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.