is posted non-subscription, apologies if the amount I did quite is excessive, but all the points were essential to continuing discussion in this and following strings.

    Until reading it all more thoroughly, I can only state: ‘This is essential, albeit more might be needed’.


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