TTC Ponders New Fare Options

At its recent meeting, the TTC Board approved a report launching reviews of fare policy and technology. These will run on an overlapped timetable beginning in fall 2020 with a goal of reporting to the Board in October 2021. The topics are linked in that policy choices can be held hostage by technology options. Nowhere is that clearer than in the TTC’s experience with Presto:

  • The range of options and capabilities specified by the TTC was constrained, in part, by the policy and financial framework in which Toronto operates, especially the avoidance of proposals that would increase costs.
  • The provider, Metrolinx and its partner Accenture, failed to deliver to the requirement knowing that the iron fist of Queen’s Park and threats to subsidy funding would overrule any complaints about functional problems. Metrolinx is on record now as refusing to meet all of the contracted requirements for the simple reason that they will not invest more development funding in a system that they hope to replace.
  • Any modifications to Presto functionality are treated as billable change orders, even if the TTC could argue that the “change” is a contracted feature. Metrolinx enforces its billings by withholding fare revenue from the TTC.

This poisonous relationship colours any discussion of the future of fare structures, levels, technology and subsidies not just in Toronto but across the GTHA.

A further problem, and this is common to studies of the future of TTC service design, is the pre-emption of options by the catch-all “we can’t afford it” line that pushes aside consideration of options that require more than small adjustments within existing funding.

Years ago, in the Miller-era Ridership Growth Strategy of 2003, the starting point was not “what can we afford”, but “what can we do, and how much would it cost”. This left the policy decisions where they belonged in the political realm where the TTC Board, Council and the public could balance investment in better transit with costs and expected benefits. Options were not swept off of the table by management second guessing the politicians, or, worse, protecting politicians from options they might not want to know about.

With fare policy, there is an added layer of the rivalry with Metrolinx and its role as a regional agency. If Metrolinx were actually doing its job, there would be little need for a TTC study because Metrolinx would look at fare and technology policy:

  • including the needs of local transit, not just commuter service, and how this will grow into a wider network;
  • without prejudice for the preservation of its existing technology investment in Presto nor its existing partnership with a service provider;
  • without attempting a zero-sum “solution” where no new money is committed, especially by Queen’s Park; and
  • without the doctrinaire belief that the private sector will magically pay for everything, and by implication that change can only happen with private funding.

We have been around this bush before with a previous TTC Fare Policy Study in 2015 that was itself hobbled by Presto limitations, the then co-existence of legacy fare media and policies, and utter paranoia about changing fare structures. Toronto could have had a two hour transfer years sooner but for political foot-dragging and the assumption that the revenue loss would severely damage the TTC (and by extension the City). Eventually the Mayor needed some good news beyond free rides for kiddies, and the two-hour transfer became a reality.

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TTC Repeats Penalty-Free Offer for Monthly Pass Cancellation

The TTC is repeating its offer, first made in mid-March, for monthly pass subscribers on Presto to cancel their subscriptions without penalty. This must be done by April 22 when the automatic renewals for May will kick in.

A still-outstanding question is whether the TTC will offer partial refunds for the March passes which most riders were unable to use after many businesses and other activities were curtailed or closed. According to TTC spokesperson Stuart Green, this matter has not been decided yet.

TTC Changes Fare Collection, Trims Service – But What of the Future?

Updated March 28, 2020: The TTC has changed its policy for Wheel-Trans and now only accepts payment by Presto. See the March 27 update for Wheel-Trans.

The TTC implemented several changes to its fare policies and service in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Their focus is on protection of workers and passengers by physical distancing and eliminating most interaction between them.

Fares & Fare Collection

All bus passengers will board and leave via the rear door except for riders who require the access ramp at the front door. Operators will keep their protective barriers closed, and the fare boxes will not be available.

On buses except for Wheel-Trans, the TTC will not accept cash, tokens or tickets and will not issue paper transfers. Only Presto will be accepted. Streetcar and subway riders can use fare machines.

The TTC asks that riders pay with Presto “where available”, but it is unclear whether riders without cards will ride free. The Star’s Ben Spurr quotes TTC spokesperson Stuart Green:

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said riders who don’t have Presto will be asked to pay when they arrive at their destination if they’re headed to a subway station.

He declined to answer directly when asked whether riders who don’t have Presto and don’t pay will face a fine from transit officers, but said the “focus of fare inspectors right now is on customer service and education.”

Updated March 24 at 2:12 pm: An exchange on Twitter:

But how does one board a bus if cash is not being accepted?

@TTCHelps: You can just walk on. No one will stop you. We’d like you to pay your cash fare at a connecting station or streetcar if possible.

A well-known problem with Presto is that places where riders can obtain one and load money are much thinner on the ground that the old TTC ticket agent network, particularly in the suburbs where bus transportation dominates.

The deadline for cancelling the auto-renew on monthly or 12 month passes on Presto has been extended to 11:59 pm, Friday, March 27. The TTC will waive cancellation fees, although Presto might still issue an automated warning email.

Service Changes

Because weekday ridership has dropped by over 70 per cent, the TTC is reviewing its resource requirements. The following routes no longer operate, and their vehicles will be reallocated where needed.

  • All 900-series express bus routes, except for the 900 Airport, 903 Kennedy-Scarborough Town Centre, and 927 Highway 27.
  • All 140-series Downtown express routes.
  • The 176 Mimico GO bus and 508 Lake Shore streetcars.

The 503 Kingston Road route had been cut back to a shuttle between Queen & Kingston Road and Bingham Loop at Victoria Park. The extra service it provides on Queen and King Streets is not needed. An obvious future change would be to run the evening/weekend configuration of the 22A Coxwell Bus during all hours. This sort of tweak will no doubt be repeated in other parts of the system.

Regular service will continue every 10 minutes or better on most of the affected routes, for now.

Vehicle arrival predictions will be out of whack until the online schedules are updated to match the revised services.

A full list of changes is on the TTC’s website.

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TTC Board Meeting: February 25, 2020

The TTC Board meets on February 25 to discuss several reports and proposals. Among items on the agenda are:

I will add to this article following the Board meeting with additional information from the discussions.

Notable by its absence from the CEO’s Report is any information on route crowding or improved metrics for service quality.

Trials of electric buses are in early days, and Toronto is a long way from seeing an entirely zero-emission fleet. My column this week in NOW Toronto present some of the history of evolving bus technology.

Commissioner Brad Bradford has a Notice of Motion which seeks to link spending on improved transit service to potential funding for new vehicles. While the recently improved City Building Fund provides more money for transit vehicles, this covers only one third of their cost and none of any future increase in operations. Bradford’s motion requests:

The TTC Board request that the TTC Chief Executive Officer, when engaging in negotiations with the provincial and federal governments for funding for the TTC’s vehicle procurement priorities, tie funding requests to the implementation of the TTC’s 5-Year Service Plan and service levels as prescribed by the strategy.

There are two problems with this stance.

First, if the TTC and Council choose not to actually fund the added service, this would imply that the capital funding should not come from other governments. I doubt that is Bradford’s intent, but the real issue is that there is no Council commitment to fund better TTC service. Other factors such as the jump in operating budgets to fund new lines such as Eglinton Crosstown and increased fare subsidies could crowd out spending on service.

Second, the scale of service increases proposed in the Service Plan is quite modest, and it really should be revisited. Sadly, the TTC chose not to include more aggressive options for expansion in the Plan even if only on an aspirational basis. Back in 2003, the strength of David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy was that it addressed what Toronto could do for modest increases in spending, but this approach has never been repeated.

Bradford also has a Notice of Motion that seeks to consolidate updates on two reports so that both sides of the revenue protection and enforcement issue can be seen by the Board together.

  • Auditor General’s Report – Review of Toronto Transit Commission’s Revenue Operations
  • Ombudsman Toronto Enquiry Report Review of the TTC’s Investigation of a February 18, 2018 Incident Involving Transit Fare Inspectors

Further discussion of fare issues and Presto are likely at the meeting.

The Child Pass Problem (Updated)

Updated February 15, 2020 at 10:00 am:

Additional information from the TTC has been added to clarify some issues raised here including:

  • How the number of child card taps relates to the number of rides.
  • Which “average fare” is the one used in loss calculations for fare evasion.
  • The discrepancy between full year child card losses and associated citations as compared to the fare evasion study conducted late in 2019.
  • The difference between evasion rates calculated from tap data on Presto machines as opposed to from in-person observations, and the time periods covered by each.

Changes are flagged in the body of this article for readers who have been here before.

Introduction

The TTC’s Audit and Risk Management Committee met on February 11 to discuss three reports of which two dealt in detail with the problems of fare evasion and revenue loss.

Documents related to this are:

Among many areas covered by these reports was the problem of misuse of Presto cards set up for free travel by children by riders who were anything but.

Although this was flagged as a problem when the reports were published in advance of the meeting, the scale and potential revenue loss only came out in the staff presentation to the committee. To complicate the debate, there were two separate and different estimates of the scale of this problem.

The range of fare evasion losses with Child Presto cards ranges widely depending on how one does the calculation. The root of the problem is that there were only 10 million Child Presto taps in 2019.

In one version, a the TTC concludes that 89 per cent of child card taps are not by children. However, the small total number of taps limits the size of the potential revenue loss to about $12 million, well below the total projected losses of $70 million.

In the other version, the TTC claims that one third of all fare evasion is due to Child Presto abuse, but there were not enough child taps in 2019 to account for this level. It is possible that the level of abuse has been growing strongly and was much larger in late 2019 (when the study yielding the “one third” figure took place) than for the year overall.

Updated February 15, 2020:

The TTC confirmed that there are two separate calculations for Child Presto losses that cover two time periods and methodologies.

  • The estimate of $12.4 million loss was based on estimating the number of rides that do not fit with a typical usage pattern one would expect for children, and it is calculated from all-year card usage and the system average fare of $2.25.
  • Statistics for provincial offenses in court showed that about 13% of cases related to Child Presto abuse. This was based on the full year 2019.
  • The 33.7% overall evasion rate for Child Presto use is based on a study in the final months of 2019. This implies a strong growth in the fraudulent use of Child Presto cards.

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Fare Evasion on the TTC

This week’s article for NOW Toronto: Fare evasion storm diverts attention from TTC’s real problems

There are two reports on the TTC’s Audit & Risk Management Committee agenda for Tuesday, February 11 dealing with fare evasion and revenue controls:

These reports contain far more information, and cover more ground than I could fit into the NOW piece, and more details are likely to come out when TTC management presents their reports at the committee meeting.

I will update this article following the meeting.

We’re Not Getting Our Ten Cents’ Worth

My latest for NOW on the subject of the pending fare increase and budget.

TTC’s 10-cent fare hike doesn’t buy much transit

On the subject of just how much new service we will see in 2020, when and where, I repeatedly asked the TTC for this information, and am still waiting as of 8:30 am January 20.

There is a related issue with the TTC’s claims of widespread service improvements in 2019. I will explore this in a future article here.

Toronto Budget 2020: More Transit Money, But How Will It Be Used?

The City of Toronto launched its 2020 budget process on January 10, 2020 with a presentation by senior management and a short question-and-answer session with some members of Toronto Council. At this point, the material was quite high level, including some management puffery, but the real meat of the budget lies in the departmental and agency Budget Notes to be discussed at meetings on January 15-17. The TTC budget will be discussed on January 17.

Useful links:

Major Issues

Much has been made of the City Building Fund and its rising property tax levy to finance substantial growth in the TTC and Housing capital budgets. The changes to the TTC’s ten year capital plan between its original launch in December 2019 and the version presented in the January 2020 Budget Note are detailed later in this article. Within those changes are two major categories:

  • It was only one year ago, that TTC management proposed, and the Board approved, a significant change in the timing of Line 2 Bloor-Danforth renewal pushing out the installation of Automatic Train Control, construction of a new yard and purchase of a new fleet by a decade. The new Capital Plan shifts this work back into the 2020s and better aligns with the timing of the Scarborough Subway Extension. It also removes a reliance on older technology whose longevity was uncertain, notably the signal system.
  • The original Capital Plan included no money for new vehicles beyond purchases now in progress. There is a new item for “Vehicles”, but this is not subdivided by mode. Significant spending is budgeted for 2022 and beyond. Expanding any of the fleets also triggers a need for garage/carhouse facilities and there is a substantial increase in the planned spending on facilities.

On the Operating budget, the changes are much more modest because the additional revenue mainly keeps up with inflationary pressures, but does not go beyond for an aggressive expansion of service.

The TTC plans to hire 88 more operators and has budgeted more service hours, but the purpose of this is described differently depending on which part of the budget report and presentation one reads/hears. In December 2019, the Operating Budget and its presentation talked of relieving overcrowding that placed some routes beyond the Service Standards. However, the same addition to the Service Budget is used to handle other factors and the list makes no mention of reduced crowding.

I await clarification from the TTC on this important issue – does the TTC plan to reduce crowding or not? Will they burn up new service hours mainly to pad schedules for better service “resiliency”, or will they actually add service on overcrowded routes?

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TTC Weekday Ridership From 1976 to 2018

For many years, publication of ridership data has been sporadic, and information on crowding appears even less frequently. A major problem has been the cost of acquiring information on a system-wide basis and staff cuts in the group that once performed this task manually. Even when data were published annually, the values for major routes such as 501 Queen did not change in each year because the resources needed to conduct a count on such a large, busy route were not always available. However, most vehicles now have automatic passenger counters and the amount of data on tap today has increased quite substantially.

Recently, the TTC published data for 2017 and 2018, bringing us more up-to-date than the 2014 tables. Those were more than a little stale, especially in an era when strong growth has been reported anecdotally and is clearly evident with the success of the King Street Pilot.

An important point about these counts: they measure riders who are actually on vehicles, not those who could not board nor those who gave up and took another route or mode. A badly needed companion report is a review of vehicle crowding by route and time of day, not to mention an evaluation of the interaction between uneven service and crowding.

One long-standing problem within the TTC is that there is an ongoing struggle between the very large “operations” side of the organization responsible for running service and the tiny “planning” group who look after things like schedules and riding counts. Operational metrics given monthly in the CEO’s report say almost nothing about service quality especially at a granular level experienced by riders. Simple targets and all-day averages mask what is really happening, and there are no real “standards” for how to measure service and crowding.

These are topics for another day. At least now we have comparatively current ridership data, and we must hope that they will now appear annually to better track the system’s evolution.

A troubling fact about the charts in this article is the number of routes and the areas of the city where riding has been stagnant or in decline for many years if not decades. There are areas of growth, but many of these can easily be linked with specific changes such as a new subway line, the growth of housing to the edges of the city, and more recently the growing population along the waterfront.

This is a system that is doing well in certain places, but has a malaise over many parts of its network. Years of making do with only marginal increases have taken their toll. Any Ridership Growth Strategy would do well to understand this situation, and address how or if those trends can be reversed.

The TTC published route-by-route ridership numbers, among other data, starting in 1976, although from 2006 onward, this did not happen regularly. The practice began in the early days of “Service Standards” when the growing level of political involvement in TTC affairs brought a concern that new and modified routes would arise not because they were the best use of resources, but because their advocates had “friends at court”. A fundamental problem was to compare existing and proposed services, and that required ridership counts.

Service Standards and the methodology behind evaluation of routes have changed over the years. The current version was adopted in May 2017 consolidating existing standards, policies and practices, reviewing standards used by other cities and incorporating information from rider surveys about what matters to them.

In December 2019, some changes were proposed to the existing standards, but these modifications are not yet reflected in the document linked above. See Appendix 3 of the following report for details.

A problem with technical standards is that they are meaningless without understandable, public data. The standards themselves are “board approved”, but this process does not guarantee that those voting to endorse them actually understand the tradeoffs built into the policy. Even worse, without regular reporting on how well the system meets the standards, there is the nagging sense that they exist more as a lofty goal than an actual bar against which riders can judge TTC performance.

Ridership and Boardings

When the TTC reports that it expects to carry 533.5 million “rides” in 2020, this number is a computed equivalent to fares dropped in a now-vanishing farebox. In the old days these were easy to count by processing coins, tokens and tickets. Even with Presto farecards, there is a count of “taps”, but even here the link to “rides” in the traditional sense is not what it was fifty years ago.

As riders moved to passes from single fares, the link between countable revenue and “rides” became less certain. More recently, the introduction of a two-hour fare replacing the byzantine TTC transfer rules allowed “trip chaining” where travel formerly considered as separate rides (each requiring its own fare) could be consolidated into fewer charges against a Presto card or ticket. The riders did not go away, but the ability to count them one by one from fare revenue no longer exists. Even before Presto, the TTC handled Metropass ridership by using rider surveys of travel patterns to determine the typical number of conventional token-based “trips” a passholder would take. This produced a conversion factor to translate between pass sales and “ridership”.

In recent years, the validity of this conversion fell under a cloud as some riders, those for whom a Metropass represented more of a convenience than an actual saving over single fares, migrated away from passes. They represented a paper “loss” falling from over 70 trips/month assumed for a pass to under 50 in single fares, but those 20 trips were rides they never actually took.

Meanwhile, the view of transit service seen by looking at vehicles showed that crowding was an increasing problem and this ran contrary to the revenue-based view that ridership was falling. Budget hawks care only about dollars, not about service or riders, and this remains a problem in an era where year-over-year municipal operating costs are supposed to be held at inflationary levels, but no more. Any new service or extraordinary cost increase is paid for by cutting something else. We will see how the TTC fares on that score when its 2020 budget comes before Council.

For the purpose of looking at demand on a route, the relevant measure is not fares collected, but “boardings”, or what planners call “unlinked trips”. In this view of the transit world, each change between vehicles counts as a new boarding even if no fare is paid. This eliminates the artificial linkage between revenue and measured demand. In the budget, TTC management notes that in recent years boardings were going up even while “ridership” was falling. This is a direct result of the change in how ridership is calculated and, more recently, of the amount of travel a rider can purchase for one fare.

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TTC Operating Budget 2020 (Updated)

Updated December 16, 2019 at 5:30 pm

At its meeting today, the TTC Board approved the Operating Budget and fare increase without amendment. There were deputations on the subject of cash fares as well as the proposed expansion of the cadre of fare inspectors to reduce fare evasion. I have added a section at the end of this article address those issues.

Management’s presentation deck, which includes information on both the Operating and Capital Budgets is available on the TTC’s agenda page. It includes charts showing more detail about recent ridership changes, and these are now included in the postscript.

Introduction

The TTC has released its proposed Capital and Operating budgets for 2020. These will be discussed at a special meeting of the Board on Monday, December 16 at 9:30 am in Committee Room 1 at City Hall (across the corridor from the usual room, CR 2, that the TTC Board uses). Note the early start time as there is no private session in advance of the public meeting.

This article primarily addresses the Operating Budget, and I will turn to Capital in a separate piece.

There has been a lot of TTC-related news and reports in the past year including:

  • The TTC’s publication of a 15 year capital project forecast showing that the “cost of ownership” of the transit system is much, much higher than had been revealed publicly in past years.
  • The provincial decision to re-neg on a planned doubling of the gas tax allocation to municipal transit systems.
  • The provincial decision to retain ownership only of new rapid transit lines, and the concurrent removal from TTC’s financial projections of the need to contribute to new lines that the province will own.
  • The TTC’s 5 Year Service Plan and 10 Year Forecast that gazes ahead to how the system might evolve over the next decade.
  • Mayor Tory’s proposed additional levy to increase his City Building Fund, and related statements in the media about how the money this will finance might be used.
  • The 2020 budgets just released.

With proposals and plans popping up from various agencies and political levels, it was inevitable that there are inconsistencies. Most notable is an emerging issue with whether the TTC will buy new vehicles, and at what scale.

The Service Plan shows projected growth in the streetcar, bus and subway fleets, and Mayor Tory speaks of the need for new vehicles as something that the City Building Fund can pay for.

[…] I am proposing to extend the City Building Levy further into the future to raise approximately $6.6 billion to invest directly in our transit system – including new subway cars, new streetcars, station improvements, and signal upgrades – and in building more affordable housing across our city. [Letter from John Tory to Executive Committee, Dec. 11, 2019, p 2]

At its regular meeting on December 12, 2019, the TTC Board heard a deputation from Unifor, who represent the workers at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant, urging that the TTC commit to buying more streetcars while the production line for them is in place, and also reminding the Board that this plant also produced the Toronto Rocket subway trains which the TTC needs more of in coming years.

However, the Capital Budget explicitly notes that there is no money in the “funded” part of the Capital Budget for anything beyond vehicle orders already committed. There are two problems here.

First, projects are only moved “above the line” with official status on the approval of Toronto Council. This policy was implemented years ago to prevent the TTC from committing to projects for which no money was available and/or which did not have support at Council. Second, although the City Building Fund will make more capital available, it has not yet been approved by Council.

Moreover, there is no sense of what either the TTC’s or Council’s priorities for this money will be. The TTC Board has asked management to prioritize its capital projects on more than one occasion, but nothing has come of this. To be fair to management, “priority” is a concept that moves like leaves in the wind in the political environment, and these decisions must, at least in part, be made by politicians who cannot fob off such decisions on staff.

What is needed is a list of “must have” projects that have first call on any available funding after which Council can wrangle over whose pet projects get first crack at the leftovers. Even deciding what is “must have” is fraught with political battles such as whether expansion of the streetcar fleet will doom suburban drivers to forever be stuck on downtown roads rather than driving above sleek new subways, or at least around “flexible” buses.

I will turn to this in more detail in the Capital Budget article, but on the Operating side there is an issue of great concern: all of the new funding that seems to be coming transit’s way is for capital projects, not for day-to-day operations. The TTC’s ability to expand service is constrained by the level of city subsidy the Council thinks is “affordable” in the context of pressure on taxes, on the level of fare increase (if any) that is politically tenable, and the rise or fall in provincial operating subsidy (which comes out of gas tax revenue).

The 2020 Operating Budget projects a rise in subsidy from the City of Toronto and higher fare revenue, but does not really address the backlog in service deficiencies across the network. The Service Plan, released only a week earlier, foresees no significant service improvements until 2021. The Service Plan claims that all services are operating within the Service Standards, while the Budget claims that there is a need for more service to address crowding. This is the hallmark of a policy framework changing on the fly.

There is a ten cent fare increase proposed for March 2020 that would apply across the board to Adult and to most concession fares. This has provoked a common response that fares are already too high and subsidies are too low, and in turn that ties back to the absence of operating funding in the proposed City Building Levy.

However, freezing fares brings new costs year by year, but no new service. Whether fares change or not, the City needs to have a long-overdue debate about its target for “good” transit service that amounts to more than building a subway to every Councillor’s house. A big frustration with higher fares is that riders see every day how service does not meet their needs both in capacity and reliability. Charging more for an inferior product is not good marketing.

The TTC, ever alert to wresting more fare revenue from passengers, plans to hire 50 more Fare Inspectors. It would be amusing to compare the cost and benefits of these employees to the effect of hiring 50 more operators to drive buses and streetcars.

TTC management, possibly at political direction, consistently fails to produce future year plans that show what a “growth strategy” would look like, and they are content with a plan that barely keeps up with population and job increases. More transit will cost more money. We all know that, but we do not know what can be achieved and at what cost. That was the goal of Mayor David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy, and more recently the system improvements proposed by Andy Byford over bitter objections from John Tory’s campaign team. If we do not know what could be done, and how this might be achieved, we will never try.

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