Riders left the TTC in droves over COVID-19. Could that trigger a public transit ‘death spiral’?

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Eighteen months ago, COVID-19 emptied its streets and public transportation in Toronto. People are once again on the move as there are signs of a return to life in the city. Just the way they walk has changed. In this two-part series, Toronto Star transportation reporter Ben Spur examines your post-pandemic future. Today, he looks at the problems facing the TTC, and in part two tomorrow, the troubled return of gridlock.

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When Mike Cole looks back on his time as TTC’s chairman, what he remembers is the feeling of “munching down on negativity.”

It was the early 1990s and the recession had hit Ontario badly. After years of gradual development, the number of passengers was declining as passengers suddenly found themselves out of work. Rent revenue was drying up and TTC leaders seemed helpless to stop the bleeding.


“It was really depressing and depressing. Every week we used to get reports… Unemployment is rising, and the number of TTC riders is going down,” said Cole, a current councilor who was president from 1992 to 1994. “Nothing seemed to work.”

As ridership numbers and fare revenue declined, TTC cut service. But the resulting less-reliable transit only pushed more riders away, further reducing the agency’s revenue, which became a downward spiral, Cole said. “It was a really dark period.”

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Soon those dark days may come again. Although the TTC has begun to recover from the worst of COVID-19, experts say it remains at risk of falling into a “transit death spiral” – a vicious cycle set off when transit operators reduce service by reducing ridership. respond to the decline. . Less service makes transit less attractive, and riders soon find other ways to commute, generating less revenue, requiring more deductibles, and so forth.


Billions of dollars in emergency funding from provincial and federal governments have so far allowed the TTC and other municipal agencies to avoid major service cuts even as ridership falls during the pandemic. But that money is running out, and although passenger numbers are starting to rise back, COVID-19 has prompted more people to work and study from home, cautioning riders from boarding overcrowded vehicles and has weakened the retail and entertainment sectors. Transit usage probably won't return to pre-COVID levels for years.

Judy Gorman is one of thousands who stopped taking TTCs once the pandemic hit, and she doesn't know if she'll ever ride again. The 57-year-old retired warden lives near the station and used to board the metro for errands and appointments. But he is immune, and the prospect of being in tight quarters with other people can be dangerous.

"I really wish I could have it back but it's too much risk," she said. "There's no way to know everyone's vaccination status on the subway."

"It's just frustrating, but I don't know what one can do," she said.

Marco D'Angelo, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA), an industry group that represents transportation providers, said the challenge facing all operators in the coming years is to win back riders.

"We know that when revenue for public transport falls, it takes a very long time for riders to recover," D'Angelo said. "The ghost of that downward spiral is still there."

According to CUTA, the devastating downward spiral is the most serious threat facing the country's transport providers as they look to the post-pandemic future.

At stake is more than just the bottom lines of transit agencies. According to Statistics Canada, the majority of commuters who abandoned transit switched to private automobiles during the early stages of the pandemic, and CUTA warned that if transit doesn't come back strong, it could lead to a "car-led recovery". will "make cities" more congested, increase carbon emissions, and severely restrict access to jobs, education, and urban mobility.

Long-lasting damage can cause a death spiral that is evident from the TTC's experience in the 1990s.

At the beginning of the decade, the agency tried to plug loopholes in its budget by cutting service and raising fares five times. Major service cuts followed in 1996, and the government of Premier Mike Harris ended provincial funding for municipal transit works in 1998, leaving cities to bear the cost.

According to a TTC analysis from the time, by the early 2000s subsidies for the TTC were $100 million less than in 1991, and the TTC had fewer than 200 buses during rush hours and 40 fewer than in the two decades. There were streetcars. before this.

According to Statistics Canada, the majority of commuters who abandoned transit switched to private automobiles during the early stages of the pandemic, and CUTA warned that if transit doesn't come back strong, it could

With rising prices and declining service, a large number of customers abandoned the system. Ridership declined by more than 12 percent between 1988 and 2003, even though Toronto's population grew by about 13 percent during the same period. Driving made up a greater proportion of trips in the city than in the late 1980s.

It took almost two decades for TTC to break out of the spiral. Ridership did not recover to 1990 levels until 2007, when the city aggressively began a ridership development strategy to fund service improvements and win back customers.

Steve Munro, a veteran Toronto transit blogger, said the forces the TTC is battling today may be harder to overcome than the forces they faced three decades ago. For one thing, the decline in ridership due to COVID-19 is far more severe than anything seen in the 1990s. At its lowest level in April 2020, monthly TTC usage fell 86 percent compared to normal levels. By the end of September it was back to about 44 percent of pre-pandemic usage.

But perhaps more importantly, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed demand for transit. To return to just 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to TTC estimates, city office occupancy rates would need to recover to 80 percent of normal, with universities and colleges fully back to individual classrooms, And capacity limits All retail and entertainment activities are completely banned. The timetable for all those factors is uncertain, and there will be fewer reasons for people to ride for the foreseeable future.

"If the stuff has to go to the riders you can't get the riders, and that's something we didn't really encounter in the '90s," Munro said. "Will it be hard to fight again on our way?"

At the very least, TTC needs to maintain its current service levels and improve reliability to avoid turning customers away, he said. Transit advocacy group TTCriders is pushing the agency forward in addition to maintaining the status quo, and wants TTC to reduce fares, add local service, and make other improvements to attract passengers back.

Gideon Forman, a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, argues that federal and provincial governments should make permanent emergency operating funding provided during the pandemic to ensure the TTC avoids a downward spiral.

He said TTC is particularly vulnerable to a decline in ridership because fare revenue makes up about two-thirds of its operating budget under its current funding model (most of the rest comes from subsidies from the city). This is higher than other Canadian transit providers, who on average rely on fares for about 50 percent of their operating costs.

“We can still turn things around from a vicious cycle, a downward spiral, a virtuous cycle, but that will require some money from the upper levels of government,” Forman said.

According to some, TTC is particularly vulnerable to a drop in ridership as fare revenue accounts for about two-thirds of its operating budget under its current funding model.

The money needed to avoid deductions will be significant. Despite already receiving more than $1.3 billion in emergency provincial and federal aid since the start of the crisis, TTC is forecasting an operating shortfall of $85 million by the end of this year, and the city estimates that The transit agency may need around $800 million in 2022.

The trouble of the transit agency will continue even further. According to...

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