Skip to main content

Whether by the streetcar or GO train, public transit agencies are grappling with cost and convenience issues.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The best sales pitch for GO Transit may be to watch a commuter train whiz by while inching along the highway in rush-hour traffic

But in spite of that, the vast majority of people coming into Toronto for work do it in a car. And the TTC, although carrying far more people than GO, also lags well behind driving as the choice for trips inside Toronto.

These hundreds of thousands of individual choices made daily add up to problems for quality of life, the environment and, when congestion gets too bad, the economy. And with the city and region expected to grow over the coming years, public transit will have to play a bigger role.

The stakes are high, and persuading more drivers to get out from behind the wheel is the stated goal of just about every policy maker. The problem is, it's harder than it sounds.

After decades of low-density development and limited transit expansion, many people live in areas where driving is the most logical option. Mayor John Tory's proposal to charge tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway would make driving more expensive, and less likely, but this shift is years away. Plans to change land-use patterns and expand the transit network substantially will take even longer.

In the meantime, there's no one tactic agencies can use to close the deal with those who might consider transit – what motivates one potential strap-hanger may not interest another.

"We're not going to guilt people into riding transit," argues David Alpert, founder of the advocacy group Greater Greater Washington. "They will only ride transit if it provides a viable alternative to them."

So how do you do it?

A new habit

An Italian study published in 2013 found that people were likely to stick with their current method of travel, even if another way would save time or money. Transit needs to break through that.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that operates GO Transit, has a Smart Commute program that works with employers to try to introduce new ways of getting to work. They put on special transit service for non-work outings, such as sporting events or the recent Santa Claus parade. And they used the 2015 Pan Am Games as an opportunity to introduce people to GO.

"We spent a lot of time and effort in public education," said Leslie Woo, chief planning officer at Metrolinx. "And we saw a shift in the [transit usage] during the Games. And what happened, what we've been monitoring, is even after the Games, people continued to have [the] habit. Because what happened is people who normally would go in a car were sort of pushed a little bit into taking transit."

The TTC, which is fairly full already during rush hour, has less reason or ability to chase car commuters. But the system is less busy during the off hours, offering the chance to bring in riders who will help spread the fixed cost of running the system. "Sweat the asset," as some of their senior officials like to say.

That was part of the logic behind the recent launch of the "We move you" ad campaign, a joint effort of the TTC and the National Ballet. At the time, TTC chairman Josh Colle linked "a thriving and lively arts scene" with "a robust public transit system" as key to a successful city. Bringing the two themes together is a way to remind people that the TTC is there for trips other than work.

The better way?

"The majority of people drive, regardless of the distance, and almost entirely because driving is the fastest option," argues a paper on Toronto-area commuting released in November by consulting firm Deloitte. "GTA commuters so value convenience, flexibility and, above all, their time, that they're willing to pay significantly for it."

To beat that instinct, transit has to be better. This is a hard task, with the perception of value being a notoriously slippery thing. A growing body of research shows that a variety of factors can influence how positively a person reacts to their transit trip. In Toronto, for example, TTC deputy chief executive officer and chief customer officer Chris Upfold said that their data from this past summer show that people riding subway cars without air conditioning believed the trip to be longer than it really was.

Although "better" means something different to everyone, a report this year by the U.S. foundation TransitCenter offers some clues. Perks such as Wi-Fi and power outlets were picked as the least preferred improvements in a survey of riders, while at the top of the list were faster and more frequent service.

"A generally grid pattern of very, very frequent services, always coming soon, running in relatively straight lines, is how you get most people where they're going," said Jarrett Walker, consultant and author of the book Human Transit. "The grid pattern starts with high frequency and then as you build ridership with frequency you start adding exclusive rights of way, maybe you turn some of them into rail."

Mississauga recently moved in this direction, embarking on a long-term plan to straighten out meandering bus routes and turn its transit into more of a grid pattern. The goal is to reduce wait times and speed up travel for transit riders, helping make it more competitive with the speed of driving.

Speed is also the essence of a new transit pitch to drivers on the Queen Elizabeth Way. A digital sign near Appleby GO station offers real-time information on when the next train would leave, and when it would arrive in downtown Toronto. The idea is to persuade some commuters to park and hop on the train instead if they feel it'd be faster.

The cheaper way?

Competing on price is a trickier prospect for transit. So much of the annual cost of operating a car is fixed, regardless of how much it is driven, making the per-trip price of using a vehicle relatively small. Driving can feel cheap.

At GO Transit, the fare is traditionally set at roughly 60 per cent of the gas-and-parking cost of the equivalent car trip. Although this model means that transit is clearly and considerably less expensive than taking the car, that doesn't stop critics from grousing that GO fares are so high that they might as well drive.

The TTC has a different problem. Its fare policy is divorced from broader economic factors and is based on funding from the city, which gives a lower per-ride subsidy than other major North American cities. And the TTC knows it can't just raise the fare at will. The traditional rule of thumb at the agency is that it will lose between 0.1 and 0.2 per cent of ridership for every 1-per-cent increase in fares.

A meeting of the TTC board last month approved a 10-cent increase to fares in 2017 to help cover a funding shortfall. This will lose the TTC about one million rides next year, a worrying hit for an agency whose ridership has been flat-lining after years of growth.

The fare raise came after hours of deputations by members of the public, most of whom said the transit agency is becoming unaffordable. Senior staff argue that the service remains a good value for most people, though, and say privately that fares are a major issue for a relatively small number of customers.

Not for everyone

Even at its best, transit won't work for everyone in the Toronto area. In much of the 905, and in parts of the city's inner suburbs, the streets were laid out to make it hard for buses to get through. And population densities throughout the region are often low enough to make frequent and convenient transit expensive to provide.

"There are trips where it still makes sense to be a car driver in the city of Toronto. That's the city we live in," the TTC's Mr. Upfold acknowledged.

"There are still lots of trips that do not lend themselves to transit, without a doubt, in the city of Toronto. The pitch that I would make to people is let the TTC be your second car. Let's start there."