Missing Riders, Uber and the TTC

It is impossible to browse the news online or in print without seeing an article about transit ridership. Will people ever go back to work in office buildings? Has work-from-home destroyed transit demand? What is the future of cities in general and our town, Toronto?

I am not going to attempt to peer into that crystal ball as there are too many possible futures. However, I want to throw out a few ideas that should be part of any debate or prognostication.

The transit market is not a monolith, not in Toronto and certainly not from city to city, system to system. There are different markets each with its own demand patterns and riders, and recovery of these markets will not all happen at the same time.

The TTC has a particularly broad reach in that, in “before days”, there was strong demand not just for downtown commuter trips, but around the suburbs. Many types of jobs do not have the work-from-home option. They are keeping us fed, alive, and supplied with an unending delivery of goods we once picked up from a local store.

Moreover, many trips are not “work” trips but are for other purposes.

  • School trips for all ages are an important market, and these are often overlooked as part of transit demand.
  • People make trips for shopping and other personal errands on the TTC, especially if they do not have a car (or if the only one in the family is being used by someone else).
  • Finally, there are leisure trips, broadly speaking, for outings to sports events, theatre, movies, an afternoon on the beach or a walk through the cherry blossoms.

Office commuting will resume when employers and employees feel safe gathering together. Yes some prefer working at home, at least some of the time, but others are just as happy to escape to the alternate universe of their work space and colleagues. There were already moves to reduce the space per office worker and design more for “hotelling” to make better use of expensive space, but there is still a demand for office space, at least in the core area. The creation of new space may halt or slow for a time, but “downtown” still has its allure.

We have already seen that workers in critical industries and in many settings where there is no online alternative are straining the transit service despite claims that crowding is rare.

School traffic is not going to disappear either, but it will return under different circumstances and at a different pace. Much depends on when it is really safe to resume gatherings on that level, based on actual health science, not on political pressure to reopen at whatever cost.

The last to return will be the leisure trips because here has to be something “there” to generate the traffic.

This affects the TTC in a different way from GO Transit which is almost entirely dependent on one market: downtown commuters. GO’s future is tied to these riders much more than is the TTC’s largely because it is the only market they pursued for most of their existence. They are highly dependent on parking lots and personal cars for “last mile” feeder service.

GO has tried to market itself for off peak traffic and group travel, but that demand is trivial. It is viewed as a loss-leader to get potential new customers onto GO who would try weekday service after they use it on the weekend. Of course, someone bringing their family in for a ball game might not actually work downtown, and GO has little service to other destinations.

GO’s daily ridership dropped much further than the TTC’s and it remains in single-digit percentages of its former level with some trains carrying loads that would fit on a bus.

The TTC is different as its stats show. Ridership (equivalent to fares paid, or “linked trips” in planning parlance) are at 25-30% of former levels across the system, with higher values in some areas. The budget plans for a growth to about 50% by fall 2021, but whether this is achieved depends a lot on the perceived success of the vaccination campaign and a big drop in future infection rates. In the first quarter of 2021, the TTC expected to see the first glimpse of a recovery but, thanks to political bungling, we got a third wave of infections and another “lockdown”.

That hoped-for growth starting in September may turn out to be wishful thinking, and that does not bode well for a transit system that cannot be kept on financial life support forever. The 2022 budget assumes a fairly healthy growth in demand, although not back all the way to pre-pandemic levels.

Source: April 2021 CEO’s Report

“Boardings” or “unlinked trips” count each leg of a journey separately. Any transfer between vehicles (except on the subway) counts as a new boarding. While all modes suffered a downturn through the fall and winter, the bus network did best of the three showing its relative importance to riders who continue to be on the TTC.

Source: April 2021 CEO’s Report

Crowding complaints come overwhelmingly on the bus routes, in part because there are so many more of them. The bus fleet has automatic passenger counters that can report real stats, but these are not yet widely available on the streetcar fleet.

Source: April 2021 CEO’s Report

In the near future, the TTC will provide a crowding level feed to two apps: Rocketman and Transit App. This will allow riders to see how crowded approaching buses are, although it will of course do nothing to prevent a bus, once boarded, from filling up later. This information, however, will make an interesting adjunct to real time and historical tracking analysis because it will allow crowding and service reliability to be compared.

The TTC’s analysis above fails to show the real situation riders face because it lumps every bus trip on every route all day together. Many routes are never crowded. Routes with chronic bunching might only be crowded on the “gap” bus. Routes with highly directional demand will have a lot of lightly-loaded counterpeak trips. Having “only” 5% of trips show up as “crowded” will understate the degree of the problems when and where they actually exist.

Moreover, there are more riders on a crowded bus than on an empty one, and so the “average” experience will be that more people to see crowding. A good analogy might be that someone trying to board the subway southbound at Bloor in the AM peak as opposed to eastbound at Broadview at the same time will have a very different experience of subway crowding. The same is true for bus routes.

With route level crowding stats, the TTC should be able to provide “hot spot” reports rather than simply averaging the entire system.

Clearly they are doing some of this already because service plans for coming months, including the May schedule changes, will reduce service on some less-loaded routes to be redeployed on other busy routes.

An important improvement would be to include the hot spots/hot time list in the Daily Customer Service Report so that riders can compare their experience with what the TTC thinks happened. The next challenge is to make the service run reliably, a frequent topic on this blog.

Is Ride Sharing Siphoning Off Riders?

At its April 14 meeting, the TTC passed a motion from Commissioners Carroll and Bradford, as amended. The original version sought to have management commission a study on their own, but this was modified to take into account work already done by the City of Toronto and its access to private data from ride sharing companies that would not be sharable with an outside consultant.

The TTC Board direct the Chief Executive Officer to work with City of Toronto Municipal Licensing, Transportation and Planning staff and Standards to study the impact of ride-hailing services on public transit, which builds on the City’s 2019 report “The Transportation Impacts of Vehicle-For-Hire in the City of Toronto” and specifically studies:

a. Rides lost annually to ride-hailing since 2014

b. Ride loss projections based on

i. Anticipated growth of ride-hailing and

ii. Changing rider concerns during and after the pandemic.

c. The corresponding impact on fare revenue and, therefore, the TTC operating budget.

d. Changes to traffic congestion, vehicle kilometres travelled (including commuting, cruising, on route and in-service time) by PTC vehicles and corresponding effect on TTC surface transit caused by the growth of ride-hailing apps.

e. Strategies and solutions to remain competitive in the mobility ecosystem when coming up against ride hailing companies.

f. The potential synergies with ride hailing companies that could drive mutual economic benefit.

Sources: Notice of Motion and amendments taken from the video record of the meeting

Frankly I am not sure that the data exist to support this scale of retrospective study. The real question going forward will be whether ride sharing use will go up, and what market(s) are most likely to be affected. Equally important are the questions of why people choose ride sharing over the TTC and what the TTC might do to counter this.

The TTC has a long and rather sad history of assuming that most of its problems originate from external forces and looking there for some way to counter riding losses, among other issues. Rarely do they look inward to ask whether what they are selling is what riders want to buy.

Anyone familiar with the club district in pre-pandemic times will know that Ubers prowl everywhere including driving into TTC curb lane passenger waiting areas. Some people take them rather than waiting for the King streetcar. The economics are simple: for a short trip with multiple riders, some of whom may not be regular transit users (i.e. they don’t already have a pass) the combination of cost and speed is hard for the TTC to beat especially if the journey might involve a transfer or a walk at the destination from a transit stop.

However, most people going to work or to school or to shop are not going to call up a ride share. Those who do make trips this way are quite willing to pay a premium for speed and convenience, and they will be difficult to woo onto transit just as auto drivers will (at best) chortle mildly at the suggestion they might use the TTC.

Rides lost to sharing companies are not new: conventional taxis have been doing this for decades, and the more enterprising cabbies would troll along busy streetcar routes hoping to pick off riders tired of waiting for a streetcar to show up. The difference now is that ride hailing is greatly simplified, notably that one can actually “hail” a ride online rather than hoping a cab will pass by, and the cost for many trips is lower than with a regular cab.

Even I, a transit advocate, have taken cabs (not ride shares) when the circumstances favour it: late at night, bad weather, carrying luggage, a shared ride. Taxis are a form of transit that addresses its own market. Of course it costs more to come home from a night out by taxi than by TTC, but when the occasion demands it, that’s part of the cost of the evening. I have that option because I live downtown and can afford an occasional cab ride. The same cannot be said for those making longer journeys, or of lesser means, and certainly not on a regular basis.

As the pandemic recedes, there will be a period while the desire to ride in close quarters will probably lag the actual effectiveness of vaccines and the likelihood of infection. We have been through enough false recoveries to avoid leaping onto a packed transit vehicle soon.

In my own travels, which are much less frequent than pre-pandemic, I know that riders are very sensitive to crowding and particularly to anyone who travels unmasked. Even if only 1 in 20 (5%) do not mask, that means a typical half-full bus (25 riders) will have at least one unmasked rider.

TTC looks at the stats from the point of view that almost everyone does mask, not from the likelihood that at least one rider per vehicle does not, and worse that such riders might behave in a way that would concern others.

Source: April 2021 CEO’s Report

Pooled ride sharing faces the same dilemma, and Uber Pool is currently not available. This increases the cost per trip making ride sharing less attractive. The decline in work available both to conventional taxis and to ride sharing is well documented in an era where travel is down, and the desire to use a shared vehicle, even sequentially, is also dampened.

Nibbling Around The Edges of Service

A common political attack on transit arises when times are tough, when “taxpayer dollars” are the rallying cry for trimming public services. As a starting point, it is important to understand what the TTC’s Service Standards call for today. The following standards affect service quality especially at the margins where demand is lower than normal. (Everything here refers to prepandemic conditions.)

All-Day Every-Day Service

TTC’s hours of service are nominally from 6 am to 1 am, except on Sundays when service begins at 8 am. In practice, many routes operate outside of these hours notably to match to the end of subway service. The last outbound trains leave Bloor-Yonge just before 2 am, and as they move outward, connecting last buses leave their stations. Routes with less late-evening demand end at 1 am.

It is currently TTC policy that service is an “all or nothing” decision rather than having different hours of service tailored to each route, with rare exceptions. The intent is that the network is the same from a rider’s viewpoint for the entire service day and week.

Overnight service is provided on a subset of routes generally on half-hourly headways, although the TTC does not use protected time points in its schedule where vehicles must hold for their times to guarantee reliable connections.

Headway standards only constrain the most lightly used routes. For the subway and RT network, the maximum headway is 6 minutes while for local bus and streetcar routes it is 30 minutes.

Productivity standards dictate the minimum demand (counted as “boardings”) expected from various classes of service. If demand falls below these minima, this would trigger a service reduction. Note that 10 boardings per vehicle hour for off-peak bus service sets a floor below which service would not be offered.

A further metric is the net cost per boarding which is expressed as:

(Route Operating Cost/Boardings) – Average Fare per Boarding

This can be calculated on an all-day basis, or for individual periods of service. The challenge, one that we saw during Mayor Ford’s attempt to save money by culling unproductive routes, is that the marginal saving is less than the average cost per hour or kilometre of vehicle operation might imply for various reasons:

  • There is no marginal vehicle-related saving in off-peak service because the TTC already owns them. They require garage space and must be serviced whether they run until 1 am or only to 9 pm, for example. No capital cost is avoided by using buses for fewer off-peak hours per day.
  • Running less off-peak service can reduce the opportunity for spreading driver costs over full shifts, avoiding the premium cost of short blocks of work which includes the time for garage trips allocated over fewer in-service hours.
  • Off peak service tends to run at higher speeds reducing the number of vehicles and drivers required to provide service.

All of these factors combine to set a standard for when and where the TTC would provide service. Some routes and periods of operation will be more “efficient” or “productive” and we see this even on the subway network.

However, the money to be saved on marginal, off-peak services is generally less than the average net cost/rider on the system.

The question, then, is whether an alternate method of providing service would deliver the standards we expect as a city but at a lower net cost. This brings us to ride sharing and alternative providers.

Uber Contemplates Transit

Uber produced a study, Transit Horizons: Toward a New Model of Public Transportation, of the applicability of their service as a replacement for or supplement to conventional transit. Numbers in the study are based on data reported by systems in the USA.

The short version:

The fundamental conclusion of this report is that ride sharing is not competitive for the vast majority of travel, certainly on large urban transit systems. There is little for Uber to chase within those systems, but by nibbling around the edges, Uber establishes a presence and the marketing presence to politicians who think there is always a way to make transit “more efficient”. This might be true in some parts of the GTHA especially if one regards transit as a service run for low volumes of riders and staffed by drivers making low wages. But it is no answer to how the vast number of potential transit trips now taken by private auto might be redirected to some form of transit.

It is clear that Uber’s real aim is to become a hub and a broker for multiple services including conventional transit, ride shares and other modes such as cycle rentals. Transit represents a lucrative revenue stream, and Uber hopes to supplant conventional fare collection.

The long version:

Reading this report has an odd feel as if there are two separate authors with their own separate takes on the issue.

In the first half of the study, we learn that across a wide range of US cities and transit systems, Uber is not competitive with fixed route transit unless that service carries fewer than 10 trips per vehicle hour. In this context “competitive” means that if a city subsidized Uber trips so that riders paid regular transit fares, the city would be better off just running their own buses provided there was enough demand. The situation is worse as long as Uber Pool is shut down because its economies of scale are lost.

In the second half, the tone shifts and Uber reveals its vision for a transit service it would, in part, provide, but with an important additional role: Uber would integrate trip planning for both the conventional transit system and its own services tailoring trips to the optimal way they might be served. It goes without saying that fare collection would be through this central system, and it would displace some or all of an agency-based system like Presto. This appears to be the real market Uber is chasing, one where it provides service management, allocation and most importantly revenue handling.

The chart below, with calculations by Uber, show how few bus routes on large systems fall into the range where savings with ride sharing are possible. Note that these charts treat each route as one data point regardless of how many riders it might carry.

The 10 trips per hour value is comparable to the TTC’s Service Standards floor and below their all-day averages. Time-of-day breakdowns only show up in reviews of service periods where a route falls below acceptable performance set by TTC Service Standards. This also ties in to the standard of all-day service. A route might fall below the loading standard late in the evening, but the all-day numbers could be much better. Conversely, the marginal saving from dropping late evening service will be lower than the average cost implies. The situation varies from route to route.

The TTC last published statistics for its surface network in 2018. I restated these numbers to show the riders per hour value in What is a “Low Performing” Transit Route [table]. With the recent change to use of Automatic Passenger Counters and real time reporting, we will get a very different and detailed view of transit demand.

None of the TTC routes fell below the 10 boardings per vehicle hour threshold, not even the Downtown Express buses. This means that on an average basis, none of the routes fits into Uber’s range for effective replacement by ride sharing. The situation, however, could be different at the margins depending on demand. This gets tricky very quickly, however, for many reasons including:

  • The marginal cost of providing transit service is lower than the all-day average for a route as discussed above making the cost per boarding lower and with it the “break-even” point.
  • Demand varies hour-by-hour, day-by-day and depends on many factors. A route that could appear to be “unproductive” on Monday could do quite well on Fridays. It is not practical to schedule service to deal with variable ridership with regular buses on some days and ride shares on others.
  • Weather affects both transit demand and ride share pricing, and the last thing a transit rider needs is a service that vanishes because ride shares are not available, or because the transit system will not pay their premium pricing during surge events.
  • Riders need to know when regular bus service is offered and when they should call up a ride share. This has implications for how service is provided and managed that I will return to later.

Uber plays fast and loose with claimed savings by lumping a wide range of services together in their analysis. Even then, the savings are not huge:

We estimate that ~1-6% of bus trips could be replaced by ridesharing at a cost reduction for agencies (based on Uber Pool pricing and pre-COVID ridership levels). These trips represent ~5% to 25% of all bus routes. Agencies can expect cost reductions per trip of ~15-30% on inefficient routes that are replaced with Uber Pool (assuming ridership remains constant).

Using a sample of 10 agencies of different sizes from the National Transit Database, we estimate cost per trip reductions of between ~13% to 70% from leveraging ridesharing services like UberX for ambulatory demand response trips. In markets where Uber Pool is available, we have found the cost reductions per trip could be higher than 70% on average.

Uber Transit Horizons p12

The reallocated trips might represent “5-25%” of bus routes, and the saving on affected trips might be from “13% to 70%”, but on how many trips out of a system’s total? The table below shows how the vast majority of trips across US systems are carried at a cost with which ride sharing cannot compete according to Uber’s calculations. Large transit systems like the TTC will have trip profiles in the upper portion of this chart with only crumbs for ride sharing.

There is a further policy question of the type of service a transit rider-share might offer and of just what “last mile” service means. In the context of replacing private auto trips, a ride share is door-to-door. Transit, by contrast, is stop based and even a conventional bus dispatched on a demand-responsive basis is not going to pick up and drop off riders at their destination unless it happens to be at a bus stop.

Should a “transit” ride-share be offering a substantially more convenient ride, in effect a taxi rather than a bus, on the very marginal routes and locations where conventional transit is considered to be uneconomic? When we talk about “microtransit”, just what do we mean, and what service quality are we prepared to pay for?

I have omitted here a fundamental problem with ride shares: the “digital divide” that isolates riders who do not have smart phone technology through which ride shares could be easily booked, especially on an anticipatory basis before the portion of a journey on a trunk bus route reaches the “transfer point” to ride share service.

The idea that riders would call into a dispatch centre assumes that everyone either has a phone, or that there is a pay phone at every stop where a ride share might be needed.

Uber looks to nibble around the edges of a transit system at marginal routes during marginal times, but that is not really the basis for a robust business.

Uber’s vision is clearly shown early in their paper:

Consumers are demanding higher quality and more dynamic services together with integrated digital experiences. Agencies meanwhile are expected not to leave anyone behind. Adding to the challenges, the COVID-19 crisis has decimated ridership, funding sources have evaporated, and the recovery is progressing slowly. Against this backdrop, the need for public transportation agencies to evolve and innovate on their service delivery model has never been higher.


At the highest level, we see public transportation systems transforming from decentralized networks, where different modes can often operate in silos, toward a system that is truly integrated, connected, and optimized in a highly agile way.


On the rider side, users will plan, book, pay for, and access their trips across any mode – both public and private – via Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) apps. Rewards, bundles, and mobility subscriptions will follow shortly thereafter.

Uber Transit Horizons p3 and p5

Uber has a confused attitude to the way public transit costs actually work, and they start with the claim that the costs is largely fixed:

The cost structure of public transportation, similar to airlines, is largely fixed. Whether they operate at 90% or 5% capacity, agency-owned vehicles have a cost per supply hour that varies little, if at all.

Uber Transit Horizons p8

Elsewhere, however, Uber touts the premise of “peak shaving” by trimming vehicle requirements. They are confused about saving peak vehicles that would operate when the ride share model cannot possibly compete on a cost/trip basis as opposed to off-peak savings when the only possible cut is in fleet utilization, not size.

Vehicles have costs that are partly fixed and partly variable. Fixed costs include:

  • Capital cost of vehicles and garage space
  • Routine cleaning, servicing and maintenance of buses
  • Facilities maintenance
  • Major overhauls such as the TTC’s mid-life rejuvenation of its buses
  • System management

Variable costs include:

  • Fuel/power
  • Mileage based maintenance due to wear and tear
  • Labour
  • Supervision

Labour costs are driven mainly by hourly wages but also by the service design including the amount of dead mileage for garage trips and premiums paid for very short or very long shifts (minimum crew value in one case, overtime in the other).

The cost per supply hour depends a great deal on vehicle utilization, and some costs cannot be avoided simply by running a bus less and replacing it with another service.

Capital costs are a special consideration because, depending on the agency, they may not appear as part of the cost base. If buses appear “out of the air” thanks to capital subsidies, then there is an incentive to maximize capital (replacing buses) rather than maintaining them, usually an operating cost. The TTC is already well down this road.

In the ride sharing model, many of the costs are borne by the vehicle operator who hopes to recoup the investment (or ongoing lease payments) through revenues. Ride Share trips are all an “operating cost” to the transit agency which benefits mainly through the much lower effective labour rates paid to drivers, a “benefit” they would be unable to obtain through contract negotiations with their own staff.

Subsidies in the US (and much of the world) are considerably higher than in Toronto. The chart below shows heavy rail with the best cost recovery no doubt because of its economies of scale.

When subsidies are plotted against ridership per vehicle hour, it is no surprise that agencies with light demand have the highest costs. Note however that many agencies show a negative subsidy/trip for buses despite the mode’s overall low cost recovery in the chart above. This suggests there is something wrong with Uber’s analysis below.

15 thoughts on “Missing Riders, Uber and the TTC

  1. This is a really ripe topic, for a number of reasons, not least funding. Even though, as detailed by Steve’s last posts on the Ontario Line, it appears that Metrolinx is moving ahead on a number of grand projects…one really has to wonder if the business case is what it was? And how much of the proposals are now fantasy? Procurement appears to be proceeding, but if cancelled, it certainly wouldn’t be unique for Toronto.

    Steve writes:

    There were already moves to reduce the space per office worker and design more for “hotelling” to make better use of expensive space

    If “hotelling” means what I suspect it does, then this might be prophetic: (London, UK is much more intensely served with rail and bus transit, but I suspect this scales to Toronto and GTHA in many ways)

    UK Telegraph reports:

    Mandarins could be situated in ‘drop in’ offices outside of London
    By Tom Rees and Lucy Burton 4 April 2021 • 9:45pm

    Civil servants will be able to drop into “hybrid” office spaces across the country after the Government signed a deal with one of the world’s biggest flexible working companies.

    The agreement with IWG will provide private office space in 10 cities and will also allow some officials to use any of the office giant’s sites.
    Whitehall sources said the deal included the Department for Work and Pensions and its new temporary job centres. Government staff involved in the scheme will be able to access its network of co-working spaces as bosses increasingly bet on hybrid working where time is split between home and the office.]

    Googling to see if I can link a non-paywall article to the above.

    The Globe and Mail shows:

    World’s largest co-working firm to change business model as pandemic exacerbates industry problems
    FEBRUARY 11, 2021

    [IWG PLCIWGFF, the world’s biggest co-working company, is trying to adapt its business model to reduce its exposure to long-term office leases as dozens of its locations in Canada and the United States restructure under creditor protection.

    The pandemic’s work-from-home mandates have exacerbated weaknesses with the co-working business of rent arbitrage.
    “There is no doubt that the downtown urban cores, financial district, locations … that require mass transit, are facing more immediate challenges than the suburban locations,” he said. Remote work has forced companies to reconsider their office real estate requirements and how their staff will work after the pandemic. Some, such as B.C. tech company Traction on Demand, have decided to give up big office spaces in favour of smaller locations in the suburbs, while others say remote work will be permanent.]

    The slant isn’t the same as the UK Telegraph’s, but very similar. By the UK Government buying into the scheme, it’s an official preface of a change in planning, transit needs and otherwise.

    Steve: One of the issues in the office rental market is that prime space is expected to remain prime space, even if rents don’t escalate quite to the stratospheric levels some owners might have hoped. The areas that will suffer are those outside of the core, especially those faux-centres invented just to make politicians think they had a local “downtown”. If the real core backfills with companies that can now afford to rent there, that’s space they will not occupy in a more remote building. A related point, made in the Globe article I believe, is that with the downsizing of space/employee (both physically and allowing for hotelling), a company’s cost/employee goes down even if they might now be in more expensive space measured per square metre.

    In turn this could lead to demand to the core to rebound fairly strongly, but not so much to those “regional” centres.

    I also have a sense reading various articles that each writer has his or her own spin on what the outcome will be, and argues from that point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve, I have just a couple of comments. As background, before engaging in my profession as a cost accountant (manager, consultant), I drove taxi in Toronto full-time for 15 years.

    Public transit is a public service. If City Hall or Queens Park were to reduce my services, would they allow me to reduce my taxes payable? Ha! No way! The pols need to put their ideologies aside, and maintain (or increase) the public good of which they are the custodians.

    (Btw, Steve, just below Table 5 you mentioned “Mayor Ford”.)

    Steve: Rob Ford was Mayor when the attempt to trim TTC service by going after unproductive periods of operation was launched. John Tory reversed some but not all changes.

    About Uber & Lyft, the so-called “ride-sharing” services. Ride sharing is when friends get together with a designated driver for a night out, or perhaps car-pooling to school or work, or splitting the cost of a cab. Don’t call Uber ride-sharing, because that is just a marketing ploy. Uber/Lyft steals business from both public transit and licensed taxis. Taxis are fully liability insured, whereas Ubers are not. Ubers are not insured for commercial use, or else they would be unable to operate profitably. Woe to you passenger if you are hurt in an accident!

    Poor Uber drivers. The business model is horribly against them. They need to provide a late-model car, pay the gas & maintenance & insurance. They share the fare with the company. As contractors, there are no benefits, such as paid sick leave, holiday pay, pension, or Workmens’ Comp. The excess kilometres decreases the vehicle’s value. Net result is pay much below minimum wage, but at high risk of something going wrong.

    Steve: I didn’t want to turn an article about the return of transit ridership into a diatribe against “ride sharing” services, although I think my opinion of them should have come through. The ridiculous point is that they can’t be competitive even by their own calculations, but that does not stop them from marketing their services to politicians. That paper has been making the rounds.


  3. “Micro-transit” is just a fancy name for subsidized taxi service, but without the regulations and safety features of licensed taxis. Uber/Lyft can’t make a profit, even with a business model that offloads most of the costs onto drivers while paying them a low hourly wage. Their business model was based on an unlikely utopia of driverless vehicles that would never require parking spaces and would never get stuck in traffic. Even so, there is a valid question as to how much they could actually scale up to replace mass transit (Hint: they can’t). Who wouldn’t prefer to take a taxi on demand, door-to-door, if the city is paying for most of the fare? We’ve already seen the inability of Uber to scale up as ridership increases in places like Innisfil and Belleville.

    So, why do these unprofitable companies attract so much venture capital investment? Because their real model is to operate at a loss initially, undercutting public transit costs to the point where cities would be convinced to get rid of their public systems in favour of “cheaper” ride-sharing. Once the public transit competition is divested, the Uber/Lyft monopoly can then charge cities whatever profitable prices they want. Like most public services, it would be very expensive to re-establish a public system from scratch. This future predatory profitability is what the ride-sharing investors are banking on, and is a siren-call that politicians must resist.

    I would add to your fundamental problem of a “digital divide” for ride-sharing, that of accessibility of the vehicles. A huge amount of public money has been, and continues to be spent on making the public system fully accessible. Even so, the on-demand accessible system (Wheel-Trans), continues to be needed for many trips, even as it strives to become more integrated with the conventional system. How will Uber/Lyft accommodate this need in their public transit model?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve wrote about how the Uber report provided:

    “…no answer to how the vast number of potential transit trips now taken by private auto might be redirected to some form of transit.”

    I can answer that question. Here is the answer: The vast majority of people will take the mode of transportation that is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B. Yes, there are a few avid motorists or avid cyclists who will put up with considerable inconvenience to use their favourite mode of transportation. But the vast majority of people just do not care.

    So the way to redirect private auto trips to walking, cycling or public transit is to systematically reallocate street space from dedicated private motor vehicle use to transit and cycling lanes. With, of course, concrete and steel barriers to keep the private autos out. Every city in the world that has done this has experienced a 100% success rate.

    Courtesy of Mark Wagenbuur, here is an excellent blog post and 3 minute video of one project to do just that in the city of Eindhoven, NL. Note the “before and after” clips in the video, with the year of filming in the bottom left.

    Key quote:

    “Space that was previously primarily dedicated to moving cars has been re-allocated to walking, cycling and a lot of greenery. Fast and high quality public transport has also become more important in this area.”

    Here is another person’s take on the same project, with before and after photos.

    Even Toronto’s crappy, half-assed cycling infrastructure has resulted in pre-pandemic cycling mode shares from 15-30%, with a high of 34% in Cabbagetown. Based upon what I am seeing, that is a lot higher today.

    If we reallocate street space in Toronto so that walking, cycling or public transit is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely going from A to B, then that is how people will travel.

    Steve: A few points. One aspect of the decision on mode choice you omitted from your list: affordability. This affects different groups and trip types in different ways. An occasional Uber for a short hop, even better a shared hop, is very different from daily commutes over longer distances.

    I agree that cycling can get a higher mode share if proper facilities are provided as can transit. However, “convenience” for transit means more service and more reliable service everywhere, not just one corridor a year from now to the end of time. The analogy for cycling is that a few kilometres here and there in a disconnected network are much less useful than a connected network, especially when that network includes the “hard” locations where space reallocation is challenging, but the improvement in safety and comfort contributes to the value of the network.

    The CycleTO article notes that:

    More than 50% of all trips in Toronto are less than 5 km in length which are considered easily bikeable.

    That’s an important number, although it needs to be tempered by a consideration of trip type. For example someone may make short trips for shopping or an outing from work to lunch, but their actual commute could be much longer. It is those commute trips that drive auto and transit demand.

    Wagenbuur notes that Eindhoven’s attempt to filter traffic led to bad behaviour by motorists reminiscent of what we see on King Street. The issue is that limits to auto travel have a strong political component, and that gains during one administration can be lost during another. Jarvis Street anyone?

    I must point out that many of the streets in the two blog articles are wider than the typical 66-foot right-of-way for major streets in old Toronto, and none of them has streetcars. This gives more flexibility in space allocation (notably those planted strips) and rearrangement of lane placement. Some facilities (underground utility accesses and drainage) anchor facilities at surface level. Toronto does not rebuild streets when they implement priority programs in part because the pols want the assurance that things can be changed back if “necessary”. I will be very interested to see the designs for King Street after the planned reconstruction in 2023 because this could include fixed changes like sidewalk bumpouts that are now accomplished with Jersey barriers and temporary planters.

    CycleTO also notes:

    … there is evidence that people across the city are choosing to cycle – especially noteworthy in parts of the city with unreliable transit service.

    To this I would reply that improving reliability helps all riders whether cycling is a valid option for them or not. The TTC is unwilling to accept that they could do more to improve reliability than padding schedules and waiting for buckets of red paint.


  5. “One aspect of the decision on mode choice you omitted from your list: affordability.”

    Yes, and that was deliberate. Let’s look at that issue. According to CAA the average cost of car ownership is $9,000 per year.

    That number does not include the cost of car parking, which can be very expensive in Toronto. Even in far-flung suburbia, the construction and maintenance costs of home driveways and garages for cars is quite expensive. Purchase of a parking spot in downtown Toronto is currently a minimum of $35,000.

    Let’s be conservative and set parking costs at only $1,000 per year. Giving a total car operating cost of $10,000 per year.

    The TTC’s adult non-discounted 12-month pass has an annual cost of $1,716 per year.

    Toronto Bike Share’s adult annual membership is $99. The cost of operating a private bicycle can be even less. My father rode the same bicycle for over 50 years.

    These are very significant differences in yearly cost. $10,000 for private car use, $1,716 for transit and $99 for cycling. If cost was a significant factor, very few people would be driving cars. Which leads to the conclusion that for the vast majority of people, cost is not the deciding factor in their transportation mode choice decision.

    Which is an uncomfortable truth for a transit activist such as myself. Why are people willing to pay six times as much money for private car use rather than transit? What is the answer to our original question: “…how the vast number of potential transit trips now taken by private auto might be redirected to some form of transit”?

    It is my conclusion that cost is not a significant part of the answer to that question. Even if the TTC were free, that would only lure a small percentage of car drivers onto public transit. I will stick with my same answer to that question. The vast majority of people will take the mode of transportation that is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B.

    Steve: You have not addressed the same question as I was aiming at. Affordability is a decision that is made on a trip-by-trip basis balanced against other factors that may make the choice to spend more inevitable. An auto may be expensive, but once purchased there is a big incentive to use it as much as possible. Indeed, that is the marketing behind a Metropass. Even with that, some riders pay as they go and benefit from the two-hour transfer without the cost of an annual pass.

    Ride sharing is not going to take over routine commutes except for those who are willing to pay at those rates and who travel short distances.

    Equally, cycling is not going to take over a lot of trips for which the distances/hassle involved simply do not work.

    Much of the discussion about travel demand within Toronto deals with longer trips where time is a big issue and where simply the physical effort required to cycle is substantial leaving aside safety issues.

    By the way, the average journey length on the TTC for all trips lies in the 8-10km range. That’s why Metrolinx based their fare-by-distance scheme on a 10km inflection point after which the cost would rise. Sure there are lots of shorter trips, and in “before times” thanks to where I live and am most likely to travel, almost all of my journeys were under 10km.

    I don’t give a flying f*ck how cheap a bicycle might be to operate, it’s not a vehicle I would use no matter what infrastructure existed to support it, and I suspect I am not alone in that sentiment.

    There is a variety of ways people travel, or could travel if the modes on offer were more attractive and suited their needs. Each has its benefits and they vary depending on market segment.


  6. “You have not addressed the same question as I was aiming at.”

    Sorry about that. What question were you aiming at? I was addressing the question in the article “…how the vast number of potential transit trips now taken by private auto might be redirected to some form of transit.”

    It is my belief that the vast majority of people in Toronto will take transit if that is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B. And that cost is a deciding factor for only a small percentage of people.

    It is possible to conduct an experiment to verify this. My experimental hypothesis is that if nothing else was changed, making the TTC free of charge would result in only a small percentage of private auto trips being redirected to public transit. Of course, the probability of persuading Toronto City Council to conduct this experiment is approximately zero. 🙂

    “An auto may be expensive, but once purchased there is a big incentive to use it as much as possible.”

    True. So the question of how to redirect private auto trips to transit could be considered in two phases. The first is where the person still owns a car but takes some trips by transit. And the next step is the decision to go car-free.

    There is a lot of evidence that car owners will still take public transit if it is the fastest, easiest, etc, way to travel. Pre-pandemic, a large percentage of GO train passengers owned a car. But motor vehicle congestion made it much faster and easier for them to drive to the GO station, park their car there and take the train to Toronto. As soon as Covid restrictions eliminated that motor vehicle congestion, many of those people who were still making that trip now determined that it was faster and easier to drive their car all the way to Toronto. Which is one reason why GO’s ridership crashed much lower than the TTC.

    In terms of the decision to go car-free, I note that the annual cost of car ownership is approximately $10,000 vs. annual TTC pass costs of $1,716. Which leads me to conclude that cost is the deciding factor in only a small percentage of the decisions about whether or not to own a car in Toronto.

    “Equally, cycling is not going to take over a lot of trips for which the distances/hassle involved simply do not work.”

    I never said that it would. Ryerson University in collaboration with Metrolinx produced a report concluding that about one third of the total trips in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) are potentially cyclable. Among other things, their definition of “potentially cyclable” includes a trip length of less than 5 km.

    My own experience tends to verify this. I currently live in Toronto on Pinewood Avenue just north of St. Clair. My usual grocery shopping is at the Loblaws on top of the St. Clair West subway station, which is a little less than 1 km away. So that is usually a bicycle trip. And it is a lot easier to carry groceries on my bicycle than with my hands. But if I am going downtown it is faster to take the subway for my trip. So I do, even although it means I have to pay a TTC fare.

    “I don’t give a flying f*ck how cheap a bicycle might be to operate, it’s not a vehicle I would use no matter what infrastructure existed to support it, and I suspect I am not alone in that sentiment.”

    Yes, you are not alone in that sentiment. According to the Portland Demographic Model, about one third of the population is in the “No way, no how” category. Many members of this demographic are willing to undergo considerable inconvenience to avoid cycling and take alternate methods of transportation.

    Steve: I was aiming at the issue that it is not a black-and-white, one-mode-or-another-all-the-time, situation. People will choose based on the perceived attractiveness for each trip, although this can be strongly influenced if the perceived marginal cost is zero. Note my use of “marginal”. The up front investment in a mode – owning a car, or a pass, or a bike, or a bike membership – has already been made and that says something about the expected travel mode(s). In the pandemic era, there is the new consideration of personal safety, and that will recede in personal estimates of “attractiveness” probably more slowly than the actual statistical values. Also, being statistically alive is little comfort when the alternative can be so severe.

    As for a trial of free transit, that has already happened in Europe. Surprise, surprise, being free was not as big an incentive to riding as expected because of service quality. A poorly-stocked shop with free food is not going to attract customers who expect good selection, unless they have no choice. Free transit may be a big issue for those who make every penny count, but not for everyone.

    The Ryerson study is interesting in noting that the GTHA mode share for pedestrian travel is already much higher at 5% than cycling at 1% as of the date of the study, and that the distribution of cycling trips varies from place to place with downtown Toronto being the highest (as in some of the stats you cited in a previous comment). However, I note that the words “weather” (except as a name in a citation) and “snow” do not appear anywhere in the document, not even for the purpose of discussing their potential effect or not. We know that weather can affect TTC demand because riding goes up in the winter, especially if the weather might lead to poor driving conditions, and goes down in the summer. The effect is not just due to holidays, but of the “no way I’m driving today” effect.

    It is intellectually dishonest to say that one third of trips are “cyclable” as if somehow a market of that size can be tapped without many other considerations. I could equally argue that there are many more “transitable” trips than the current market share if only the network design and service level did not discourage usage in large parts of the GTHA including parts of Toronto. Moreover, there is an overlap between trips that can be addressed by each mode.

    It is not a question of “considerable inconvenience to avoid cycling”, but the fact that at my age it is not an attractive option. Even when I was younger, I did not fancy the idea of having to deal with weather and traffic, let alone having to stash a “vehicle” wherever I went, or of multiple trips in one day that varied considerably in character. The TTC was and is a far preferable mode of transport for me. You do readers no compliments by assuming some sort of blind bias against cycling as opposed to a rational choice, just as you make yours in the opposite direction.

    I think we are actually closer in outlook than this discussion might imply, but there is no point in another round.


  7. Two comments.

    Several years ago a survey of business travelers into downtown Toronto in regards to a proposed fare reduction (MetroPass?) a big majority said they would not use TTC if it was free, never mind cheaper.

    Second, regards Uber riders safety. It has long been mandatory for Uber drivers to carry proper insurance which includes informing their insurance carrier that they are in fact doing this type of use of their vehicle for profit. It was not always so. A real danger is lack of any driver training AFAIK to be legal unlike Taxi driver license.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Raymond said: “It has long been mandatory for Uber drivers to carry proper insurance which includes informing their insurance carrier that they are in fact doing this type of use of their vehicle for profit.”

    Passengers have to know that when an Uber fare is half or less than a taxi fare, something is missing.

    “Justice Abrioux reiterated the law and how it places a heavy burden on common carriers to disprove negligence when one of their passengers is hurt.”

    A common carrier is legally defined as a licensed provider for the movement of goods and/or passengers. Neither vehicle nor driver is licensed to carry paying passengers. Uber, the company, often denies being a common carrier in court. The insurance company will say that there is no coverage. Therefore, an Uber passenger who has been hurt will encounter much litigation and little compensation.

    Drivers: The average cost to insure a personal car for liability in Toronto is $2000/year, 15,000/year for a taxi with fleet insurance, $22,000/year without fleet insurance (2019). Most insurance providers refuse to offer for-hire auto insurance. Insurance is the biggest single cost for taxis. The risks to insurers are huge. In addition to a lot of driving around in heavy traffic with possible accidents with pedestrians and cyclists, there is a fare-paying passenger. The claims rate is very high, say insurers. Simply, a guy who wants to make a few spare dollars with little effort will drive Uber, often with someone else’s car, and insurance coverage will not be there.


  9. Steve,

    Thanks for a very in depth analysis, as always.

    However, I have noticed that GO Transit’s use off-peak is no longer ‘trivial’ in my view. If there is a concert or sporting event downtown, plus events like the CNE, there is a fair amount of demand for GO Transit – I recall a number of years ago complaining to GO Transit about this as they were still running 10 car consists on the Lakeshore Line over the weekend in the summer when the Blue Jays were having a home stand and the 10 car trains would be packed (I have noticed that they started running more 12 car consists the following year.) I have also seen long lines up at my local GO station when there is an event on downtown with people wanting to use the GO train. Perhaps not an everyday event, but certainly the change has been noticeable over the last few years, especially after GO Transit went to a 30 minute schedule on the Lakeshore Line.

    But I do agree that there are areas that GO could improve upon – for example, their Barrie trains on the weekend were indeed based on people living in Barrie coming to Toronto – I would take some day trips to Barrie by GO, but it was a lot harder to plan than if I was doing the trip in reverse. Hopefully, the pandemic will help them to change this, but I am not too hopeful of this.


  10. “I was aiming at the issue that it is not a black-and-white, one-mode-or-another-all-the-time, situation. People will choose based on the perceived attractiveness for each trip…”

    Yes, this is absolutely true. Toronto has been badly served by politicians pushing their “silver bullet” technologies. I define “perceived attractiveness” as the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B.

    “Even when I was younger, I did not fancy the idea of having to deal with weather and traffic, let alone having to stash a “vehicle” wherever I went…”

    Yes, those are all serious barriers. Let us look at these issues one at a time.

    1. Age. My mother died in 2016 at the age of 78. Before her death, she refused to ride a bicycle in Toronto. Her exact words were, “At my age, I am not going to play tag with two-tonnne lethal weapons.” Yet, whenever she was visiting The Netherlands, she cycled everywhere. Why? Because the Dutch “Sustainable Safety” policy systematically separates people from motor vehicle operators. In The Netherlands, people aged 75 and older take 24% of their trips by bicycle. Here is a video of them doing just that.

    Steve: It is not just a question of age but of physical condition. You have been ignoring that in all of your rhapsodies about cycling.

    2. Weather, particularly winter weather. This is a matter of having proper infrastructure that is properly maintained. Scandinavian countries can be rather good at this. Here is a video describing why Toronto is bad in winter. This video also shows the Finnish city of Oulu, which is above the Arctic Circle with heavy snow and typical winter temperatures of -20 degrees or colder. Yet it has a 20% year-round cycle mode share because it has proper infrastructure that is properly maintained.

    Steve: No. It’s not just about infrastructure. It’s about the wind and the cold and the wet. Why the hell should I deal with that when I can be on a warm, dry transit vehicle? (Or in a car, etc.)

    And here is a description and video of Copenhagen ensuring the bike lanes are kept free from snow during a 45 cm snowstorm.

    And The Netherlands.

    3. Traffic. This is a question of proper, protected infrastructure. Not just cycle lanes with secure concrete and steel barriers. But a systematic unravelling of cycle and motor vehicle routes to achieve systematic separation of bicycle and motor vehicle traffic.

    4. Parking. Yes, the smaller vehicle size and weight makes bike parking fantastically cheaper than car parking. But it still needs to be built. Whether at a suburban train station, or at your home.

    In Toronto, we now have a zoning bylaw requiring bike parking for all new buildings. For residential buildings, this requirement is one parking space for each dwelling unit downtown, and 0.75 parking spaces per dwelling unit in the rest of Toronto.

    So yes, your concerns are absolutely valid and legitimate concerns about real problems that currently exist in Toronto. Fortunately they all have proven solutions which are cheap and easy to implement compared to motor vehicle infrastructure. We just need to do them.

    Steve: And even if you do them all, cycling will not be attractive for a very large number of trips and travellers. I am not saying that it should be ignored as a mode, but it’s no panacea.

    End of discussion.

    Updated at 6:10 pm: I have deleted your most recent comment. I told you that this discussion was over. Get your own blog.


  11. Steve Munro to Kevin Love: Get your own blog.

    Kevin is one of the finest writers on this site and I encourage him to do so.

    Steve: The intent behind that statement was two-fold. Kevin writes prolifically, and should have a soapbox other than the comment thread on my site. Second, he was cherry picking arguments to suit his thesis and there was a point where I simply ran out of patience. We agree on many things, but it’s my blog, not his. He is not the first person I have said this to here.


  12. Steve: Even I, a transit advocate, have taken cabs (not ride shares) when the circumstances favour it: late at night, bad weather, carrying luggage, a shared ride. Taxis are a form of transit that addresses its own market. Of course it costs more to come home from a night out by taxi than by TTC, but when the occasion demands it, that’s part of the cost of the evening. I have that option because I live downtown.

    You have repeatedly stated that you live north of the Danforth and east of Broadview, is that Downtown? And what does living Downtown have to do with having the option to take a taxi?

    Steve: This commentary applies to pre-pandemic conditions.

    First of all, cabs are plentiful downtown. One rarely had to stand around long waiting for one to pass by in busy parts of the city such as the entertainment district, Yonge Street, Bloor Street, Danforth Avenue. There are posts where cabs wait for fares either that they pick up or from which they are dispatched, and one of them is outside of Broadview Station. If I phoned for a cab, there was usually one available in short order. Second, any trip I am likely to make will be short and therefore not wildly expensive.

    Neither of these would be true if my travels were not almost entirely in the downtown area. The same is not true further out. You don’t have to go very far to “fall off” the edge of frequent taxi service just as the quality of transit service declines as one moves outward.

    My choice to take a taxi would therefore be constrained by the longer wait time and higher fare, balanced off by the urgency of my journey and willingness to pay a premium to avoid going by transit. It certainly would not be a regular occurrence.

    For taxis or ride shares, you pay for the convenience and the tradeoff then is how much you can afford versus the time you will save.

    PS: I live west of Broadview, not that this makes any difference. That might be the “east end” to some, but to many anything south of Eglinton and in striking distance of Yonge is “downtown”. It’s all a qustion of your point of view.


  13. Steve has made many excellent points in this article. For instance, Steve said that “Taxis are a form of transit.” Well, then so are Uber, Ola, Lyft, etc. Why were exemptions made for taxis for the King St Permanent Pilot corridor but no such exemption was made for ride sharing services? John Tory, taxi companies, taxi drivers’ union, etc spoke a great deal about levelling the playing field between taxis and ride sharing services but how is the taxi favouritism on King leveling the playing field?

    P.S: Ola is an affordable alternative to Uber and Lyft for those of you who don’t know. I mentioned it to try to include all of the ride sharing services operating in Toronto and I am sure that there are more but I only know of these three.

    Steve: The problem with ride sharing services is that there is no way to distinguish the vehicles as there is with regular cabs in their branded colour schemes. The result is that other motorists can easily think that “everybody” is driving however they feel like it. Of course they do that anyhow, but that’s why the rules excluded ride shares. They only included taxis because the industry that they had been excluded from the consultation because the invitations were sent to the wrong person.

    In the context of this article, Uber clearly is looking to nibble away at low-hanging fruit in the transit business, and they love politicians who say “look how much more efficiently we can provide transit”. For “efficient” read “cheap”. What is ignored is the huge subsidy that the ride sharing driver provides in capital cost and wages, not to mention the billions that companies like Uber have lost for shareholders hoping to be around long enough for the concept to turn an economic corner.

    The idea also depends on transit being seen as a niche business that carries small numbers of people who choose not to or cannot afford to own their own car, and therefore ride sharing saves municipalities the cost of setting up transit for a minority of riders even if they subsidize the ride shares.


  14. Steve said that anything south of Eglinton and in striking distance of Yonge is “downtown”. This is another reason why we consider Steve one of our own here in Scarborough for anything within striking distance of Victoria Park is Scarborough which means that Steve lives in Scarborough and he made a career out of working in Scarborough. Steve Munro is our very own.

    Steve: Almost all of my working life was downtown, south of College Street. My job moved to Scarborough thanks to the megacity amalgamation. I have always lived in the old City of Toronto. Victoria Park is not in “striking distance” of any of these locations.

    And for we real, old-time, City of Toronto people, “downtown” starts somewhere south of Bloor. It is only in recent years that Yonge & Eglinton has become the centre of the universe. I remember when you almost literally “fell off the edge of Toronto” into sleepy, semi-rural North York at Hogg’s Hollow. There was a swamp at Bayview and Eglinton where the very first strip mall in what is now Toronto (then Leaside) was built. It is about to become a condo.


  15. Speaking of geographical confusion, I am always amused by the statement that “Scarborough deserves a Subway”. Those poor, Subway-lacking Scarboroughans. (“Subway” is always capitalized. I will go with the flow here.)

    In fact, there are three major Subway stations (Victoria Park, Warden, and Kennedy) indisputably in Scarborough. While Etobicoke gets four Subway stations (Old Mill, Royal York, Islington, and Kipling) the total length of Subway in Etobicoke is maybe half of that in Scarborough. And Old Mill is a very minor Subway station. While the Subway platform there has a view, it is nothing compared to the view of verdant Scarborough from the Victoria Park Subway station.

    So forget Scarborough. Etobicoke deserves a Subway!

    Come to think of it, East York has absolutely NO Subway.

    Forget Etobicoke. East York deserves a Subway!

    I will refrain from discussing whether Mississauga or Markham deserve a Subway. However, Vaughan certainly has a Subway.


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