Meddling With Microtransit

Millions of dollars will flow to Toronto and other Ontario cities to support their transit systems through the COVID-19 emergency. A total of $2-billion will come from the federal and provincial governments with the first third, $666-million, in 2020.

For the balance, there is a catch. Ontario does not want to dole out subsidies next year without conditions that will affect how transit service is delivered and, potentially, what it will cost to ride.

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney wrote to Mayor John Tory on August 12 saying that cities will have to “review the lowest performing bus routes and consider whether they may be better serviced by microtransit.” Within the GTHA there will be mandatory discussions about “governance structures” — bureaucratese for who gets to make decisions — and integration of services and fares.

Metrolinx has contemplated fare integration schemes on and off for years, but could never reach a conclusion because funding was not available to reduce the burden of cross-border travel and simplify the regional fare system. This changed, for a time, with a discounted GO+TTC fare, but that ended on March 31, 2020 thanks to a provincial funding cut.

Metrolinx proposed a fare structure where riders would pay based on distance traveled, at least on “rapid transit” lines, but the effect would be to raise fares within Toronto, particularly for longer trips, to subsidize riders coming into the city from the 905 municipalities. That scheme sits on the back burner, but it has never been formally rejected. Even worse, Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster is on record musing that transit should pay its own way, a view completely at odds with the social and economic development role transit represents.

Governance brings its own problems. Metrolinx started out as a political board with representatives from GTHA municipalities, but these were replaced by provincial appointees who could be counted on to sing from the government’s songbook. The agency has evolved more into a construction company than a transit operator, and there is little experience with the needs and role of local transit on the board.

Who can cay whether a future consolidated GTHA transit governance model and provincial funding might bring its own service standards lower than those now accepted in Toronto and expected of the TTC, even with its problems?

Microtransit is a recent buzzword born of the assumption that there are efficiencies to be wrung from transit and it would not cost so much if only we would embrace new innovative ways to deliver service. Why run a full size city bus when an Uber or a van would do? Even Deputy Mayor Minnan-Wong has chimed in to defend taxpayer dollars against the cost of operating empty buses.

The TTC has service standards that dictate whether transit service should run at all and how much room should be provided for riders. During the pandemic era, these standards were relaxed to reflect the need for social distancing, but reports of crowded vehicles are common. Demand is growing, particularly on the bus network serving widely spread work locations in suburban Toronto.

Barring a major COVID-19 relapse and economic shutdown, transit could be back to a substantial proportion of its former demand by the end of 2021. Microtransit “solutions” that might appear appropriate for the depressed demand today could well be obsolete in a year or two.

The TTC has only thirteen routes that carry fewer than 1,000 riders per day. Five of these are the “premium express” lines, two primarily exist to serve TTC properties, and one is a peak hour shuttle to GO. Even the Forest Hill bus managed to carry 930 a day (in 2018), and that’s a lot of Uber trips.

Source: TTC 2018 Ridership and Service Statistics

Financially, offloading riders onto Uber sounds appealing, but this ignores the transfer of costs for vehicles and maintenance, not to mention the low effective wage rate, for Uber operator/drivers. Transit can be a great deal if someone else foots the bill.

An oft-cited example of microtransit is a scheme in Innisfil, Ontario, a town that is about forty percent bigger than Scarborough. Uber provides trips to local residents at a fare of $4 to $6 provided that one travels to or from specific locations. Otherwise, the deal is simply a $4 discount on Uber’s regular fare.

There is a 30 trip-per-month cap which Innisfil Transit implemented in April 2019 “to improve the Innisfil Transit service and make sure everyone can enjoy it”. In other words, to cap the total cost of the service. Low income residents can apply for a 50 percent discount, and they are not subject to a trip maximum.

These are not cheap trips for many riders, and the town’s subsidy for 2019 was about $8.25 per rider for just over 100,000 trips. To put this in a TTC context, the Forest Hill bus carries more than twice the ridership of the entire Innisfil system. [930 riders/day times 300 day-equivalents/year = 279,000]

Source: Innisfil Transit Update — April 22, 2020

Critics of buses running nearly empty through Toronto streets miss several key points including:

  • If demand requires a full-sized a bus for part of the day, there is no point in owning a separate smaller vehicle for the lightly-travelled hours.
  • No transit route has full vehicles over its entire trip, especially in the counter-peak direction.
  • Not all trips occur in peak periods, and off-peak service can make a full round trip by transit possible.
  • Riders who have to book a trip have less flexibility than if a bus just shows up on a reliable schedule.
  • The Innisfil model does not address a system where an Uber rider might transfer to a main line service to complete their journey and have to pay an additional fare.

In preparing this article, I wanted to understand the details of Minister Mulroney’s proposal to determine what the effect might be for Toronto and other cities, and I posed two questions.

What is meant by a “poor performing” route? What level of demand would determine whether a fixed route or demand-responsive service would be used?

The answer, from Christina Salituro, Senior Manager, Legislative Affairs and Issues Management in the Minister’s office was:

Our government will work with transit agencies across the province to evaluate low volume routes to determine whether there could be microtransit solutions, with the goal being to ensure similar or better service in a cost-effective manner, utilizing the best technologies available.

We also recognize that not every transit agency is the same, which is why we will work in a pragmatic way with agencies.

All proposals are subject to further discussions and engagement with municipalities as we explore a range of options to make transit systems more sustainable in Ontario.

What fare integration model is the government considering? Cross-border fare elimination? Fare by distance? Who would fund any new subsidies related to lower fares?

The government replied:

With the impact that COVID-19 has had on ridership, it is important to ensure we reduce as many barriers as possible to encourage the safe return of riders to public transit.

Transit is key to reducing traffic congestion, particularly in the GTHA.

Our government will be working with municipalities and transit agencies to ensure we are reducing fare and boundary barriers that may prevent some from choosing public transit due to cost, time, or unnecessary transfer.

It would be premature to speculate about the financial impacts of fare and service integration until we do further work with our municipal partners.

These are fine statements about government co-operation, but they give absolutely no sense of what the quid-pro-quo might be for cities to access the remaining $1.33-billion worth of pandemic subsidies.

Should provision of transit service depend on a business model that offloads costs onto vehicle owner/drivers and almost certainly does not pay a good wage compared to a transit company? Should demand-responsive microtransit service be operated by an Uber-like business, or as part of the local transit system in locations that already have one?

There may be a place for microtransit especially in areas of low population and dispersed travel demand, but operating this won’t be cheap for the cities and towns involved.

Microtransit, especially from the private sector, might fit Ontario’s political agenda, but it will not address transit’s much greater challenges to rebuild post-pandemic and to improve its market share for travel.

16 thoughts on “Meddling With Microtransit

  1. Maybe the real reason for getting a list of the ‘under-performing’ routes is to figger out where we are going to put the next subway, depending on what riding they’re in or lead to. Yup, it’s that skewed up by our benevolent Dougtator, and his ‘carservatives’, though such folks are in every party in every area, to ensure that the subsidies to cars NEVER get addressed. For the more rational people who see that transit has many public benefits and is good value, simply add pressure on the federal level to ensure there’s ZERO funding for any further extensions of subway spines, including RIchmond Hill, not just that Suspect Subway Extension. Of course, it’s not that the Liberal party, or others are virtuous in not tilting the ‘plans’ towards their own interests, and one would hope that given record heat/CO2/ice sheet melt, we’d respond well to the climate ‘car-isis’, which is now an emergency, given momentum.

    More seriously, maybe we should make the bikeshare both larger and cheaper; the Sheppard stubway capital cost could have bought nearly everyone in TO a decent bike. Trouble is with biking, it’s still not so safe, and at times, it’s work/exercise, though some Euro countries pay bike riders for the health benefits alone.

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  2. Hi Steve, While I agree that microtransit and especially Uber is a bad idea for Toronto during the day. What about the rides per service hour of the night bus network? There are cases of full sized buses being used on-demand in urban areas in Ontario with rides per service hour of between 20-30 and with much better coverage and “frequencies” than night time bus routes.

    Steve: There are four issues here. First, many of the night routes have good demand although the buses are not full all of the time over the round trip (neither would an Uber or a van be because of the directional nature of travel). There is a table showing ridership for most night routes in 2018 (scroll down to the bottom). When looking at these numbers, be sure to take into account the length of routes and, therefore, the number of vehicles assigned.

    Second, Toronto is a big place, and a typical trip is not short as on the smaller town systems that are so often cited. This means that the cost of a trip will be greater, demand will be more dispersed, and more vehicles will have to be in service. There is also the question of transfers to/from whatever trunk routes remain as conventional fixed route services.

    Third, Toronto has strong evening and weekend ridership, and the Blue Night Network only covers from about 2 am to 5 am (some daytime routes have only a brief window between the last bus meeting the last subway train after 2 am and the first bus in the morning).

    Fourth, we already own the bus fleet and the primary cost is the driver. If the desire is to pay drivers less so that we can run more service, then that should be stated up front.

    One can cherry pick routes for microtransit, but there are few candidates. As I attempted to establish in my article, even the Ontario Government does not know yet just what a “poor performing” route is and what the economics actually would be.

    I can easily imagine a situation after several years of high-cost late night service, the bean counters will say “why are we spending so much on so few riders”, and there would be a move to cut back service or reduce subsidies. Don’t forget we are dealing with politicians who simply do not understand the concept of a “service” as opposed to a “product”, “customers” and “profit”.

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  3. They should stick with what they know, not one of these people ever take a transit bus or doubt they were ever aboard one.

    Toronto Transit services were making money before they got stripped of their coach division (political interference) and now with the cuts in funding they are putting it squarely on the poor people’s shoulders. This is racist, the communities that are affected are mostly marginalized poor folks who are being left behind. This government with all their friends in the business and corporate world is against affordable transit for all. They want pay as you go while they use publicly funded car services, out of touch royalty. Vote them out. They constantly say down with the Union’s be it bus drivers, teachers, nurses. Shame on them.

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  4. “Should provision of transit service depend on a business model that offloads costs onto vehicle owner/drivers and almost certainly does not pay a good wage compared to a transit company?”

    “Financially, offloading riders onto Uber sounds appealing, but this ignores the transfer of costs for vehicles and maintenance, not to mention the low effective wage rate, for Uber operator/drivers”

    Not sure why that should concern the TTC. That’s Uber’s problem, not the TTC’s. The TTC is not a charity; it’s not in the business of social justice, equity or whatever. TTC’s mission is transit first and foremost. Sure, transit can improve social justice matters. But that’s a desirable effect, not the primary mission. An irrelevant concern if you ask me. It’s much more concerning that the government doesn’t have/isn’t providing its definition for “low performing” bus routes.

    Steve: Actually it is the TTC’s problem and through them, the city and province. Imagine if we took the attitude that health care should be provided at the least possible cost by privatized medicine. Oh, wait, we’ve already done it to some extent with long term care homes, and we know where that got us.

    How can we talk about a city where we want to improve the lot of our residents if we exploit those working for Uber and their ilk?

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  5. The government’s responses to your questions indicate that this is a purely political move, based on ideology, not a well-thought-out concept based on research and facts that they will be bringing to their “local transit partners.”

    Micro-transit is just a fancy name for taxis. There are precious few applications where subsidized taxis make sense over traditional transit systems, even less so in mature transit networks like the TTC. Taxis (or personal transit as I like to call it) will always be more expensive than mass transit for moving large numbers of people. This is neither a new nor complicated conclusion, but more time and money will be wasted investigating the obvious in order to convince these people, who understand nothing about the business of transit, that their imagined no-one-ever-thought-of-this-before transit solution makes no sense. Like the endless crayon drawing on maps that represents the current practice of rapid transit planning for Toronto, this money would be better spent strengthening the existing transit system to expand its reach and frequency.

    As for the comment from Max that social equity is none of the TTC’s business, as a publicly-funded government service, social equity and justice most certainly is its concern. We may debate how social equity and direct funding are to be balanced relative to each other, but social equity isn’t just the purview of charities, it is fundamental to the idea of government services. Saving money on transit subsidies by throwing TTC drivers out of work or sending them to a minimum wage job in the private sector is a false economy. It creates additional, greater social service costs for governments down the line when former middle class workers are forced down to a poverty level income.

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  6. Re: Microtransit. Could this be an opportunity to offer TTC Operators some options?

    Presently there is no age limit.

    How many years working for a TTC employee to get a full pension?

    Option: Take full pension as soon as qualified. Switch over to MicroTransit for additional income.

    MicroTransit pay would be at a lower pay level that combined with full pension would be a higher take home pay!

    MicroTransit work could be shorter hours, less days, no Saturday/Sunday/Holiday work. Half-day only, etc. Alternatively, might offer choices not available under current Collective Agreement including no mandatory overtime. No Sundays etc.

    Could current small school buses be modified for MicroTransit use? This could offer full time work to present school bus drivers IF they so desired.

    MicroTransit drivers could be Owner-Operators in some cases. They would own/lease their bus much like a Taxi driver does.

    Some say, Think Outside the Box. I say, Throw Out the Box!

    Steve: There are several problems with your scheme, the first of which is that microtransit is seen as a “solution” for lightly used off peak services notably evenings, nights and weekends. That does not line up with the daytime weekday gig you are promoting. Next, we already own a bus fleet and will still need it for peak demand. The number of buses that might be released from truly “low demand” routes during the peak is at best one percent of the fleet. Why would we bother with a separate fleet for off-peak service. As for being an owner/operator, this adds the cost of buying the vehicles to the revenue needed from fares.

    Finally, most defined benefit plans require at least 25 years, sometimes more, to achieve a “maximum” pension. Retiring early both lengthens the period over which a pension is drawn (the rates normally assume retirement at 65 and penalize people for going early), and tops out one’s pension contributions. This assumes that the TTC pension stays as “defined benefit”, an increasingly rare bird these days.

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  7. Healthcare example seems like a false equivalency. It’s way too much mission creep putting the onus on the TTC for Uber paying their workers properly. Don’t get me wrong – I want more service and more investment in the TTC.

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  8. I just have one small stupid question and the answer will be pretty obvious but here goes…..Will this micro-transit have a bike rack?

    Steve: I can imagine a team of cyclists pulling an Uber, rather like a 21st C horse-and-carriage, but a bike rack? No.

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  9. I have never taken Uber. How much would a typical 20 minute ride cost? A 40 minute ride?

    I have my doubts that being an Uber driver is that lucrative, or even that it breaks even in the long run for most of the drivers. It can help with short-term cash flow, of course.

    As for going to collect a full pension and then driving my own vehicle for Uber, I’d be all “Hell, no.” (Note, I am not a TTC employee, but I will get a bit of a defined benefit pension….not much, though.) And are we presupposing that only specific Uber drivers would get to pick up the microtransit riders? Or will the microtransit rides be thrown into the general pool of available drivers?

    Just what the busier Toronto streets need, is a return of confused Uber drivers. I saw plenty of Uber cars, leased Civics and Corollas and Elantras, with suburban or Hamilton leasing company plates. Good luck for these drivers trying to navigate downtown Toronto. Actually good luck for all those around them, as they randomly swerve to make a left turn or right turn (possibly even legally!) or cruise past open streetcar doors.

    Lack of Ubers has made the streets relatively pleasant to drive, for now.

    Steve: Speaking of “lucrative”, even the investors in Uber have been “taken for a ride” as the company is bleeding billions in an attempt to establish itself in the market. If this is were a government agency, it would have been put out of business long ago.

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  10. Thanks Steve and commenters. With Uber/Lyft/cabs, there is a set of safety issues from them, though as a cyclist, one learns to be wary of cabs generally, but the other vehicles are not so uniformly seen as a hazard, and yes, there is confusion and a lack of respect for other road users so there’s a lot of bike lane encroachment and abrupt moves that are dangerous. And I’m blanking on the name – sorry – of the sad tragedy of a Gardiner crash, that at least the mother/girlfriend are suing the City/Uber about, because there’s not the degree of training for these private companies that TTC drivers get, and at least the cabs have some, plus some better mirrors for looking for cyclists, which are competition in the core at least.

    And yes, having a far better network of bike lanes and bikeshare in the suburbs, including maybe electric assist, would be worthwhile, though the carservatives in the lower-density burbs don’t want to share the road, just have everyone else pay for them, including plowings. The 2001 Bike Plan had a good network proposed for Carborough, but the on-road is NOT very far along, perhaps 10%? (though cancellation fees for a LRT etc would have enabled it all to be done in a year, though paint-only, which is a start).

    Steve had tweeted out a link to this recent study by Engineers of Ontario:

    But if facts mattered to some, we wouldn’t have some priority transit projects to drain the billions eh? Let’s hope the politicians wake up the need for investing in schools/health, and not relative wa$te in some of these clunker transit projects, though we need to spend bigger on the transit, yes, in Scarborough as well,.

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  11. Forget Uber and Lyft. I drove taxi 15 years full time in Toronto, also in Caledon. Taxi drivers are examined for their driving record, knowledge of streets and routes, as well as basic courtesy, and may not have a criminal record in order to be licensed. Taxi cabs are clearly marked as vehicles for hire, licensed as such, are set up for public use, and most importantly, are fully insured for commercial use!

    Rare is the Uber with proper insurance, as it is very expensive. Heaven help you if your Uber gets into an accident and you are hurt. I am surprised to hear that some drivers use leased cars; does the leasing company know?

    While driving taxi in Caledon, we had school runs. I had special needs kids, such as deaf or autistic, going to a particular school in Brampton. Morning and return, it was good regular income, and I made life-long friends. This is true micro-transit.

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  12. Is replacing transit with a private contractor even legal given AODA requirements for transit?

    Steve: Either the private service would have to be accessible, or the TTC would be driving up demand for Wheel-Trans, an effect that (a) degrades service quality and (b) drives up TTC costs.

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  13. There are over 400 cities in Canada/US that operate On-Demand Transit. Most of them are not privatized. They actually improve ridership and accessibility in low density areas.

    Steve: The key phrase here is “low density areas” and not just for population but for inherent transit demand and trip length. I would welcome the debate more if it had less of a sense of political orthodoxy — private anything is better — and more one of trying to understand and improve transit. One of the gaping holes in GTHA transit is the “last mile problem” at GO stations, and the massive dependence on parking, but we don’t hear much about that at all, only about the “waste” of empty transit vehicles.

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  14. Allow me to cast some light on things. I actually use TTC-administered “microtransit” regularly. My wife is a WheelTrans user and I often travel with her. I wrote a fairly lengthy comment about what that’s like to use on another post Steve made. But here I’ll just focus on the “microtransit” element.

    My wife is classed as “ambulatory” in the WheelTrans parlance. That means she does not use a wheelchair or mobility scooter. She uses a cane, sometimes a walker. For ambulatory riders the TTC has contracts with several local taxi companies to provide WT service. In the broadest case, this means an ambulatory rider who books a ride with WT could find their ride being on a WT bus or van driven by a TTC operator, in an accessible minivan taxi operated by a taxi driver, or in a regular sedan taxi operated by a taxi driver, depending upon availability and where they are going and where other riders who will be sharing the vehicles are going. We have taken all three. We have requested to no longer travel in sedan taxis because my wife cannot really bend one of her knees, so sitting in a sedan is difficult. So we travel only in TTC vehicles or accessible minivan taxis.

    Using the taxi frees the larger vehicles to take wheelchair users, especially those in those huge 400kg wheelchairs. The taxi drivers who are given the WT jobs are trained for them and are usually very nice and helpful But we still have to go through the regular booking process, which means booking at least the day before, preferably longer. One can book online or by telephone, but good luck getting through on the line. A 40-minute wait is not unusual.

    Once you’re in the “microtransit”, it takes a meandering route as it picks up and drops off other WT users. It may be in a taxi-company vehicle, but riders share the space. And if you think riding in a 40-foot bus with somebody screaming racial slurs while reeking of piss, imagine how much more fun it is in a Toyota Corolla.

    If the TTC decided to replace bus routes with “microtransit”, watch the “savings” evaporate as you hire 100 people to staff a call centre. And 100 people in a call centre at 5:00 PM, when everyone who used to take the 121 wants a ride home…well, that’s going to be a 30-minute wait to get through on the line. And to cover all the routes you cut and have vehicles ready so they arrive to pick up people in a timely fashion, you’re adding 1,000 cars to the road during rush hour. And having long-given up on taking the 121 during rush hour, I assure you the last thing you need on Front Street at 5:00 PM is more cars.

    And then there are all the other reasons this won’t work. You’ve got three dearies all coming home with a bundle buggy full of groceries. Good luck getting three weeks worth of groceries, three bundle buggies and maybe a walker into the trunk of a Corolla. Who are you going to leave on the side of road in -15 degree weather?

    And for better or worse, the TTC allows dogs on vehicles. But at least you can give the mutt a wide berth (like dogs fine, but some are not socialized for crowded places). But on your microtransit, now you’re going to leave one of the dearies and her groceries on the side of the road in the pouring rain while somebody else takes their labradoodle back to their 500 sq ft Distillery District condo?

    What they’ve been talking about basically sounds like scaling up something like WT and making it open, on-demand, to anyone at any time, with the expectation of immediate fulfillment. I can’t see that ending well.

    For the record, it works out mostly OK on WT because it is booked in advance and has limited ridership. There are things about WT that could be improved, but it gives a lot of agency and freedom to disabled citizens. But gutting transit in Toronto to try to scale up the model across a dozen or more routes seems like typical Tory “planning”.

    On the other hand, I think something like this might work, though not really in the city. I could see it working well in the wilds of the transit hostile 905. Better than waiting for the one bus an hour on Sundays that used to run by my Dad’s place in Mississauga. What do you think, Steve?

    Steve: There is a definite place for on demand transit, which is a more accurate way of describing this than “micro transit”. The video of Seven Oaks, UK, is interesting and entertaining, but I have to make a few points. First, the population of Seven Oaks is about 30k (although the service territory may extend to a wider area), and this is well under the population of Mississauga let alone significant parts of Toronto proper. Second, they have a fleet of about 50 buses according to the video, and none of those shown had anywhere near a full load. This was during the daytime on what looked to be a weekday. Finally, they said on camera that four of their routes were going back as fixed route operations in “August” which presumably is right now. Obviously some demands are better handled on that basis.

    There is a basic question of how often one wants transit service to run (fix routes) or how quickly one wants a response (demand responsive). In turn that dictates the number of vehicles required to serve demand. There is always a tradeoff between having buses sitting around waiting for fares (rather like taxis at cabstands), and of having longer wait times and more complex journeys with a lot of shared pickups and drop offs along the way.

    The city has several fixed routes and they are not exactly frequent. It is possible that the level of demand-responsive service they provide is due to the fact that this fleet is sitting available for much of the day. Seven Oaks clearly had an existing fixed route system and has repurposed its fleet. This is a different situation from starting from scratch, or of deciding to substantially upgrade the quality of service response.

    WheelTrans illustrates some of these problems, and I won’t even go into the whole question of why various microtransit systems can dispatch buses on short notice while WT requires pre-booking, and isn’t very good even at that. Part of the issue is special needs that make stop service times longer, and small vehicle capacity which limits how many trips a bus or taxi can handle at once. Also, WT is a point-to-point service whereas the Seven Oaks system only picks up at defined stops. But a big issue with WT has always been that there simply isn’t enough of it, and one must ask whether the service it provides could be more truly demand-responsive if there were more vehicles available.

    The challenge I see is that “microtransit” will be a term used for political effect as a supposed way to save money on transit in general as opposed to on service at the margins of a network where demand is low and geographically scattered. And, cynic that I am, how long would it be for the Denzil Minnan-Wongs of the world to complain about nearly empty microtransit buses and demand that the service be reduced?

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  15. “There are over 400 cities in Canada/US that operate On-Demand Transit. Most of them are not privatized. They actually improve ridership and accessibility in low density areas.”

    The thing is there are no areas of low enough density within the borders of the City of Toronto.

    Steve: Don’t let facts get in the way of an opportunity for the private sector to nibble away at the TTC with Doug Ford’s connivance.

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