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E-BLAST: Stopping the TTC "Death Spiral"

In my role as Chair of the Economic & Community Development Committee (ECDC), I spend a lot of time focusing on our city's economic recovery. In past E-Blasts, I've mentioned the importance of our employment zones and reanimating the downtown core. I've included blurbs about various programs the City runs to support our local businesses and our cultural sector. Today, I want to focus on Toronto's essential service that underpins all of that economic recovery work: the TTC.

In a city as large as Toronto, a healthy transit system is the key to a healthy city. You can think about the TTC like our city's circulatory system: it gets people to work, to school, to the grocery store and their medical appointments; it lets residents and visitors alike access our restaurants, theatres, and shops. It also takes cars off the road and is an essential part of our plan to reach Net Zero by 2040. Without it, our city just can't work. My fellow committee members and I over at ECDC, and all of the staff and stakeholders we work with, cannot achieve a fulsome recovery for Toronto without a strong transit system, and that transit system is in trouble.

The TTC is still struggling to return to its pre-pandemic state of normalcy. As work-from-home continues, ridership remains stubbornly low. In 2018, annual ridership stood at 521 million rides a year across transit modes. 2022 finished off with just 320 million rides. We are heading back to normal from even smaller numbers in 2020, but not fast enough.

A graph showing TTC annual ridership numbers from 2015 - 2022.

It would be convenient to blame the pandemic for all of our transit woes, but it wouldn't be accurate or helpful. To truly recover the TTC and our city, we need to be honest about the fact that our transit system wasn't particularly healthy before COVID-19 arrived in town. Ridership reached its peak in 2016 and then began to stagnate. By 2018, it had dropped by nearly 20 million rides annually. State-of-good-repair (keeping the fleet and infrastructure that we have in good working condition) was in a dire state of backlog. There seemed to be no end in sight for annual fare increases because the whole system had been grossly underfunded since 1995.

Transit systems in other major Canadian and U.S. cities receive predictable operating funds from their Provincial and State partners. That is not the case here in Toronto, where historically over two-thirds of operating funding comes from fare revenues. Comparatively, other North American cities rely on fare for less than half of their operating costs. This is why the sudden COVID-19 ridership collapse devastated our system far more severely and far more quickly than in other cities. Every city tried to maintain as much service as possible for frontline and healthcare workers, but here in Toronto that was a tall order. The other orders of government helped out with temporary funding, but by early 2022 they were tired of helping. Funds for the TTC have dried up, so now what?

This recovery period is an opportunity to address not only pandemic impacts, but to acknowledge why we fell so hard in the first place. Now is the time to build back a strong, sustainable transit system. We owe it to not only every Torontonian, but also to the 6.5 million people living, working, and moving throughout the GTA.

So how do we save our transit system and our city? The one thing we have to guarantee is reliable service. In practice, this looks like our buses, streetcars, and subway trains running frequently and, importantly, on time. It means deploying shuttle buses quickly and effectively when we do run into service outages. It means continuing our efforts to make our transit system safe. We need this not only to attract riders back to the system, but to keep the riders we have.

Toronto Star columnist Matt Elliot recently wrote an article explaining the "death spiral" that transit systems can find themselves in when they respond to low ridership with service cuts. Without new revenue sources or enhanced funding from other orders government, the TTC may feel that it has little choice but to claw back service in the face of shrinking ridership and the resulting low revenue. But doing so will only push more folks off of transit, further reduce our fare revenues, and make our budget problems worse and worse. We need all levels of government to acknowledge the necessity of this transit system to the economic health of not just our city, but our province and nation.

It is high time we restored reliable service to our transit system. This relies both on political directive and proper management. Irrespective of pending service cuts, we have been seeing unreliable service on the TTC for quite some time. Subway trains continue to run behind schedule. Buses and streetcars are nowhere to be found, only for four to show up in quick succession. This is not a transit system Torontonians can rely on. TTC management, all the way up to CEO Rick Leary, needs to recognize these problems and stamp them out ASAP or else face the consequence of that transit death spiral.

Once we get our base service back up to snuff, we can start building a vision of what our ideal transit experience looks like. This vision has to factor into our broader conversations about economic recovery. New York City recently released their "New New York" Recovery Plan, and transit solutions are central to their plan. It took bold leadership and extensive cooperation to prepare this plan in NYC, and it's high time for such an exercise in Toronto. TTC Chair Jon Burnside could start preparing for this exercise right now so that it is ready to move forward in partnership with a new mayor.

To develop this vision, we need to deepen the conversation with riders and determine how to bring their loyalty back. Leadership means being willing to truly hear what riders and others need to get off their chests. It will take a concerted outreach effort to get out beyond just those who faithfully attend TTC Board meetings. We need to hear from every type of transit rider from every corner of Toronto to make this system work.

In conversation with riders, we can start boldly planning for the future of the transit system that everyone rides today. What do riders want to see change? What will it take to make it sustainable for the future? How can we make sure the TTC is a better partner to all other GTA transit systems so that no job or school in the region is out of reach?

The TTC is essential to the health of our city, both socially and economically. We need to acknowledge its past, fix its present issues, and imagine a bold and sustainable future that will support our city for generations to come.


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