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The Toronto Transit Commission is using data collected from riders to improve customer satisfaction.an Willms

Can a clean subway floor, different bus schedule or better information attract riders the way a fare decrease can? Officials at the Toronto's transit agency believe they could and are closing in on the ability to put a specific value on such changes.

These efforts are part of the modernization of the TTC, and reflect the growing amount of data available to transit agencies trying to tailor service to their customers.

Chris Upfold, deputy chief executive of the TTC, explains that their customer satisfaction surveys offer a wealth of detail, revealing just how much riders care about dozens of factors related to their experience. Aggregating the time lost or gained through service changes offers another data set. "And then you can really start to get sophisticated," he said.

"We also know what people's perceived value of time is," Mr. Upfold said in a recent interview. "So I think you can start to make the argument, by making [a given] change and by raising customer satisfaction by one point, that is exactly the same in changing their perceived value of money as making the trip actually cheaper. And that, in and of itself, will drive ridership."

Mr. Upfold will discuss such possibilities as part of a transit service panel at a Toronto Region Board of Trade-hosted conference on Monday, one that includes speeches by both Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca and Toronto Mayor John Tory.

The transit service panel is to be moderated by Michael Wilson, managing director of Accenture's North America public transportation practice, which last month released a survey looking at ways agencies could attract – or risk turning off – customers through the use of technology. The results essentially show that people want to be helped, but grow wary if they feel their privacy has been intruded upon.

"It's really about the way they … provide information to their customers," Mr. Wilson said. "There seems to be an interest, instead of passively making it available [through a] website, they can actually more actively put it out to their customers, and really give them this kind of sense of control of their rider experience. One, if there's delays, let them know there's delays. Two, if there's a better way to get there, through a connection, let them know."

One finding of the survey – which sampled people in Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary, as well as five U.S. cities – will be alarming to the small but passionate group of transit-map fans. According to the results, only one-quarter of people use printed materials, including maps, to research transportation options. Computers and phones were vastly more popular, and tablets also edged out old-school sources.

But the flip side of riders' embrace of new technology is that transit agencies are benefitting from it as well. A once-unheard-of wealth of data about customers and their travel patterns is laying the groundwork for the type of evolution described by Mr. Upfold. And others say it could go much further, changing the face of transit itself.

Ryerson urban and regional planning student Nikolas Koschany, another panellist, argues that "demand-responsive transit" can fill gaps left underserved by traditional agencies, including students pushed to the margins of the city to find affordable accommodations.

In this model, vehicles – which could be taxis or small buses – are dispatched according to need, instead of being regularly scheduled. And their route could depend on where a given group of passengers is headed. It's something of a cross between Uber and a matatu.

"With the advent of things like Presto in the GTA, you know, demand-responsive transit is made so much easier to actually implement," said Mr. Koschany, co-president of the Ryerson Association of Planning Students. "We have all this data from where people are tapping on with the Presto card, where people are tapping off. And especially as that integration comes into the TTC … there's going to be even more data. So, this isn't just a dream any more."