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Economy feeds transit use surge

Joseph Hall
Commuter Corner

A couple of items from the corner this week, beginning with the happy news that the trend toward increased transit ridership in Canada appears to be accelerating.

While ridership was up by a respectable 2 per cent between 1998 and 1999, the first six months of this year saw that increase rise to 4.1 per cent over the first half of 1999, according to the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

“This is the most positive growth trend that the Canadian transit industry has experienced in over 10 years,” says association president Michael Roschlau.

He says the increase is consistent across the country and in cities of all shapes and sizes.

And, he says, transit use is growing faster than the urban population.

The impressive resurgence is being felt in spades in Toronto, where the country’s largest transit agency is in the midst of substantial ridership gain.

The TTC expects to carry 410 million passengers this year, up from 392.5 million in 1999.

As is the case across the country, the TTC’s ridership jump can be almost entirely attributed to a still surging economy, with more jobs meaning more people filing on to buses, subways and streetcars to get to work.

Unfortunately, these increases are not being accompanied by a significant boost in transit infrastructure, with provincial governments across the Canada scaling back on their funding commitments.

Not satisfied with scaling back, the Ontario Tories bailed out of transit funding last year.

And, unfortunately, without the money to make transit systems more attractive, buoyant ridership numbers can sink like a stone if the economy stumbles.

Speaking of the TTC, the system has just completed a two-continent study on the electronic “smart card” technologies that are being adopted by many major North American and European transit agencies.

And it appears the Toronto system has decided to take a pass on the electronic passes.

The passes allow entrance to subways or surface vehicles by either sliding them through a slot or waving them in front of electronic collectors.

Using magnetic strips or computer chips, the cards come in multi-trip cardboard versions or in smart card plastic variations that can have prepaid trips stored up in their computer chips.

But at an estimated cost of $140 million to install an electronic system, the TTC says it will stick with its current ticket, token pass and transfer system. “If it’s fixed, don’t break it,” says TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme.

“Our system may be old-fashioned, but it works well. It’s convenient, and our riders understand it.”

Ducharme says Toronto does not face many of the problems that have caused other systems, like those in New York, Paris, Washington and Chicago to adopt the electronic collectors.

This city, for example, has long had a free transfer and single fare system that makes it easy and cheap to move from one transit vehicle to another. In cities with multi-fare rates and paid transfers, customers can be turned off by the confusing costs they’re faced with.

The electronic systems usually replaced broken mechanical collectors in other cities. The TTC’s collectors are almost all based on gravity - you drop a token in a slot or box - and gravity doesn’t break down.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at