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TTC looks for answers to drop in rider levels

Thestar.com > News Jun. 17, 2002. 01:00 AM

By Joseph Hall

They travelled together like a climber and his shadow for more than 14 years, these two lines on the TTC's ridership chart.

One representing the number of jobs in the city, the other transit passenger levels, these lines have plotted, in remarkable tandem, the ups and downs of the city's employment market and the waxing and waning of ridership on the transit system.

"The lines would almost always go up and down together," says TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme. "It was almost predictable. The line representing ridership and the line representing employment have been very similar since 1988."

But there's been a disturbing disconnect of late in their parallel journeys - with a downward looping off of the transit system's ridership since last September, as the employment line has continued upwards.

The main thing disturbing commission brass is that they have no idea why the charted lines seem to be parting company.

"We have theories, but we still have no solid proof about what's happening here," says Ducharme.

The system has offered up five potential explanations, but none - either alone or in combination - are satisfactory, even to the TTC staff who posited them.

First, the system has looked to a loss of discretionary riders, or people who use the TTC for trips to recreational venues, like theatres or restaurants. That the ridership dip coincided with Sept. 11 lends credence to this notion, given the widespread cocooning that followed the terrorist attacks. But it's generally believed that Toronto's entertainment scene has begun to recover from its Sept. 11 slide, while the TTC's numbers continue to slip.

Second, the two-month provincial public service strike took a toll on system ridership. The strike, however, is long over and the TTC's ridership woes continue.

Third, the "threat" of a transit strike in April may have scared some riders away, analysts theorize. But again, this threat has long passed.

Fourth, a warmer than normal winter may have cost the system rides, with people choosing to walk to work, rather than take transit. But there have been other warm winters since 1988, with no corresponding slump in passenger levels.

Fifth, staff point to increased office vacancy rates downtown, the focal point of the TTC's backbone subway system. This, they say, may account for the ongoing ridership decline.

Of all the explanations, this one is the most ominous. Because if downtown vacancy rates are more or less permanent, if jobs are moving out of the central core, then the most crucial components of the transit system, the subways, are flowing in the wrong direction.

Ducharme, however, says the migration of jobs from the city centre would be a gradual process, while the TTC's recent passenger drops have been abrupt.

Regardless, attempting to determine what's going on is more than an academic exercise.

The theory that ridership should follow employment is an elegant one, as most people who use the TTC do so to get to work and back.

If this link has been cracked or broken, then the system must determine why in order to pursue thoughtful solutions.

Had TTC ridership continued to mirror Toronto employment, then the system might well have been looking at passenger totals heading up towards the 430-million range this year.

As it stands, the commission's scaled-down predictions of 418 million riders for 2002 has been slashed even further, to 412 million.

And every ride not taken adds to the system's burgeoning deficit problems, which could hit $70 million on the operating side in 2003.

Given the penny-pinching position the city finds itself in these days, much of that deficit will have to be covered through higher passenger fares.


Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at 416-869-4390 or e-mail at gjhall@thestar.ca




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