The Varying Strength of Ridership Recovery

This article continues and enlarges on information in TTC 2023 Annual Service Plan Preview with additional material from a report on the July TTC Board agenda Advancing the 5-Year Service Plan (2024-2028) & 10-Year Outlook Reset. That is a long report with several components, and I have pulled chunks of it out as they relate directly to information in the earlier article.

Of particular interest in the restoration of service to the transit network is the fact that recovery has been underway in some locations and times much more strongly than others. This corresponds to the difference in areas where work or study-from-home replaced commuting to an office or school. Maps in the previous article showed the top and bottom 20 routes for ridership relative to pre-pandemic levels in Spring 2020 (the point of lowest ridership) and in Fall 2021. For convenience, they are repeated here.

These ranking are by percentage of pre-pandemic ridership with no reference to absolute numbers. The busiest routes by ridership are shown in the maps below. This presentation inevitably displays the long routes which have a large number of boardings. Short routes like 65 Parliament may have recovered a large proportion of their demand, but the base number is necessarily small because of their smaller service territory.

This shows the danger of looking at absolute numbers out of a context such as riders per route kilometre (in effect, the density of demand), not to mention possible variations in the level of demand and boarding patterns along a long route.

Another view of evolving demand looks at the stop level. The chart below compares stop usage on a percentage basis with the larger dots showing the stops where over 75 per cent of riding remained even in Spring 2020 when system riding was at 20 per cent. In some parts of the city, the effect of the pandemic on transit demand was much smaller than elsewhere. Despite the overall political and media story that transit demand was in the basement, this was not a universal truth.

The overall recovery by Fall 2021 shows a much wider collection of well-used stops.

Looked at on the basis of absolute numbers, the map is dominated by the high usage at subway stations.

Some of the data shown here come from Presto “taps”. It is not clear whether the TTC has applied an adjustment factor to correct for variation in tap rates by riders in different parts of the system. This is particularly important on the streetcar routes because the new Flexitys were delivered without Automatic Passenger Counters, and these are only now being retrofitted to the fleet. On bus routes, it is relatively easy to calculate a conversion factor between “taps” and “rides” based on the two counting systems, but this is not yet the case for streetcars.

The data underlying the top/bottom 20 charts were presented in tabular format in the new report. While this gives us the numbers, it does so only for routes that “made the cut” based on each map’s selection criteria. For convenience, I have consolidated this information in one table.

On a percentage basis, 22 Coxwell did the best in 2020 with a 41 per cent recovery. We do not have the 2021 number for this route in the report, but numbers for all routes are available on the TTC’s Planning webpage.

The overall point here is that it is easy to find parts of the network where demand has not fully returned, but equally there are routes where current riding is close to pre-pandemic levels such as 41 Keele at 96 per cent. This has important implications for planning service levels and for recognition that the network is as important as ever for some types of travel. What remains to be seen is the evolution of riding through the balance of 2021 as office workers and post-secondary students return in greater numbers.

Equally important is the fact that the office commuting is only about one third of overall TTC demand, Much political and media attention focuses on the big drop in this category forgetting the source of the other two thirds of system demand.

Here is the table in PDF format:

A separate table combining the 2019-2021 stats from the TTC’s Planning Page is available at the end of the article.

Another set of charts included in the new report show the hour-by-hour ridership levels. The new versions include the underlying percentages. These show how there are periods when overall demand runs at a higher proportion of pre-pandemic levels than the all-day averages that are generally cited. The situation is, of course, even more pronounced on individual routes.

Weekend demand has returned more strongly than weekday travel on a proportionate basis. The crowding riders experience on the subway is no surprise considering that the level of service now provided has not yet risen to match the demand.

Finally, there is the Blue Night Network which is vital for those whose shifts begin and end in the wee hours. Note that even in Spring 2020, several night routes retained over 75 percent of their ridership and more had reached that level by Fall 2021.

The TTC Planning webpage contains PDFs with the daily ridership, mileage, hours and vehicle counts for all surface routes. I have summarized them in the following PDF:

Note that these values are not the same as in the earlier tables which do not draw from the same source months.

For explanation, here is the first section of the consolidation. (Download the pdf to see all routes.)

  • The first page lists the weekday passenger counts, vehicle hours and vehicle kilometres from the TTC data.
  • The second gives the calculated passengers/hour and kilometres/hour value based on the TTC data. The passengers per hour is a measure of productivity, although it can be influenced by factors such as route lengths where turnover is less frequent.
  • The third gives the peak vehicle counts as reported by the TTC.

TTC footnotes:

2019:

  • Ridership data collected during fall 2019 and is representative of typical route ridership January – April and September – December.
  • Ridership data is from automatic passenger counting equipment on vehicles, with the exception of the following routes: 501-512 where PRESTO fare card data was used.
  • 2019 ridership data not available for routes: 14 and 47 (2018 data used instead).
  • Service information is from November 2019.

2020:

  • Ridership data collected during the October 2020 when ridership first peaked after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
  • Ridership information is from automatic passenger counting equipment on vehicles, with the exception of the following routes: 501-512 where PRESTO fare card data was used.
  • 2020 ridership data not available for 900 route (2021 data used instead).
  • Service information provided is from November 2020.

2021:

  • Ridership data collected during October 2021 before system-wide service reductions in response to workforce constraints.
  • Ridership information is from automatic passenger counting equipment on vehicles, with the exception of the following routes: 501-512 where PRESTO fare card data was used.
  • Service information provided is from November 2021.

The grand totals are illuminating.

  • The passengers/vehicle hour show the drop in productivity (measured as boardings) and subsequent recovery was not as severe on the bus routes as on streetcars which serve the business and university districts.
  • The change in the speed of streetcar routes from 2019 to 2020 which accompanied schedule adjustments for the new streetcars and for changes in operating procedure (mandatory slow orders) is quite evident.
  • The total vehicles in service does not include the “run as directed” buses.
  • Streetcar numbers include buses operating on streetcar routes. This is the reason that the streetcar hours and mileage go up in 2021 as more buses are required to provide service.

4 thoughts on “The Varying Strength of Ridership Recovery

  1. Hi Steve, Wonder what has happened to riding on Mt. Pleasant? Riding was at about 7000 daily riders on Mt. Pleasant streetcar. (And there was a very old population along Mt. Pleasant.) I suspect it’s now much less. Cheers, Andy

    Steve: The numbers are in the table linked from the article:

    74 MOUNT PLEASANT 2019:2,314 2020:857 2021:1,308.

    The route is a shadow of its former self due to service cuts and a reorientation of the demand onto the east-west routes serving the corridor. Also, a lot of the school traffic has fallen off even before the pandemic.

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  2. While living in Toronto three decades ago I had no need for a vehicle. I always felt safe using the transit system then and during many visits. Thank you Steve for showing the amazing growth of the TTC through graphs and links.

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  3. TTC should be eager to get the ridership forecasts for 2023-2024. On one hand, the pandemics is over; on the other hand, many work-from-home arrangements are here to stay.

    The peak-hour demand will be reduced, but by how much? Any incorrect prediction will be costly. Expect too much demand, get lower than expected revenue and go beg the City Council for more subsidy. Expect too little demand, get hit by overcrowding that can’t be fixed instantly even if the funding is available. Purchasing subway trains / buses / streetcars, hiring and training the operators etc takes many months, if not years.

    Steve: Planning for and acquiring more equipment will be affected by whether the superpeak returns or not. It could be possible to get back to pre-pandemic ridership but with it distributed so that the peak fleet does not have to be as big. This would actually be good for transit to get better system utilization. On the other hand, a shift to work-from-home could allow a different utilization of office space so that more workers fit into the same offices. It’s too soon to say which model, or a mix of them, will apply. But as you say, aiming too low could transit in a real bind.

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  4. I do wonder how much the growing issues with rider safety will affect the rebound. Multiple serious incidents at Kipling station close by made the news. I’ve personally been harassed twice now, once on the 501 car later at night (nothing really new, but still) and once on Line 2 through Greektown at 5pm on Sunday (definitely new). Maybe it’s just some bad coincidental timing but I’ve never really felt unsafe on the TTC before…and now I’m starting to occasionally question if an Uber would be better. I hope they get things under control.

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