Presto: A Botched Opportunity to Market Transit in Toronto?

The TTC is well into its rollout of the provincially-mandated fare card, Presto, across the transit system. Like any new piece of technology there are teething problems, but both the TTC and Metrolinx seem bent on making the implementation as difficult and unfriendly as possible.

As the implementation now stands:

  • All streetcars have Presto readers at all entrances, although their reliability leaves much to be desired.
  • About half of the bus fleet has readers, and this work is expected to complete by year end.
  • Many subway stations have at least a few turnstiles with Presto readers. This too will complete by year end, but installation of new fare gates will continue well into 2017.
  • Some stations have machines to allow riders to reload their Presto cards, but these are scattered around town, and their placement (inside or outside of the fare control area) is inconsistent.
  • Riders can pay the equivalent of token or ticket fares with Presto at adult and senior rates, but the ability use Presto for all trips is hampered by whether readers are available throughout a journey.
  • Metropass users cannot use Presto because the monthly pass function has not yet been implemented, and in any event would be worthless unless all of one’s travel were confined to Presto-enabled vehicles and stations.

The implementation of a new fare collection system, bringing the TTC into at least the latter part of the 20th century, presents a chance to “get it right”, to promote a more attractive fare structure and transit in general. This opportunity has been lost through a combination of factors at the TTC, city and provincial levels. What should be a “good news” story is one of uncertainty and complaints, with more to come.

The Technology

Without question, any transit system that has converted its fare collection from a manual system to an automated one did not achieve this overnight, and perfection in a rollout is a lot to ask. That said, Presto is supposed to be mature enough that we should not be worrying about the basics. Card readers should work well enough that encountering one that’s out of service should be rare, not a common occurrence. Fare calculations should be accurate, theoretically an easy task in such a simple system of Toronto that is bereft of zones and transfer charges. Support systems such as reloading fare value onto the card should have a close to 100% up time, not be down for entire weekends for back-end software upgrades.

Retrofitting the technology to vehicles requires wiring for power and control systems, as well as providing an interface to the on-board GPS units. That is comparatively simple beside the work needed in a subway station where running wiring for power and control circuits to fare gates requires new conduits in concrete floors and, in some cases, upgraded power distribution within the station. The TTC has chosen to use this opportunity to install new fare gates, and this makes the work more complex than simply fitting a Presto reader onto existing turnstiles. More about those gates later.

The central point here is that this is basically a construction project that may take time, but once done should allow the new technology’s installation and operation. That last step, actually “turning on” the new machines, depends on technology working “out of the box”. This has not been the case either with Presto readers or with the new gates. Responsibility for maintaining this equipment is supposed to lie with both Presto (part of Metrolinx) and with the gate vendor, but the TTC is doing this work for the time being. It is unclear how many workmen will have to appear on site when a Presto-enable gate becomes cantankerous and vendors point at each other in the classic “not my problem” standoff.

This is a huge scale-up for the Presto organization both in terms of the number of devices it must support, and the volume of transactions it will have to process. Because Presto has limited attractiveness to TTC riders, it accounts for a very small proportion of fares collected. In May 2016, of the 41.3 million trips taken on the TTC, Presto was used for 1.72 million, or 4.2%. Whether Presto is capable of scaling up to the demand represented by even half of all TTC trips remains to be seen.

Opportunities for a New Fare Structure

When a new fare card was first proposed for the TTC, a big selling point was supposed to be that new and improved fare options could be provided. These include:

  • Shifting to timed fares where an initial “tap” buys two hours of travel with no restrictions on stopovers and transfers.
  • Use of time-of-day based fares with lower charges (or longer travel per tap) at off peak hours.
  • Implementation of equivalent to Day Pass pricing with the total charges in one 24 hour period capped at the value of a pass no matter how many trips were taken, with similar options on a weekly and monthly basis. Riders would not have to decide in advance whether buying a pass was worthwhile.
  • Interagency fares so that the boundaries between the TTC and neighbouring GTA systems could be simplified or eliminated.

Changing the fare structure will almost certainly have a cost because anything that makes travel cheaper for some riders is unlikely to be made up for with increased revenue through greater use. Bumping other riders’ fares to pay for this would be unpopular, and there would inevitably be cries about favouritism and hardship unless the overall change could be seen to be beneficial to most riders.

The TTC has considered a move to timed fares, a function Presto already supports in other parts of the GTA and which has always been available to the TTC, but the penny-pinching politicians who would have to fund this change are more worried about precious tax dollars than improving transit’s attractiveness and usability. The estimated cost for this option is about $20m/year, although there is good reason to suspect that this number has been padded. TTC Chair Josh Colle, and by implication Mayor Tory, did not want to spend this amount as part of the 2016 budget package, and in the constrained environment of the 2017 budget, this is even less likely.

Timed fares have two important benefits. First, they completely eliminate the complex rules about transfers and the need for the Presto software to figure out what is a “legal” transfer. This process is fraught with potential errors and overcharging through a combination of GPS errors (did you actually transfer where Presto thinks you did), and from ad hoc routings for short turns and diversions. One cannot have a transit system where the rule is “always tap on” followed by a list of exceptions most riders cannot be expected to know. The TTC will provide a refund for riders who are overcharged (assuming that they even notice and go to the exercise of retrieving their trip logs online), but even a 1% error rate translates to a huge number of complaints.

The second benefit is linked to the convenience of using the TTC as a service without worry about marginal cost for short hops, something passholders already know about. A common complaint among poverty advocates is that “trip chaining” is very expensive for riders who must do several errands in one set of trips that by TTC rules cost a separate fare for each leg of the journey. Too  much of the underlying philosophy of fares on the TTC (and on GO) is based on the “commuter” trip, not on the frequent user who travels the TTC the same way motorists or cyclists might journey from one stop to another.

Fare capping is already used on GO Transit where beyond a certain number of trips per month, travel is free. The ability to do this for the TTC and to implement it for Day Passes already exists in Presto, and the Day Pass conversion was originally expected to occur midway through 2016. It might be held up because of the limited availability of Presto on bus routes, but the reason might also be that any extension of a “pass” is opposed by some on the TTC Board and in management who regard any pass as “lost revenue” rather than as an inducement for greater system use. The idea that transit systems exist to encourage more riding is utterly lost on those who look only at the “bottom line”, not at the wider benefits transit confers.

If automatic capping is implemented for monthly passes, the number of riders gaining a reduced fare may actually go up because there will no longer be an up-front decision about whether a pass will pay its way. This would increase the proportion of equivalent-to-pass riders to an even higher level (now well over 50% of all trips) than it is today. This phenomenon and the effect of other fare options has not even been discussed in any public TTC report.

Interagency fares are, at least for Queen’s Park and Metrolinx, the holy grail of a new fare system. Riders (and voters) in the 905 will get a simpler and maybe even a cheaper ride into Toronto. However, nobody wants to pay for this, least of all the provincial government where the focus is more on how to get municipalities to pay more for transit. Among the outstanding issues are:

  • Will Presto confer a unified, cheaper fare for travel on multiple agencies, including GO Transit, or will it simply be a way to automate the collection of existing fares on all systems?
  • If some type of “co-fare” is extended to 905-416 trips on local carriers (e.g. York Region Transit/VIVA to TTC), who pays the extra subsidy?
  • Will a “co-fare” be provided between GO and the TTC as it is for GO and the 905-based carriers?
  • How will “Smart Track” and a “TTC” level fare within the 416 be implemented on GO Transit’s rail corridors? By extension, exactly what is meant by a “TTC fare”?

The Dark Side of “Opportunities”

A new fare structure may bring not just “better” fares for riders, but could also include lurking fare increases that have not been discussed as publicly as they should be.

On the TTC, some or all of the discount metropass schemes could disappear under the rationale that the savings through subscription and automatic bank withdrawals would apply to all buyers of “passes” on Presto, and there is no longer a reason to give subscribers one month free out of twelve. Never mind that this is a great loyalty and marketing tool. There are more than a few at the TTC who see this as a chance to get more revenue from this group of customers. (Full disclosure: I have been a Monthly Discount Plan user since this was introduced.) Of course a “twelfth month free” could also be implemented as an automatic loyalty reward just like daily or monthly fare capping. All that is needed is the policy decision, plus the software change needed to implement it.

A major problem for TTC Presto riders today is that there are limited locations where riders entitled to discount fares (seniors, students) can have their Presto accounts set up to charge concession rates. This is supposed to expand with the full TTC rollout, but details are scarce. If you can’t get your card set up for a discount, you pay full fare needlessly, or you stay with “legacy” fares as long as they are available.

The stealthiest of the possible fare change proposals is a move to some form of distance-based fares. Metrolinx has been pushing the idea as part of its “Regional Fare Integration Strategy” for a few years, and shows little sign of relenting on this for the TTC. “Rapid transit” fares would be based on distance travelled, and a fare from, say, Scarborough Town Centre to downtown would cost considerably more than it does today with likely a decrease in short distance fares. Metrolinx is quite selective in its description of “rapid transit” and initially this was only the GO rail and TTC subway networks. However, the description has more recently appeared for future LRT lines, although there is no mention of whether BRT services such as VIVA would fall into this category.

The TTC has assisted with making fare by distance possible because its new fare gates can have readers on both sides so that a “tap out” is needed to leave a station. This has very severe implications for the operation of a system that is designed around a free transfer and full integration between surface and subway routes. The Metrolinx study is still underway thanks to a growing realization at the political level that fare by distance is a land mine just waiting to go off under an already unpopular provincial government.

Presto implementation is expected to add $30 million to the TTC’s costs for 2017 because the savings of the new system will not be fully realized while old and new co-exist. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 1% property tax increase if paid through subsidy, or about a dime on the basic adult fare. In the medium term, Presto fees to the TTC are limited by contract, but we know from other cities that a big jump faces the TTC down the road because Presto simply is not self-sustaining on its current revenue stream. Queen’s Park does not want to indirectly subsidize local transit through its mandatory fare technology, and will claw back gas tax transfers from any municipality that does not comply.

A Marketing Failure: Bad News is Bad for Business

In my role as a “transit advocate”, I get questions both on this site and in person about how Presto will work. People ask me what is happening to the fare structure, and thanks to indecisiveness at TTC, I have to answer “I don’t know”. For a system that is supposed to be widely available in a few months, the absence of details is very troubling.

Even worse is the sense that both the TTC and Metrolinx are setting up for an environment where the transit rider (existing and potential) is a distant secondary consideration to avoidance of new costs and gerrymandering the fare system for political benefit.

The absence of public debate about fare structures and related funding challenges shows that none of the players wants to see these issues brought out in the open.

“Good news” is not made by Ministerial and Mayoral pontification, self-congratulatory statements devoid of actual benefit to transit users. “Lower taxes” is a meaningless term if the cost of using a service those taxes should pay for goes up.

Presto could have been a chance for major improvements in how riders view transit. The convenience of passes could be extended to a wider range of customers. Transfer rules that deter use of transit for short hops could be eliminated. The transit network could be seen as one unit (“seamless” is the favourite term) where fares would not create artificial barriers. New technology could be an improvement over tokens and paper, not as a move to a less reliable and inconvenient payment system.

That’s what a city, a region, a province committed to really selling transit as “the better way” would do. Instead, we get unreliable technology, and a refusal to address the need for extra subsidy to pay for restructuring.

A chance to promote transit with some truly “good news” has been wasted because governments are too cheap to pay for it.

Digging Into Delay Reports

The National Post’s Victor Ferreira has a long article today about TTC subway delays. His post consolidates information from the months of September through November 2015 breaking down the causes of delays and gives a better background of why subway service might be erratic than anything published by the TTC.

Over those three months, there were 1,190 delays lasting more than two minutes, and the total delay time was 7,301 minutes or roughly 6 minutes per delay. This raw statistic does not tell the full story, however, because some delays are trivially short, an annoyance to people on a few trains, while others last longer, shut down sections of lines and affect thousands of riders. That is a level of detail missing in the Post’s article, but likely also in the underlying TTC data. For a “customer focused” organization, some measure of the breadth of a delay’s effect is an obvious metric.

The overwhelming major categories for delay causes are “Customer”, “Mechanical/Infrastructure” and “Crew/Operator” which between them account for about two thirds of all incidents with “customers” contributing just over 300 out of the total. In other words, of the major categories, over half of the delays are due to TTC-side, not customer-side issues. The remaining one third of the total are a mixed bag of problems.

Some of these relate to train speed and operation, although pending changes to the signal system will reduce, then eliminate this problem through a move to new speed control software and, eventually to automatic train control.  This is an important operational issue, but the question remains of just how much time each such delay represents and how many trains (i.e. passengers) were affected. There were only 36 delays cause by an “oversensitive” speed control system in the study period, and so the magnitude of improvement riders might see will be small.

Friday has slightly more delays than other weekdays, but without a breakdown by delay type, we don’t know whether this is primarily due to more operators calling in sick, or because doors prefer to stick just before the weekend. There are also peaks in numbers of delays coinciding with the two daily rush hours, no surprise considering that there are more trains in service to fail, and more riders putting more stress on the system.

A key comment by Mike Palmer, Acting Deputy Chief Operating Officer:

For delays caused by mechanical and infrastructure issues, “money is the quick fix,” Palmer said.

This is the same sort of issue as the broken air conditioning units on Line 2 BD trains this summer. If you don’t spend the money on maintenance, things don’t work. Anyone who owns a car or a house knows this, but for some members of City Council, there is a mythology that boils down to “buy and forget” when it comes to expensive capital assets such as subway infrastructure and rolling stock. The trains on BD are roughly at the midlife period on a 30-year design span, and things that worked perfectly ten years ago don’t today.

Having large fleets of a cars all of a similar vintage can lead an organization like the TTC to forget that maintenance is necessary. For a time, many cars may be in their golden, maintenance-free period. When the time comes to undertake major overhauls, the staff and budget are not in place and budget hawks claim that rising costs are “out of control”.

In recent budget debates, some at the TTC have brought up a long-dormant scheme to install platform edge doors (PEDs) at stations. The total cost of this project is about $1 billion, and neither the TTC nor the City has that kind of spare change available. One factor often mentioned is the ability of such doors to keep garbage, notably newspapers, off of the tracks and thereby to reduce the number of fire delays. However, many fire-related calls (smell of smoke, etc) are the result of electrical issues including overheating of equipment and wiring. A recent major delay at Yonge Station was caused by deteriorated cables, not by newspapers.

The TTC should subdivide its statistics to show which type of delays would actually be addressed by specific types investment and/or procedural changes, and how much better service could be as a result.

Service quality is the TTC’s primary problem because riders do not trust the system to get them to their destination reliably. This requires a high level of consistency in TTC performance where a 90% target may sound good, until one acknowledges that this means one trip in ten (that is to say once a week for a regular commuter) will be affected by a delay of some type. Frequent riders see even more delays, and unreliable service leads people avoid transit as a first choice and use it only when the alternative is even less palatable.

Hunting for John Tory’s $135 Million (Updated)

Updated: Two changes have been added to this article:

  • The TTC has confirmed that they have now entered into a lease for temporary warehouse space.
  • The “subway service resiliency” item was supposed to involve providing more service on Line 1 YUS and Line 2 BD. In fact the service frequency has not changed since January 2015 when this funding was announced, and no trains (i.e. no extra operating costs) were added to the schedules.

Back in January 2015, newly-minted Mayor John Tory summoned Toronto’s media to an outdoor press conference at a windswept schoolyard. The purpose? To announce his mea cupla, that he was wrong in his campaign against added transit funding.

“It was not until the transition period after the election that I was fully able to comprehend and see put in front of me, all the facts as to the scope and extent of transit cutbacks imposed by the previous administration.”

The Mayor would fix this with an infusion of $135 million, restoration of services, and a new fare policy – free rides for children. This “investment” in better transit service comes up time and again when Tory is challenged about his budget policies.

But where did the $135 million actually go? Did all of that money actually find its way to service riders can enjoy? The TTC’s news bulletin outlines the announcement and further details are in the TTC 2015 Operating Budget report. [See pp 6-8 and 14-15]

With budget approval coming in mid-winter and many of the changes planned for mid to late 2015, the initial cost of any improvement is less than the full-year expense. This allows a big promise to come in “year one” without the need to actually spend big money until “year two”. However, that year two money never showed up in the TTC’s budgeted subsidy.

TTC Costs for 2015 Improvements

Item                                 2015 Part   2016 Full
                                     Year Cost   Year Cost
                                       ($ m)       ($ m)

Ten minute network                       3.7        11.3
All door boarding                        3.4         5.6
Reduce off-peak wait times/crowding      3.2         9.9
Subway service reliability               2.8         2.8
All day, every day service               1.7         5.5
Subway service resiliency                1.0         1.5
Express bus network                       .9         2.7
Route and station management reviews      .9         2.0
Expanded blue night network               .8         2.4
Station supervisors                       .8         2.3

Purchase of 50 new buses                13.9        12.0
Leased garage setup                      3.3
Warehouse and interim garage leases      2.5        30.2

Subtotal                                38.9        88.2

Free rides for children                  5.4         7.1

Total                                   44.3        95.3

In 2015, the TTC’s budgeted subsidy rose to fund the in-year cost of the new services except for the free children’s rides which were funded within the overall fare changes. There was no added City subsidy for this policy, despite the Mayor’s taking credit for it.

However, the TTC’s budgeted subsidy in 2016 only increased to $494.6 million, far short of the amount needed to pay the full-year cost of the 2015 changes. On top of this, more improvements were approved for 2016, although the lion’s share of their cost would come in 2017.

TTC Costs for 2016 Improvements

Item                                 2016 Part   2017 Full
                                     Year Cost   Year Cost
                                       ($ m)       ($ m)

Bus service reliability                  2.0         5.8
Subway service reliability               0.9         2.6
Early morning subway service             1.1         3.0
New/enhanced bus service                 1.7         4.9

Total                                    5.7        16.3

For 2017, Mayor Tory proposes a 2.6% reduction in the subsidy. If this is implemented, the 2017 subsidy would drop to $481.7m, only $41.6m more than the level in the last year of the Ford administration. Relative to that year, the City’s “investment” in transit improvements is much less than the announcement might claim.

TTC Operating Subsidy ($ m)           Budget       Change
                                                 From 2014
2014 (Last Ford year)                  440.1
2015 (First Tory year)                 478.9        38.8
2016                                   494.6        54.5
2017 (proposed 2.6% cut)               481.7        41.6

Cumulative total                                   134.9

The TTC faces costs not just for new and improved service, but for inflationary increases and these affect the entire expense budget of $1.7 billion, or $17m for every 1%.

Although the TTC received its subsidy in 2015 including money for the listed improvements, some non-service items did not move forward. There has been no progress on acquiring a leased bus storage facility, and this is responsible for severe overcrowding at existing garages. No mention of this scheme was made during the bus fleet plan presentation at the TTC Budget Committee meeting on September 6. Similarly, the proposed consolidation of warehouse space has not taken place, and it is unclear when any spending related to it will happen.

Updated September 8 at 9:47 am: The TTC’s Brad Ross advises:

“… we have leased a warehouse in the Unilever property for the next 7 years to tide us over while we determine the long term warehouse strategy for the TTC.”

This means that most of the $36m ($5.8m 2015, $30.2m 2016) in proposed “investments” did not actually occur.

The 50 bus purchase that had been timed for 2015-16 was actually completed in 2015, and all of its cost was paid out in that year. This absorbed the shortfall in spending on the proposed leases in 2015, but there is still that $36m unspent from the claimed investments.

Updated September 8 at 10:21 am:

The “subway service resiliency” was supposed to improve subway service:

Subway Service Resiliency: $1.0 million. Two additional peak period subway trains will be added on each of Lines 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) and 2 (Bloor-Danforth) to improve service reliability.

In fact there has been no change in the scheduled service on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth. On Yonge-University, some “gap trains” (spare trains used for service adjustments) have been converted to scheduled trains, but the total number of trains in service and the scheduled frequency are the same as in early 2015. The recent extension of AM peak short turn service north to Glencairn was accomplished with 3 new trains and 1 reassigned gap train.

Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina
                    Service Trains          Gap Trains
                    Jan/15  Aug/16  Sep/16  Jan/15 Aug/16 Sep/16 
AM Peak Trains         46      48      53      4      2      1
AM Peak Frequency     2'21"   2'21"   2'21"
PM Peak Trains         49      51      51      2      0      0
PM Peak Frequency     2'31"   2'31"   2'31"


Line 2 Bloor-Danforth
                    Service Trains
                    Jan/15  Sep/16
AM Peak Trains         45      45
AM Peak Frequency     2'21"   2'21"
PM Peak Trains         42      42
PM Peak Frequency     2'31"   2'31"

John Tory talks a good, if somewhat repetitive, story about how he rescued the TTC from the Ford-era cuts, but in fact the amount of new money his administration has put into transit operations is quite small. Improvements, such as they are, have been funded at least as much by cutbacks in overall TTC budgets and by fare hikes.

Much of the $135 million exists only as a line in a press release.

TTC Budget Committee Meeting: Capital Budget 2017-26

The TTC’s Budget Committee met for the first time since November 2015 yesterday (Sept. 6) to consider reports on the Capital Budget for the next decade. (Please refer to the article TTC’s 2017-2026 Capital Plan for a detailed review of the reports.)

Budget reports can be long and dull, but this year’s edition was not helped by having all of the material presented by one rambling speaker who cherry-picked points from the presentation for emphasis, and on more than one occasion simply made basic mistakes. This is not a new problem at the TTC, and the time is long overdue for them to find someone who can do this work in a way that (a) inspires confidence that management actually knows what they are talking about and (b) focuses on key areas that require the Board’s attention.

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TTC’s 2017-2026 Capital Plan (Updated)

The Toronto Transit Commission’s Budget Subcommittee will meet on September 6, 2016 (its first gathering since November 2015) to consider the preliminary version of the ten year Capital Plan and related reports.

It would be heartwarming to report that all was sweetness and light with transit funding now that the Federal government is back at the table, but alas, the reports suggest that “improvement” is at least as much from creative accounting than it is from added subsidy dollars.

There are four related reports on the agenda, and collectively they show how the TTC is (or isn’t) dealing with its capital funding problems.

Updated September 3, 2016 at 4:00 pm: A table comparing the sources of funding in the 2016-25 and 2017-26 capital plans has been added at the end of this article.

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The TIFF Gorilla Returns For 2016

Once again, the Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF) will take over King Street between University Avenue and Peter Street for its opening weekend from Thursday, September 8 to Sunday, September 11. Transit riders rank second to this Toronto event, one which is well-connected at City Hall and can elbow aside other users of the street to suit its purpose. Imagine King Kong descending from the CN Tower for his annual visit.

An attempted compromise that would have kept streetcars running on King during the weekday daytimes fell in place of the benefits of the festival. That’s the official story, anyhow.

Several routes will be disrupted by this arrangement:

  • 504 King will be split into two routes with the eastern segment operating to the Church, Wellington, York loop normally the home of 503 Kingston Road Tripper cars. The western segment will use the 510 Spadina route’s short turn loop via Spadina, Adelaide and Charlotte to King. This is a change from 2015 when the western branch of the route turned north on Bathurst Street.
  • 514 Cherry cars will operate as one route bypassing TIFF via Queen between Church and Spadina. This route already has problems staying on schedule, and the diversion will make things even worse at both ends of the line.
  • 504 buses will bypass TIFF via Richmond and Adelaide (WB and EB) between University and Spadina.
  • 304 King night car will be supplemented by a bus shuttle running from Parliament to Spadina.

The full details are on the TTC’s website.

This arrangement is further complicated by the continuing diversion of 501 Queen service between Spadina and Shaw via King for watermain construction on Queen Street.

The TTC notice says that:

Toronto Police will be positioned at key intersections to assist with traffic flow.

I hope so. The complete lack of transit priority signals to assist in diversionary routings is a long-standing problem for the TTC and produces no end of delays at intersections where turns across traffic must happen. This has shown up already in 2016 as queues of Queen cars eastbound at Spadina (to which the King cars will be added).

There are priority signals for turns off of Spadina to east-west streets, but not for turns onto Spadina. The situation is made worse by the number of electric switches that are out of service because it is the switch controllers that tell the signals when an extra phase for turning streetcars is required.

Diversions like this downtown are commonplace. Both the TTC and City of Toronto should do more to provide transit priority assistance for these as part of the standard installation at all major intersections where streetcars have to make turns during these events.

According to the TTC’s Brad Ross, TIFF is paying for most of this arrangement, although the TTC Ambassadors (extra staff to direct riders to the relocated services) will be covered by the TTC. It is unclear how much of the extra service the TTC will operate (and that’s assuming they do actually provide some) will come out of the TTC budget. This sort of thing is an ongoing issue for the TTC which is expected to arrange alternate services as a community benefit, but usually does not receive compensation for doing so. It is one of those hidden costs of doing business for the transit system.

Full disclosure: I am a regular attendee and donor at TIFF, but I do not agree with the degree to which they disrupt transit service on a major downtown route during workday hours.

Metropass Usage Trends

A question often arises about just how Metropass riders use their passes. How many trips do they really take? How much of a “deal” are they getting compared to those who pay by tokens, tickets and cash?

The TTC conducts a rolling survey of passholders on a weekly basis with about 30 riders who keep track of where they travelled. It is a new group every week, and so over the course of a year, the TTC will have about 1,500 separate surveys.

The information recorded by riders is converted back into a trip count (allowing for “normal” TTC transfer rules) to arrive at a trips/week value for each person surveyed. With a small sample set, the values bounce around a lot, but aggregated over time, they can give an idea of what Metropass usage actually looks like. The data is used to calibrate the conversion factor from pass sales to “rides” in the TTC’s regular reports of “ridership”.

With over half of all “rides” now taken with passes, this conversion factor is important, and a small change in the multiplier used can have a big effect on the calculated ridership. Moreover, if Metropass sales fall, the presumed “loss” of rides is at the average for the whole group even though it is more likely that the lost customers will be relatively low users of passes.

Wondering about just what the numbers looked like, I asked the TTC for statistics from their weekly diary surveys spanning January 2015 to June 2016. The raw data are from the TTC, for which much thanks, but I have consolidated and reformatted them for this article. The presentations and interpretation are my own.

The overall numbers for the 18 months are shown in the table below.


This table groups the data by the number of trips reported in the week.

About two thirds of the diaries report between 10 and 19 trips a week, and the overall average is 16.28. Note that the “trips” values shown here are actually calculated from the individual values (i.e. number of diaries times number of trips).

Another way to look at this is to plot the percentage of diaries reporting individual numbers of trips.


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Campbell House Move

On March 31, 1972, Campbell House moved from the intersection of Adelaide and Frederick to its present location at Queen & University.

Here is a record of that move.

All photos are by Steve Munro.

Click on a photo to launch the view in full screen mode.

Where Does Ottawa’s New Transit Funding Fit In Toronto’s Budget? (Updated)

Updated August 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm: The TTC has responded to questions regarding the relationship of new federal funding to their budget. See the end of the article.

With many Huzzahs! the federal government announced the details of funding for many projects in Toronto and other parts of Ontario under its new Public Transit Infrastructure Fund. This first step concentrates on “state of good repair” (“SOGR”) projects, especially as they relate to the TTC whose capital budget has been constrained by Toronto Council’s willingness to raise new revenues for only a few pet projects.

Press reports, together with the usual tub-thumping from Mayor Tory, imply that we are about to see a huge leap in work on TTC infrastructure upgrades. This sounds good, but the truth is not quite so simple, or as photo-op worthy.

The TTC’s Capital Budget can be a forbidding document, even in the short version that is online. The full version, with detailed descriptions of every project, fills two large binders. A fundamental problem, as we have heard every year for some time now, is that the total value of the ten-year Capital Plan is not completely funded, and there is a shortfall over that period of close to $3 billion. This does not include projects with their own earmarked funding such as the Spadina Subway Extension (aka “TYSSE”) or the Scarborough Subway Extension (“SSE”).

The main issues facing the City of Toronto and the TTC are:

  • Almost all ongoing funding for Capital spending has dried up at both the Provincial and Federal levels with only the Gas Tax flowing on an annual basis. This amounts to about $160 million from Ottawa and $70m from Queen’s Park (an additional $90m in Provincial funding goes to the Operating Budget).
  • City borrowing is constrained by a debt ceiling target such that no more than 15% of the Property Tax income is required to service the City’s debt. Major projects added to the budget in recent years, notably the Gardiner Expressway, have pushed the City right to that line leaving no headroom to finance additional projects until the early 2020s.
  • City Council has not been willing to raise additional revenues either through the property tax, or other mechanisms allowed by Queen’s Park, to service new debt beyond the 1.6% Scarborough Subway levy, and Mayor Tory’s proposed 0.5% levy to help fund some other capital needs.
  • Queen’s Park announces a lot of transit funding, but this focuses on areas outside of Toronto. Even within Toronto, it flows mainly to Metrolinx, not to the City and TTC. All of the new funding is for Capital projects, not for day-to-day operations.

The City of Toronto reacted to the discrepancy between the overall Capital Plan and available funding by requesting cutbacks in the planned budget. The effect is back-end loaded, in the sense that the higher cuts come in the later part of the plan, in part with the hope that the Tooth Fairy will arrive to bail out the funding crisis before these cuts actually have to be made. However, the cuts did start to kick in for 2016 with the City asking that the TTC pare $53 million from its Capital Budget. Of this, about 60% came from a “Train Door Monitoring” project that is intended to provide subway operators with the ability to view the entire train from their cabs, and thereby allow one-person crews on subway trains. The remaining 40% came from track, power, bridge and tunnel projects.

For the line-by-line requested cuts, scroll down to page 54 of the “short version” budget linked above. Note in particular the large value of cuts from 2020 onward.

Requested cuts for future years are $42.6m in 2017 and $78.3m in 2018 (with higher amounts beyond). This is the context in which “new” money comes to Toronto. Where the TTC is concerned this funding does not generally spawn new projects, it merely backfills the funding level provided by the City.

In the short term, Ottawa is funding SOGR projects because (a) that’s where the budget shortfall really is and (b) large scale new projects simply cannot be fired up quickly enough to absorb significant funding in the two year period (April 2016 to March 2018) that this phase of the PTIF will be available. Those large projects are expected to show up in the next round of funding to be announced, probably, in early 2017.

Ottawa’s List and the TTC Capital Budget

To make life simpler for people trying to make sense of the announcement, I have consolidated information from the Federal news release with information from the TTC’s Capital Plan. In the following table:

  • The columns “Federal Project Name” and “Amount” are taken from the announcement itself.
  • The “TTC Project Number” is taken from the budget details which appear on pages 34-53 of the TTC Capital Plan. This is provided mainly as an indication of the source of project descriptions and values.
  • The “TTC Project Amount” shows the spending for 2016-2018 included in the plan. Note that there are three lines for each item in the plan showing the previous year budget, the proposed version for 2016-2025 and the change since last year. The values in my list are from the second (current budget) line.
  • In a few cases, the Federal line item actually embraces more than one line in the TTC plan, and I have broken these out.
  • A few of the Federal items have no matching project in the TTC’s 2016 plan (which dates from late 2015), and I believe that these are new projects created going into the 2017 budget cycle.


The Federal contribution generally does not line up with the TTC numbers for a few reasons:

  • Federal budgets run from April 1 to March 31 of the following year. TTC/City budgets run on a calendar basis. A project may have funding over three calendar years, but not all of the spending will align with the two year window of the PTIF program.
  • Some TTC programs appear to have changed in scope since the 2016 budget came out as the Federal allocation is substantially larger than the TTC’s planned spending. This shows up notably in a project for the Automatic Passenger Counters project which appears to have been expanded to embrace the entire fleet, not merely a subset of vehicles that would be rotated among routes. (Why this is needed considering the onset of Presto and its available data is something of a mystery.)

Media reports have spoken of the new funding accelerating the provision of accessibility at subway stations. This is an odd claim because the City removed its request for the TTC to reduce the “Easier Access III” budget in the 2016 round, and planned work is already funded out to 2020. Unless the TTC can fire up more construction in very short order, it is hard to understand just what is available to be “accelerated”.

The primary effects of the new funding are:

  • The City will be able to remove, at least for the next few years, some of the reduction requests against the TTC’s plan because Federal Money will be available to fill the gap.
  • Some projects that the City had expected to fund largely with its own revenue will now be shared making City funding available for other line items (assuming that old “commitments” actually stay in the transit budget and don’t migrate to other non-transit projects).

The project list linked here shows two pages of TTC projects with a total of $360 million in Federal Funding (out of $1.671 billion the TTC planned to spend on these items over 2016-18) on the first two pages. The last page shows all of the other projects which fall under various City department budgets totalling $114 million. The grand total of new Federal funding here is $474 million.

What we do not know yet is the level of City funding that will be provided against the various areas of TTC capital needs.

Pending Updates

I have asked the TTC to confirm details of this announcement and how the monies will be used, but do not expect a detailed response until more is published on the 2017-2026 Capital Plan. This will likely happen at the September 6, 2016 TTC Budget Committee meeting, assuming it actually takes place. As additional information becomes available, I will update this article.


In my version of the project table, I have shown planned TTC spending only for 2016-2018, but the full project costs for these can extend well beyond 2018 (details are in the TTC budget report). The Federal contribution in these cases is a lower percentage of the total than might appear to be the case because the “out year” TTC costs are not shown.

This is most strikingly shown in the project to purchase 99 new buses where Ottawa is partly funding only 4 vehicles. The total project cost for 2017-2021 is $75m (see page 44 of the budget pdf), but Ottawa is only funding $1.3m, about half of the planned spending in 2017. The remaining 95 buses would be acquired after PTIF ends and they are not funded through this program.

Updated August 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm

I posed several questions to the TTC and have received the following replies.

Q1: The federal announcement looks to be mainly for existing capital projects. Is this being used to backfill city cuts?

A: This particular program is designed to be primarily for state-of-good-repair projects that are “shovel ready”. So what the TTC put forward through the City of Toronto were just that.

The 10-year 2016-2025 TTC capital budget had a funding shortfall of something in the order of $2.7B. These are not city cuts.  The TTC actual 10-year needs exceed known capital funding (gas taxes, city debt, etc.).  These funds will be used to help solve some of that shortfall.

Q2: There were several broad reductions in parts of the capital budget this year and for future years to bring spending within city debt limit. See the 2016 TTC Capital Budget Report at page 54 of the linked pdf.

A: The broad reductions included in the current 10-year capital budget were designed reflect expected spending levels based on historical spending trends.  They too are not cuts. The TTC is undertaking a more detailed look at this as part of our current budget process.

I challenged the TTC on this statement. There is always a difference between proposed and actual spending due to changes in project schedules and scope. However, the amounts involved, particularly in the later years of the budget, are well above the usual gap. The TTC clarified their response.

A: “Historical spending” is just that and some amounts have been factored into the individual projects to account for that.  “Unfunded Budget Reduction” is the budget shortfall between the TTC’s 10-year capital needs and the funding that’s available from City debt, gas taxes and other existing funding.  It happens that in the first few years of the 10-year budget, there is sufficient funding. But as you note, over the long run there isn’t.  The shortfall grows to be a very substantial number of about $2.7B over 10 years.  If we don’t get that funded, that would be a huge capital budget cut.

That’s precisely why the federal funding announcement was so welcomed by us.  It doesn’t wipe the shortfall out entirely, but it really helps over the next 3 years.

Q3: Am I correct in saying that the new money does not spawn new projects, only replenishes funding for those already in progress?

A: The TTC does an annual 10-year capital forecast, so most state-of-good-repair needs are reasonably well spelled out in that plan.  New things may crop up, but in large measure this money is to pay for those on-going rehabilitation, refurbishment, improvement or replacement needs on existing assets.

Q4: There was talk of accelerating the subway elevator program but I don’t see the dollars in the announcement.

A: Staff have been reviewing the elevator program and the results of that review will be incorporated into the 2017-2026 TTC Capital Budget presented to the TTC Board in the Fall.

How Much Service Actually Runs on King Street?

In many past articles, I have reviewed the quality of service on various routes from the point of view of headway regularity, travel times and short turns. While these analyses can show that disordered service is commonplace, they do not address a more basic question: what is the actual capacity of service offered, how consistently does the TTC actually provide room for passengers to ride?

This article uses vehicle tracking data in a different manner.

Service at Bathurst & King picks up almost all transit vehicles in both directions without effects of short turns. However, raw vehicle counts do not directly represent “capacity” because this must be adjusted for vehicle size. For example, twenty streetcars in one hour can carry more passengers than twenty buses. The capacity per hour is affected by the combination of two factors: how many vehicles of each size actually passed the intersection, and how many vehicles even operated in the peak period. The latter factor is important because “missed trips” don’t just arise from erratic service, but also from a failure to field all of the scheduled vehicles.

Hour-by-Hour Capacity

The following sets of charts show the capacity of service passing Bathurst Street eastbound during the AM peak (0600 to 1000) and westbound during the PM peak (1500 to 1900). Data are shown for all weekdays from September 2013 to July 2016 except for February 2016 (because I do not have data for that month).

There are three types of chart in each set:

  • Vehicle counts by type by hour
  • Capacity of the vehicles observed by hour
  • Total capacity over the four-hour period



Visible in these charts is the fluctuation from time to time in the proportion of service provided with standard CLRV streetcars, articulated ALRV cars, buses and new Flexity LFLRVs (since June 20, 2016). Very low values on individual days correspond to situations where a diversion to much or all of the service away from the intersection, typically to Queen Street. Another factor is that occasionally information for the time in question does not exist in the data provided by the TTC.

Over the length of an hour, a small day-to-day variation might be expected in vehicle counts through minor service irregularity. However, the mix of vehicles affects overall capacity. Late 2014 saw the onset of bus replacements of streetcars, and the drop in streetcar counts came primarily from ALRVs which are much larger vehicles. The number of bus trips required to replace ALRV trips was substantially larger as the charts show. However, there remains a considerable fluctuation from day-to-day in the number of each type of vehicle.

Capacities are calculated from the TTC’s service design values:

  • CLRV: 74
  • ALRV: 108
  • LFLRV: 130
  • Bus: 51

Note that vehicles can carry more people than these numbers suggest under crush conditions, but service cannot be designed based on crush loads on every trip.

What is quite striking about the capacity charts is the fluctuation over a range of about 500 passengers per hour, roughly 25% of the typical value, during the busiest periods. In other words, even if the vehicles arrived evenly spaced and, therefore, evenly loaded, there would be a considerable change day-to-day in the quality of service experienced by riders.

This begs the question of whether the days with lower capacity arise from “traffic congestion”, the TTC’s favourite explanation for erratic service, or if another factor could be at work.

Vehicles in Service

Another way to look at the data is to simply count the number of vehicles in service on the route. The next charts report on the number of vehicles of each type observed on the central part of King (Jarvis to Jameson) from 0700 to 0900, and from 1600 to 1800.


What one would expect to see if the schedules are to be believed is that the vehicle counts would stay more or less the same for a series of weeks corresponding to one or more “board periods”, the five-to-six week periods for which set of schedules remains in effect. However, what we see, particularly for streetcar modes, is a substantial change day-to-day in the number of vehicles the TTC actually fielded. The total vehicle count has fluctuated quite a lot (a range of about 10 vehicles on a likely scheduled total in the high 50s in the AM peak).

The numbers here do not translate directly to capacity, but they are linked:

  • More streetcars and fewer buses can lead to higher capacity depending on the replacement ratio, but this can be offset by the degree to which larger streetcars (ALRVs) are used.
  • Schedule changes to increase running times, even at similar headways, result in more vehicles in service (because the round trip time is longer) but not in more capacity (the vehicles/hour counts are unchanged).

The TTC speaks of the bus trippers on King as “expanding capacity”. As the charts clearly show, they do not achieve this effect because they are only replacing streetcars, and not necessarily on an equal capacity basis. The buses are a response to a shortage of streetcars, not a service improvement, except in the sense that without them the remaining streetcars would be even less able to cope with demand.

One factor which the vehicle-based data cannot reveal is the degree to which runs are cancelled because there are not enough operators available to drive them. This is not just a manpower issue, but one of schedule design and the degree to which all runs are part of regular crews, and how many depend on spare or overtime operators whose availability fluctuates. Trippers that operate for a short period are especially vulnerable to this because they are short pieces of work more likely to be crewed as extras.

The TTC has many challenges on King Street, and the City is now studying ways to redesign the street to aid transit operations, among other goals. However, fielding a consistent level of service is an essential part of delivering a consistent quality to riders on the line, and the TTC does not achieve this.

There has been some growth in capacity of service provided on the central part of the route, notably with the service redesign for 514 Cherry, but how long this will last in an era of trimmed budgets remains to be seen.


The counts and capacities shown here include service on 514 Cherry starting in late June 2016, but do not include service on 508 Lake Shore. This service was suspended due to the streetcar shortage in January 2015 (PM peak), and June 2015 (AM peak). It contributed a small amount of added capacity when it operated, but this was quite erratic because the arrival times and numbers of vehicles assigned varied considerably. I do not have 508 tracking data for many of the months included in these charts, and so have omitted the route from the analysis.