The TTC’s elimination of the Metropass program at the end of this month will mark a big change for Toronto commuters, who have been using the card to travel the transit system since 1980.
But the end of the Metropass, which is being phased out in favour of the new Presto fare-card system, might also shed light on a question that’s vexed the transit agency in recent years: the TTC’s official numbers show that transit ridership is declining, so why do the network’s buses, streetcars and subways seem just as crowded as ever?
According to TTC executives, the answer could be that the Metropass program has artificially inflated ridership counts for years, and there has been no significant decline at all.
“I don’t think that people are actually riding less. So therefore, it does beg the question about how we were counting (riders),” said Dan Wright, the TTC’s chief financial officer, in an interview.
The official numbers suggest that, like other transit agencies across the continent, the TTC is struggling to attract customers. Last year, the agency counted about 533 million riders, down from 538 million the year before. The TTC is on track to have about 2 per cent fewer riders this year than in 2017.
The falling numbers, which have come even as Toronto’s population is increasing, have alarmed public transit advocates. Possible contributing factors the TTC has identified include the rise of ride-hailing services, low gasoline prices and sluggish employment growth.
Traditionally, the TTC has used a variety of methods to determine how many riders use its system. The agency physically counts transit tokens, while tickets, which can’t be counted as easily, are weighed. The agency also performs visual passenger counts, and has installed automated counting devices on some vehicles.
According to Wright, “the biggest single source of uncertainty” has always been Metropasses, which account for about 40 per cent of ridership.
The passes allow users unlimited travel on the TTC for a calendar month at a single price, which this year was set at $146.25. The agency is forced to estimate how many trips each pass-holder takes, which it does by conducting interviews and diary studies with about 100 Metropass customers.
For this year, the agency estimated that each Metropass user would take an average of about 72 trips a month, according to Wright. That works out to more than two rides every day of a 31-day month.
Metropass sales have been falling since 2014, around the same time the official ridership counts began to stall. The lower Metropass sales are likely a result of the TTC hiking the pass price, as well as increased adoption of the Presto fare-card system, which allows for more accurate ridership counts. About one third of all TTC trips are now taken using Presto.
Metropass sales were down 7 per cent between January and September of this year compared to the same period in 2017.
And yet, according to Wright, fare revenue has remained stable and vehicles appear as full as ever. That would suggest Metropass users weren’t actually taking the high number of trips per month the TTC was attributing to them.
“As we like to say, you still need to take your backpack off on the bus or subway because it’s just as busy a vehicle as it was a year ago,” Wright said.
“What I’m left with is there’s been no fundamental change in our ridership across the system, it’s just that we were slightly higher in our count” due in part to overestimating Metropass trips.
Overly optimistic Metropass estimates may not fully explain the TTC’s dropping ridership figures. Ridership started to flatline in 2015, before Presto was widely available across the TTC network.
But the TTC expects its figures will be much more accurate, and be significantly lower, once the Metropass is fully eliminated and nearly all customers use Presto.
“The transition from current ridership calculation methodologies to a Presto-based methodology will likely result in lower ridership totals than have previously been reported,” said a report that went to the TTC board in June.
It warned there may be a need to “re-baseline” TTC ridership from previous years, although Wright said the agency probably doesn’t have good enough data to retroactively adjust past counts.
Transit expert and blogger Steve Munro said the apparent inaccuracies in the Metropass estimates highlight the need for the TTC to collect more reliable passenger information.
“Ridership may well be steady. It may even be growing,” said Munro.
“The problem is, that they don’t have a way to count it.”
While Presto should enable more accurate numbers, Munro pointed out that users may not always tap the fare cards every time they ride, particularly if the vehicle is crowded or the Presto machine is malfunctioning.
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of transit advocacy group TTCriders, said the fact that passengers may not actually be deserting the transit system in high numbers shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the city not to improve service and attract more riders.
“Even if ridership isn’t going down as much as they had previously calculated, we need to be investing in service, because the service is inadequate. The TTC is not meeting its own crowding standards,” she said.
She argued the increased ridership generated by the King St. streetcar pilot is proof “that there is suppressed demand for transit” and “more people will choose to take transit if it is reliable, fast, and affordable.”
A brief history of the Metropass
- April 1978: TTC tests a monthly pass product, and finds the 107 customers who bought a pass increased their transit use by up to 20 per cent.
- April 7, 1980: The first Metropass goes on sale. At a price of $26, users must take more than 52 rides to make the pass worth it, which one Star letter writer describes as a “paltry offering” from the transit commission.
- May 1, 1980: A 17-year-old University of Toronto student named Tim Moseley becomes the first person to use a Metropass, according to the Toronto Sun, entering the subway with it at midnight.
- Oct. 29, 1980: Moseley is awarded a year’s worth of Metropasses when he wins a contest by taking 212 trips on the TTC in a single day. “It was no fun,” he told the Star.
- January 1984: The first Metropass for seniors goes on sale, at a price of $24.
- 1990: The TTC replaces the paper Metropass with a plastic version
- November 1991: The first student Metropass goes on sale, for $42.50. It is later merged with the senior’s pass in 2005.
- 2005: The TTC makes the Metropass transferable, allowing riders to share it with another user.
- September 2010: The first post-secondary Metropass goes on sale, for $99.
- 2016: Thinking it would be the final year of the Metropass, the TTC issues commemorative passes that form an image when the entire 12-card set is assembled. Delays to Presto push would mean the Metropass lasts another two years.
- Dec. 31, 2018: After more than 78 million sold, the TTC will end use of the Metropass.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr