This article continues from Part I with additional information presented at the TTC Board meeting of March 13.
A widely reported number is the half-billion dollar shortfall in TTC revenues in the period up to Labour Day. Even with an offset of about $200 million in savings for a net deficit of $300 million, this is still not small change.
The TTC faces several challenges for service in the immediate future and then through any “recovery” period as restrictions are lifted on various types of activity and the need for travel grows.
The first problem is shown dramatically by this chart:
The TTC’s current service level accommodates the 20 per cent of normal demand they now have (although there exceptions, about which more below), but as long as riders must keep two metres apart, the system at full service could only handle about 30 percent of normal. That’s an average, and the situation varies by route and time-of-day.
With distancing in effect, the practical capacity of vehicles is much lower than the usual level. In the charts below, three capacity levels are shown: normal service standards, 50 per cent load, and the load with a two metre rule in place.
The ratio of normal to current (two metre) capacities shown are 3.4 for buses, 3.9 for streetcars and 4.5 for subways. One might reasonably quibble that the spacing shown for some cases, notably at the rear of buses, does not meet the rule, but in any event, this shows the extent of lost capacity. The replacement factor for all modes lies somewhere between three and four vehicles in the fully distanced, two metre environment.
The 50 per cent example was included in the presentation as an indication of what the situation would be with relaxes rules, but this version has riders sitting in closer quarters than anyone other than close friends and family would reasonably accept today. Even at this level, twice as much service is needed to handle whatever demand shows up.
The problem is further complicated by the unevenness of demand (leaving aside irregularity in service actually provided). The charts below show the 96 Wilson and 35 Jane bus route maximum loads pre-and post covid. Note that the vertical scales are not all the same making visual comparisons between the charts difficult.
Although demand is down from pre-covid levels, it still regularly crests the target of 15 passengers per bus with the “average” line sitting above that level in all cases. Although the TTC talks of additional “demand-responsive” service at 7 percent, this would not pull the averages down to 15. At least the TTC is monitoring loading at a detailed level, but they need to demonstrate that the service they actually operate achieves the target level. Leaving riders at a stop because a bus is “full” has more serious consequences now than the usual griping about overloaded buses in pre-covid days.
Demand is not uniformly distributed across the network. Although there is a cluster of hospitals downtown that is well-served by the subway, many health care and employment areas are scattered around the suburbs where bus service is essential for access. TTC reports that the bus network is the least affected by riding loss even though 4 in 5 bus riders have vanished.
Busy stops on the network are concentrated along the bus corridors. This shows two important factors in considering service levels:
- Heavy demand is not concentrated downtown but is spread throughout the city.
- Busy stops are not located just where there are health care or work locations, but along routes where riders travelling to those locations live. This is a variation of the “last mile problem” where so much planning and hand-wringing looks at station locations, but not at how riders get to and from transit.
These factors make any move to further trim transit service to fit available budgets extremely dangerous over the entire city.
(Note that the map below shows only bus routes and so demand on the streetcar routes is not charted below. The reason for this is that the streetcar fleet does not yet have the same technology that is installed on bus routes to track demand and crowding.)
The TTC claims that overcrowded trips have been reduced to about six per cent by focusing service where it is needed. That is laudable, but the statistic shares with so many others published by the TTC that it is a system-wide, all-day average. A rider on a packed Dufferin bus takes little comfort from having their conditions averaged with lightly loaded times of day and routes elsewhere.
Crowding levels, plotted as a heat map, show where the problems are concentrated.
At this point I cannot help making an observation about how the TTC reports on its service quality. Clearly, they have the ability to review demand/capacity levels at a fine grained basis, but getting real data out of the TTC is almost impossible. And yet here it is. This sort of chart should not vanish after the emergency, but should be a fundamental and regular report on service quality. There is no longer an excuse that “we don’t have the data”, or “it’s coming soon”.
An obvious question about crowding levels is the metric used to count riders. The TTC has been using two of them, at least on buses;
- Presto taps. This measures the number of people who “tap on” when they board and hence reflects “boarding” or “unlinked trips” (where each transfer counts as a new trip). This does not measure:
- Boardings at paid areas in subway stations.
- Trips where a rider does not pay.
- Passengers leaving vehicles.
- Automatic passenger counters. This technology counts people getting on and off of buses and is independent of fare collection.
The Presto data are useful for comparison with historical data, but it is the passenger counters that tell the full story. They have not yet been installed on the streetcar fleet. The subway network has no mechanism for counting all passengers and this depends on visual counts by TTC staff that are conducted periodically at various locations.
The financial implications for the TTC and the City of Toronto in coming months are considerable. In Part I, I included a table showing the financial effects and savings for the TTC up to Labour Day. Here it is again.
The table does not tell the full story because it does not show the gross operating costs. For 2020, the total budget (including Wheel-Trans) is about $2 billion, or about $160 million per month. The TTC shows savings of $10.9 million/month from the reduced level of service. Note that this is not proportional to a 15 per cent cut in service because some costs do not vary with the amount of service. This is not just administrative overhead, but much ongoing infrastructure and fleet maintenance is required even if less service operates.
If the TTC returns to full service, that saving will disappear.
Moreover, the capital deferrals are booked here as $19.3 million/month. However, the $116 million over five months will not exist from September onward because it is a fixed amount, the capital portion of the provincial gas tax allocation to Toronto.
Between the two factors, the monthly deficit will go up by $30 million in September if the TTC resumes full service offset only to the degree that fare revenue returns.
The big challenge comes in that mid-range where ridership is building, but service has to run flat out to provide enough space even with only half of the demand. Whether the system can handle this will depend greatly on how concentrated this demand is by location and time of day.
The map of current hot spots shows how important the suburban bus routes are. We may have lots of room on the subway, but that won’t get people to work on the bus lines. If a return to 50 per cent demand is unevenly distributed, the pressure for even more service in parts of the network will be severe, and it is not clear how much extra service the TTC can field due to both fleet and staff constraints.
Looking down the road, the TTC is planning for three separate time periods:
- The remainder of 2020
- January to September 2021
- September 2021 and beyond
Different options will be needed depending on the expected demand patterns and financial support available. Without a return to near-normal demand and crowding, the fare revenue that represents and the better fleet utilization, transit cannot return to its former role.
Better transit funding cannot be a quick, one time payment to tide over for the short term. If the tooth fairy comes up with $300 million today, that only gets the system and the city to labour day this year, but the problem will persist and grow well into 2021. That year’s budget cycle will be brutal at every level as the need to actually pay the bills rather than shipping money out the door will hang over every government.