Public transit struggling to lure back riders amid deficits, rising costs of living
Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Kelly Fairchild will pay more to use public transit this year — money she says will come straight from her grocery budget.
“Food and groceries are going up, and if they keep increasing transit … it’s just not sustainable,” says the Toronto resident, who receives limited income from the Ontario Disability Support Program.
Last week, the Toronto Transit Commission announced a 10-cent fare hike — raising single fares to $3.35 — while reducing services to address a $366 million budget deficit.
It’s another blow to consumers like Fairchild, who are already paying higher living costs due to inflation.
“Every time they raise the price of bread or raise the price of TTC or hydroelectric power, people make sacrifices, people starve and beg. I don’t think they really understand that people live dollar to dollar,” she says.
Public transit systems across Canada are grappling with lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in many cases, reduced ridership has been slower than expected to recover.
But experts say solutions such as hiking fares while reducing service — especially as the cost of living rises — are a “Catch-22” that could alienate old and new drivers and create the potential for ongoing financial woes and cutbacks.
Shauna Brail, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Management and Innovation, says the TTC’s rate increase and service cuts will hit the welfare and pockets of low-income drivers, who are hit hardest with inflation and the rising cost of living have fight
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing to increase fares if it’s going to improve it, but the way fares are going up isn’t so much for improvement – it’s not even about maintaining the level.” that we have. It’s for survival,” says Brail.
“Coupling increased costs with lower levels of service is certainly not going to help attract ridership.”
In November, TTC ridership was nearly 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Cherise Burda, executive director of Toronto Metropolitan University’s City Building research initiative, says experience and research suggest more reliable and faster service will increase ridership and turn public transit’s “death spiral” into an “upward spiral.”
But better service and attracting new passengers may look different after a pandemic. Burda notes that travel habits have changed significantly in recent years, with workers only returning to the office for part of the work week.
But she says ridership for non-work travel is back to about pre-pandemic levels, indicating people are using the TTC for other reasons, such as shopping, entertainment, sporting events or leisure activities.
Toronto’s transit system isn’t the only one in Canada struggling with a deficit.
In November, the Montreal Transit Corp. estimated losses in 2023 at $77.7 million and warned it could result in benefit cuts. As a result, the agency announced earlier this month that it was scrapping a 10-minute wait maximum program for its busiest bus routes.
The organization expects ridership this year to be about 70 to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels. No rate increases are in the works, but last July rates were tightened based on where you live.
Calgary Transit, meanwhile, estimates a $64 million loss of revenue this year, despite a stronger-than-expected recovery in ridership and the city freezing fares at 2022 levels as a result.
One solution to the transit systems’ financial woes, Brail says, is to seek commitments from higher levels of government to provide stable funding that could allow authorities to rely less on fare revenues.
In Vancouver, fares rose an average of 2.3 percent last July under an agreement with the provincial government to limit fare increases.
Translink, which operates Metro Vancouver’s public transit system, agreed in 2020 to limit fare increases at that level through 2024 after securing federal funding to get it through a pandemic-related revenue crunch.
BC Transit, which operates the province’s public transit system outside of Metro Vancouver, has also agreed to the same cap on fare increases.
But no matter who foots the bill for the deficits, Burda says cities and transit companies should focus on how to build future ridership.
“Right now we’re dealing with a rush to balance the budget and cities need to do that, but I think there’s an opportunity to analyze how we can attract new riders from different travel patterns and maybe different segments of the population.” , she said.
“It all comes from increased services, so it’s a chicken and an egg.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 15, 2023.
This story was produced with financial support from Meta and the Canadian Press News Fellowship.