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The TTC is increasing service levels. But advocates say riders need more changes to trust the system

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and the TTC announced Monday that increases to transit service levels will begin as early as this week, with frequency of service to reach close to what it was prior to the pandemic by November. 

But transit advocates told CBC Toronto this move alone will not be enough to attract riders to a system that has been plagued with not only delays and cuts, but ongoing concerns about safety and security. 

The TTC announced at the news conference it will be improving service near dozens of schools and increasing frequency of service on nine routes that serve post-secondary institutions. It is also increasing its service in September to 93 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. In November, it will increase it to 95 per cent, with bus services at 99 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. 

The transit agency had said in May that service was operating at about 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.  

According to TTC data, in 2019 annual ridership was 987,350,000, and in 2022 it was 575,650,000, which represents close to a 42 per cent decrease. 

At the press conference, Mayor Olivia Chow said she hopes each improvement brings more riders back to frequently using the system. In Chow’s victory speech when she was elected mayor, she promised to make transit more reliable. 

“The more people that are coming back to the TTC and generating revenue for the TTC, the better the service,” said Chow. 

According to the TTC’s CEO, Rick Leary, the transit system currently has about 80 per cent of the number of frequent riders it had before the pandemic. But the number of occasional riders, those who take it less than four days a week, is a little higher than before the pandemic, said Leary. 

“People are taking the TTC on the weekends into sporting events in the core,” he said, adding that it’s something he sees as encouraging. 

Advocates happy with increased service, but reliability a concern

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, a spokesperson for the advocacy group TTCriders, told CBC Toronto the announced service level improvements left her feeling optimistic.

“We’re thrilled that the mayor is listening to transit users…starting to make good on her promise to reverse service cuts,” she said.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen of TTC Riders
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, of TTCRiders, says improving services levels is a positive move. (Submitted by Shelagh Pizey-Allen)

But adding more buses to a route isn’t the same as reliability, said other advocates.

Cameron MacLeod, executive director of CodeRedTO, a transit advocacy group, said improved service levels are good, but not sufficient to re-shift people’s choices and see all riders return to transit. He said unpredictability is a problem for many users or would-be users and regaining trust in the system is an issue.

“That means that riders who have other options, they’re still mostly choosing those other options, because they don’t know if the bus will show up,” he said.

He said the solutions do not all need to involve increased investment.

“There’s some improvement available in how lines are managed, and how vehicles are spaced out to give riders a more enjoyable, less crowded ride but also a more predictable ride with vehicles showing up,” he said.

Cameron MacLeod, the executive director of Code Red TO, a transit advocacy group, says the TTC is suffering from a lack of long-term investments.
Cameron MacLeod, the executive director of Code Red TO, a transit advocacy group, says the TTC says riders need to be able to expect when the next bus is coming to place their trust in the system. (Ken Townsend/CBC)

Security and safety concerns linger

At the beginning of 2023, the city temporarily added dozens more police officers and special constables to the system following multiple acts of violence on the TTC.

Eighty police officers were temporarily deployed to the TTC at the beginning of the year on overtime shifts in response to concerns about violence on the TTC, but primarily due to cost issues that was no longer the case by mid-March.  

Pizie-Allen and TTCriders have expressed concern for months that there are less TTC staff at stations than there were in the past, due to staffing cuts, which leaves riders feeling less safe

MacLeod says some riders have made different choices based on feeling unsafe. He says riders want to see “staff are consistently around, watching what’s happening within rapid transit stations…everyone feels more comfortable.”

When asked about ongoing safety concerns on the TTC, Leary said ensuring people are highly visible in “strategic areas” is a priority. The TTC is coming up with a more comprehensive plan for safety on the TTC and says being proactive is important, he said.

Chow planning to speak to province on Scarborough bus route

Most further improvements to the TTC will cost money. 

The mayor said on Monday the city cannot only rely on the farebox and must look at other options.

The mayor says she is not interested in increasing fares.  “I can’t see how we could ask the customers to pay more,” she said. 

A Chinese woman standing in front of a podium speaking
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow speaks during a news conference at Scarborough Centre station, on Aug. 28, 2023. Chow says she is meeting with Doug Ford in September and will be discussing the need for millions of dollars for a dedicated bus lane in Scarborough. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

She also said she is not inclined to ask the province for road tolls to pay for transit, an ask which failed in the past.

She says she is meeting with Ontario Premier Doug Ford in September and is planning to make a request related to financing a dedicated Scarborough busway that would give priority to buses on the road and improve commute times, given the closure of the Scarborough SRT— a project she committed to in her election campaign, and reiterated her commitment to on Monday. She says the city needs $60 million from the province in order to finance the bus route. 

CBC Toronto asked the Ministry of Transportation if the province planned to support the $60 million ask, but it did not answer the question directly in emailed responses. 

Dakota Brasier, press secretary to Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney said in a statement, “The people of Scarborough deserve the same access to fast and reliable public transit as the rest of Toronto.”

She said the provincial government continues to invest billions in Toronto transit through multiple avenues, including “more than $70 billion over the next 10 years to build new and expanded public transit, including the three-stop Scarborough Subway Extension.”

Pizie-Allen says projects like the dedicated busway are essential. She says until the new mayor makes clear how the city will come up with the money to improve transit, people are feeling cautiously optimistic. 

“The real test will be, what revenue tools are introduced to create long term funding for the TTC and the success in negotiating with the provincial and federal governments for long term investment,” she said.

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