Amid taped-off seats on trains and reduced service operation, the TTC is facing a 70 per cent loss of ridership as the city adapts to COVID-19 — translating to a 49 per cent loss of funding.

In order to preserve the service levels necessary for students to commute as universities reopen this fall, a coalition of student unions is calling for emergency funding to the TTC. 

TTC ridership, revenue under COVID-19

On April 23, TTC Chief Executive Officer Richard Leary announced reduced service and staff layoffs, and cancelled seasonal hiring as “cost-saving measures.” The TTC temporarily laid off 450 employees as part of that plan on May 24.

The TTC has since operated at 80 per cent of its usual service levels to accommodate current ridership levels, allowing commuters space to physically distance.

However, according to a June 17 report by Leary, the agency expects revenue from ridership to return to “30-60 percent of normal levels” due to school openings and rollbacks of work-from-home initiatives.

According to CBC News, an increase to just 30 per cent of ridership will require the TTC to restore 100 per cent of typical service for adequate physical distancing.

Higher ridership levels in the fall pose challenges to physical distancing on the TTC and may result in limiting passengers per vehicle. According to a survey in Leary’s report, 91 per cent of respondents strongly support or somewhat support “enforcing strict passenger limits.”

Many U of T students have no alternatives to using TTC

Though the TTC is not yet mandating this measure, more than half of U of T students will likely be affected by these changes, according to Steven Farber, an associate professor at UTSC who studies transportation geography.

Referring to the StudentMoveTO initiative — a research project studying postsecondary commuting across several universities including U of T — Farber noted that most students across all three campuses rely on public transit.

According to the project’s 2015 study of 15,266 postsecondary students in Toronto, 51 per cent of UTSG students, 64 per cent of UTSC students, and 66 per cent of UTM students rely on public transit for their commute. Farber said that he expects the statistics to remain similar today.

Farber said that around one third of UTSG students may have no other option than to take public transit if they enrol in courses with an in-person component. He noted that the figures are likely higher for UTSC and UTM students due to less walking or biking options.

U of T students who take public transit may face a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission than those who travel to campus via walking or bicycling. Dr. Vinita Dubey, Associate Medical Officer of Health at Toronto Public Health, wrote to The Varsity, “We know the risk of spreading COVID-19 is greater indoors as there is less air flow and ventilation, more crowding, and a greater chance of touching surfaces that have been contaminated by respiratory droplets.”

Dubey advised such commuters to wear a face covering or cloth mask; avoid commuting during peak hours when possible; “use [their] elbow/arm to push buttons/open doors”; keep two metres away from others when possible; “throw [their] garbage in a bin”; “wash or sanitize [their] hands often”; and “avoid touching [their] face.”

Student unions call for emergency funding

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) — along with eight other students’ unions that are part of the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities (UCRU) student union collective — has called on the provincial and federal governments to grant additional funding to the TTC.

On July 8, the UCRU released a press release calling for “the federal government to collaborate with provincial governments to financially support transit systems in order to maintain critical service levels.”

UCRU Chair Mackenzy Metcalfe said to The Varsity that the public transit system in London, Ontario is also facing funding problems due to reduced ridership. “Seeing these concerns pop up with transit systems across the country really sparked our interest because they’re just so integral to students,” Metcalfe said.

In the early 1990s, TTC ridership decreased due to a recession, so the City of Toronto responded by cutting service and increasing fares, The Toronto Star reported.

However, as Councillor Gord Perks said to The Star, the response caused even more negative effects that suppressed ridership, resulting in further service cuts. Shelagh Pizey-Allen, Director of the TTCriders advocacy group, also said to The Star that the TTC should avoid fare increases and service cuts despite funding losses.

Tyler Riches, Vice-President Public & University Affairs of the UTSU, further underscored the importance of affordable fares in an email to The Varsity.

“U of T is a very commuter-centric school: many of our students commute from across the [Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA)] to attend classes here, so reliable public transit in the GTHA and Toronto specifically is an important student issue,” Riches wrote.

Specifics of government intervention remain to be announced

The TTC relies much more on fares for revenue than government funding, unlike most other transit systems in North America. “For every hundred dollars that is spent to run the TTC, the TTC is getting [about] $70 from fares and $30 from [subsidies by] the City of Toronto,” Farber said in an interview with The Varsity. A May 13 TTC report pinned the recovery ratio to 67 per cent.

“The TTC is severely underfunded by our government,” Farber said. “Because of that, we are in this very precarious situation. We’re also suffering from massive degradations in service quality… The answer is very clearly that it would be appropriate for higher levels of government to fund [a] more significant part of the TTC budget than they currently do.”

As Toronto reopens, “[ridership] numbers are starting to come back a little bit now, which is the good news,” TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said in an interview with The Varsity. “But there’s still a significant shortfall that we’re looking at for the balance of the year — probably in the range of [$500] to $600 million.”

Lawvin Hadisi, Press Secretary of the City of Toronto’s Office of the Mayor, similarly wrote to The Varsity that the TTC has “seen a slight increase in ridership and revenue” due to the gradual reopening of Toronto.

“However, this does not hide the fact that the City continues to experience large financial impacts from the pandemic mainly due to the loss of revenue from the TTC,” Hadisi wrote. She wrote that Mayor John Tory has “advocated relentlessly to both the federal and provincial governments for proper funding for cities impacted by the pandemic, including for the transit system.”

On July 23, Catherine McKenna, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities of the Government of Canada, announced “$1 billion in federal transit funding” as part of the federal government’s $19 billion Safe Restart Agreement. Hadisi noted that the “Safe Restart Agreement will play a big role in Toronto’s financial recovery from the pandemic and will ensure that [the City] can continue to provide vital supports and services like the TTC,” but she also noted that the “specific allocation for transit” is yet to be released.

Reflecting on the importance of transit funding, Farber said, “Cities are the lifeblood of Canada’s economy… Toronto is the lifeblood of Ontario’s economy, and the functioning of Toronto depends on a robust public transit network — and we are decades behind where we need to be.”


Editor’s Note (August 4, 12:48 pm): A previous version of the article noted that 15 students’ unions are part of the UCRU, but this has been corrected to reflect that the UCRU only represents nine students’ unions out of the U15 universities.