Toronto Transit

The upshot of the new, lower UP Express fares


Earlier this month, I commented on the poor ridership numbers of UP Express, Metrolinx’s airport rail link between Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Union Station. I suggested that despite the embarrassing ridership figures, UP Express (UPX) was no white elephant. I argued that instead, the rail service could be a useful transit link for residents of North Etobicoke, Weston, Mount Dennis, and West Toronto.

Later today, Metrolinx’s Board of Directors is expected to approve a major fare reduction for UPX slashing fares by over 50 percent. The Globe and Mail broke the story yesterday; today the Toronto Star has more details.

The one-way cash fare between Union Station and Pearson Airport will drop from $27.50 to $12.00; the fare charged to Presto cards will drop from $19.00 to $9.00. Fares between Union Station, Bloor and Weston will drop to the equivalent GO fares. (The 2016 GO Transit fare from Bloor to Union Station is $5.30, or $4.71 with Presto; from Weston, it is $5.65, or $5.02 with Presto).

The UPX fare between Union Station and Pearson will still be priced at a premium compared to the equivalent GO Transit fare — the cash fare from Union to Malton Station is $7.70, or $6.84 with a Presto card.

Interestingly, before UPX was launched, Metrolinx conducted studies on potential ridership and fares. One study, by Steer Davies Gleave, that some UPX trains might even at capacity by August. You can read Metrolinx’s market research and ridership studies (with some details redacted) here. Obviously, there weren’t enough well-heeled business travellers willing to ride UPX for $27 each, or even enough local residents willing to pay $19 with their Presto card.

This change in pricing makes UPX much more attractive for commuters in the Junction/Junction Triangle neighbourhood, as well as those living in Weston. The lower fares should help increase ridership between Pearson Airport and Union Station as well. It’s a good start, but it isn’t enough.

Last year, I commented on GO Transit’s “fare by distance” structure, which charges disproportionately high fares for short distances, and very inexpensive fares for long commutes.  While GO offers co-fares to suburban transit agencies, it offers no such fare integration with the TTC. GO Transit offers free parking at suburban rail stations, burying the cost of building and maintaining its parking lots into the fares of every passenger, whether they need parking or not.

The charts below show the single ride and Presto fares, per distance travelled in 2016, with the new UPX fares. Per distance travelled, a GO Transit fare to Union Station to Exhibition, Bloor, and Danforth is more expensive than going from Toronto to Pearson Airport via UP Express.
2016CashFares 2016PrestoFares

Metrolinx is in the midst of developing a new fare integration strategy, so hopefully these concerns will be addressed. Once the TTC completely rolls out Presto at all subway stations and on all buses, it will be technically simple to adopt a GO-TTC co-fare, and UPX should be part of this as well. There are tens of thousands of jobs at the airport and in the surrounding offices and industrial parks. With proper fare integration with TTC, Miway and Brampton Transit (all of which serve Terminal 1), UPX could become much more useful to many more commuters.

Lowering UP Express fares is a good start, a welcome acknowledgement that the rosy forecasts of business travellers crowding the airport trains were never reached. But lowering fares isn’t enough: with proper fare integration, UP Express can offer far more utility than simply being an airport rail link.


Down is the new UP: Thoughts on dismal UP Express ridership


At February 10th’s Metrolinx board meeting, there was an update on the Union Pearson (UP) Express ridership. The news isn’t good, as ridership dropped in the last few months, instead of growing according to Metrolinx’s rosy projections.

UP Express launched on Saturday, June 6, 2015, a month prior to the 2015 PanAm/ParapanAm Games. I was one of thousands to ride the train on that inaugural day; thousands of free tickets were given to the public. Nearly 7,000 rides were taken that Saturday, a number that has yet to be surpassed. Metrolinx estimated that UP Express would start off with an average of 3,000 daily riders, and within a year, there would be 5,000 daily riders. While the base one-way fare for UP Express is $27.50, the fare for Presto cardholders is $19.00.

The line chart below shows the projected ridership (increasing weekly towards 5,000 riders by June 2016) and the actual daily ridership. As one can see, the ridership varies by the day of the week, mirroring trends in air passenger traffic. Fridays are generally the busiest day of the week for UP Express, while Saturdays are the quietest.


After the June 6 launch, the busiest day for UP Express were Sunday, June 16, which coincided with the Honda Indy at Exhibition Place, when 5,673 passengers used the train. There were peaks on Friday, June 19 (3,628 customers), Thursday June 25 (3,077 customers), and on Friday, July 10, when 3,424 riders took UP Express, the day of the opening ceremonies for the Toronto 2015 PanAm Games.

But ridership plateaued after October, which had the highest monthly ridership recorded, at 79,010, which works out to a daily average of 2,548 passengers. The last peak was on Friday, October 19, the day before the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Nearly 5,000 passengers rode UP Express. Ridership dropped in November and December, a busy travelling season. The daily average ridership dropped to 2,169 in December, a new low, and never was above 3,000 after Friday, October 23. Ridership bottomed out on Christmas Day, when a mere 1,086 rode the train.

MonthlyUPXMetrolinx should be embarrassed by these extremely low ridership figures. UP Express is a semi-autonomous operating division of the provincial transportation agency with its own President, Kathy M. Haley. The agency spent $4.5 million on a contract for branding with Winkreativewhich included special uniforms and even an “in-flight” magazine. The TTC’s 192 Airport Rocket, which has its own dedicated bus fleet, carries 4,700 passengers on an average weekday. The TTC doesn’t have a special operating division or President for that route, even though it carries nearly twice the number of passengers.

For comparison, in 2014 — the last year for which detailed ridership data is available — only twenty-five regular TTC bus routes had a daily weekday ridership that was lower than the UP Express for the months of November and December. The 48 Rathburn Road bus route, a minor feeder route in Etobicoke, carries approximately the same number of people as the airport rail link.

GO Transit’s Richmond Hill corridor — the lowest ridership of GO’s seven rail lines, with only 11 trains daily — had a daily ridership of 10,587 according to GO Transit’s Spring 2015 cordon counts, an average of nearly 1,000 riders per train. UP Express, with 156 trains a day averages just over 15 passengers per train.

The narrative in the local media is that UP Express fares are too high; that ridership will improve if the fares are lowered. Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig claims that “a lack of awareness” is the cause for the low ridership. Given the media hype surrounding the launch, and the improved wayfinding signage at Union Station and Pearson Airport, I don’t think that awareness is the problem.

I also don’t think that lowering UP Express fares, without looking at fare and service integration, is going to be a magic bullet either. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement that Presto fares were going to be $19 for Presto cardholders, which was slightly less expensive than I expected. Travelling alone, it’s a bargain compared to riding a taxi or limo, especially if your origin or destination is in Toronto’s financial district. . (Connections at Bloor Station and in Weston are less useful.) I live about 15 minutes away from Union Station by foot, and I’ve taken advantage of UP Express. The cars are comfortable, the wi-fi is a nice perk, and the service is fast, friendly, and reliable.

Happily, UP Express isn’t a white elephant. Most of the sunk costs — $456-million — are salvageable, and a rail link to Pearson remains an excellent idea.

I think the answer is making UP Express more of a transit link, useful for residents of North Etobicoke, Weston, Mount Dennis, and West Toronto. The service would be more like Vancouver’s Canada Line; a part of the local transit network, but with a premium on single-ride fares from the airport to recover costs. Metrolinx could start by integrating UP Express with its GO Transit operating division, phasing out the ridiculous branding and separate bureaucracy.

UP Express could even be part of a re-routed “SmartTrack” corridor, where it would make a few additional stop. But most importantly, it would become part of Toronto’s transit system, rather than a boutique airport shuttle service. The rail infrastructure improvements built for UP Express go a long way towards improving GO train service to Bramalea and points west. Hopefully, we get a revised airport rail link somewhat similar to that of Philadelphia, with fares integrated with the TTC and GO Transit. It’s also worth noting that Pearson Airport offers transit connections to GO Transit buses to Richmond Hill and Hamilton, as well as express and local Mississauga and Brampton Transit routes. There’s a need to recognize Pearson Airport’s role as a regional transit hub, not just a hub for Air Canada and WestJet.

But the UP Express fiasco raises other questions. How can we expect Metrolinx to come up with a credible fare integration strategy when it can’t even get GO Transit fares right, never mind the UP Express? Yes, there are many fine people working at Metrolinx, but the UP Express hurts the organization’s credibility.

All that said, I still sometimes feel optimistic about Toronto’s transit progress in recent years. The UP Express, while suffering from poor ridership, is still useful. The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT is underway, and might be extended in both the east and west. The [Downtown] Relief Line subway plan is still a viable project. And despite John Tory’s budget cuts, TTC bus service has been expanded in 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, UP Express will be offering free fares this Family Day weekend. It will be interesting to know whether this promotion will increase ridership on the weekend or not.

Thanks to Steve Munro for providing me with a copy of Metrolinx’s ridership numbers for UP Express.


Brampton Transit Urban Planning

The terminus of the Hurontario LRT: an opportunity for something better

Downtown Brampton, the logical terminus of the Hurontario-Main LRT

I’ve written several times about the Hurontario-Main light rail transit (LRT) project on this blog. Last summer, I led a walk along Main Street, discussing Downtown Brampton’s wonderful built heritage, the potential for Main Street, and explaining why alternative routes, proposed by councillors and private interests, weren’t feasible. Floodplains aren’t great places to build higher-order transit lines.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed that Brampton City Council voted 6-5 last October against building the LRT between Steeles Avenue and Downtown Brampton. A vocal and wealthy minority, including a former premier of Ontario, opposed the project; it didn’t help that Mayor Linda Jeffrey found herself in constant opposition with several city councillors who backed other candidates for mayor in the 2014 municipal election. A Toronto Star reporter, assigned to the western GTA beat, wasn’t reporting fairly on this issue either.

Since that unfortunate vote, I resigned myself to a truncated Hurontario-Main LRT corridor that will still serve three or four stops in Brampton, but will stop short of its logical terminus.

I recently made a trip out to the intersection of Steeles Avenue and Main and Hurontario Streets, the new northern terminus of the planned LRT. Construction of the 20-kilometre line, between Port Credit and Steeles Avenue, is scheduled to begin in 2018.

The Hurontario-Main LRT, after Brampton City Council’s vote in October 2015. 

The corner of Steeles Avenue and Main Street is already a major transit hub. Eleven Brampton Transit bus routes (including two Züm routes), a Miway express bus, and GO Transit buses serve the corner; the Brampton Gateway Terminal is the city’s second-busiest transfer point. The new Gateway Terminal, which opened in 2014, was built to accommodate ridership growth and facilitate transfers with the proposed LRT, which will stop in the median of Main Street.

As far as Toronto’s suburbs go, this corner of Brampton is relatively dense. There are several rental towers within a short walking distance; there are also three nearby townhouse complexes. Shoppers World, on the northeast corner, is a large regional shopping centre, albeit a mall that has fallen on hard times. On the southwest corner, there is still an old farmfield, surrounded by subdivisions, apartment towers and retail. There are many opportunities for transit-oriented development.

IMG_8803-001A fallow farm field, south of Shoppers World. The area is zoned for medium and high density housing developments, including townhouses and apartment buildings. 

If Downtown Brampton, Brampton’s busiest bus route (501 Queen) and a GO Transit and VIA Rail station weren’t just 3 kilometres away, this would actually be an ideal terminus for a suburban light rail transit line.

IMG_8776-001The corner of Steeles and Hurontario/Main, looking northwest. The Brampton Gateway Terminal is on the opposite corner.

One of the greatest opportunities for new transit-oriented development is Shoppers World Brampton. First opened in 1969 by Peel Elder Limited (who also developed Shoppers World Danforth), the mall went through several additions over the years; by the 1980s, it boasted over 200 stores, including a Simpson’s, K-Mart, Pascal Hardware, cinemas, and two supermarkets. At one time, Shoppers World even had indoor waterslides. By 2000, Simpsons became The Bay, and K-Mart became Zellers.

Growing up only a 15-minute walk away, Shoppers World was my local mall. Pizza Hut was a favourite place to meet up with friends, I fondly remember the free popcorn at Jumbo Video, and the bus terminal made it easy to get to better malls, particularly Square One. My first paying gig was returning abandoned shopping carts to K-Mart for $5 each.

By the 1990s, the mall’s owners neglected the property, while Bramalea City Centre and Square One renovated and expanded. There were persistent rumours that the mall would be closed and re-developed with highrise towers.

IMG_8782-001A mostly empty Shoppers World parking lot on a Saturday afternoon.

RioCan REIT took over Shoppers World Brampton in 2000, renovated the property, and added new big-box retailers such as Canadian Tire. But The Bay closed in 2007, and Target, which took over Zellers’ lease, shut down last year. The final indignity came when the shuttered Bay store was torn down and replaced by Lastman’s Bad Boy.

Shoppers World isn’t yet a dead mall – while many national chains left in the last two decades, small businesses have moved in. However, there are still plenty of vacancies, especially in the north end of the mall, near where The Bay used to be. The new Bad Boy and Beer Store are accessed only from outside the mall, making it harder to draw customers in.

IMG_2887-001The former mall entrance to Target, showing the floor tiles installed in the 2000-2002 renovations.

The answer, I think, is to partially redevelop Shoppers World into a mixed-use, transit-oriented development, retaining a majority of the retail space, but including new residential, office and community uses. Shops at Don Mills, at Don Mills Road and Lawrence Avenue in Toronto, isn’t a bad model to follow, but better residential integration and a proper link with the transit hub would be necessary. Humbertown, a smaller, but controversial development proposed for Etobicoke, has the right mix of retail and residential intensification.

One day, I believe a new Brampton City Council will come to its senses and get the LRT extended to Downtown Brampton as proposed. This is what happened in Mesa, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb that originally opposed a light rail corridor from Downtown Phoenix, Tempe, and Arizona State University, to its downtown. After the first phase of the Valley Metro LRT opened in December 2008, political opposition to a light rail extension along Main Street faded. The LRT through Downtown Mesa opened to great fanfare in August, 2015.

But until that time comes, there are some opportunities to capitalize on the approved plan. Steeles Avenue isn’t the ideal place to end the Hurontario LRT, but it’s a good place to start planning something better.

Maps Toronto Transit

A new, improved TTC system map

Last week, the Toronto Transit Commission quietly introduced a new system map on its website. The map, a 3.8 MB PDF file, can be directly accessed here.

This new system map, which includes all scheduled routes including the limited-service community buses and the Blue Night network, is very different than previous editions of the TTC’s “Ride Guide,” but I think it is the best edition yet. That said, there are a few tweaks that I would like to see.

Below is a screenshot of the new 2016 map, showing York University, Downsview Station, and North York Centre.


Unlike previous editions, the new Ride Guide is not to scale; subtle curves and bends in the road network are dispensed with in favour of a diagrammatic style, which shows transfer points very well. (It reminds me of the Los Angeles Metro system map.) Like the 2012 edition, shown below, only the streets served by surface routes are illustrated, but landmarks (such as hospitals, post-secondary education institutions, and major parks) are given more prominence than in previous maps. GO Transit rail lines are more prominent (with the same colours used on GO Transit maps and schedules), and there’s an effort to show connections with other transit systems, such as GO buses, and suburban agencies such as York Region Transit, Miway, and Brampton Transit.

Screenshot of the 2014-2015 edition of the TTC Ride Guide, showing the same area as the 2016 map.

From 1994 to 2012, the TTC’s official system map included the routes of adjoining transit systems (see screenshot below). Note the YRT, GO Transit and Brampton Transit Züm routes converging on a very crowded York University. Depicting the connecting networks was certainly useful, but it added to a very cluttered map (which included the entire street network); it also relied on every other agency to provide timely updates. Removing the other transit agencies’ bus routes in 2014 allowed the TTC design team and cartographers to concentrate on their own system.

In 2014, the system map was stripped of almost all features apart from the TTC’s own routes, a decision I criticized in a previous post. All landmarks were removed, as were all connections, apart from faint lines showing GO Transit rail corridors. It was easier to read, but went too far in removing important and use information. But it had a few improvements, such as highlighting the “frequent service network” – surface routes that operated every ten minutes or better at most times of the day. Express bus routes were better depicted.

The 2016 edition restores these features lost in 2014. In a few places, the logos of the suburban transit agencies are once again shown, such as York University (where Brampton Transit, GO Transit and York Region Transit connect) and Pearson Airport (where Brampton, Miway and GO also operate). The contact information for the five neighboring systems is also included on the map. The addition of the frequent service category remains.

TTCNov2012November 2012 Ride Guide

Overall, I think the new map looks great. Surface routes are clearer, GO Transit rail lines are more prominent, and more points of interest are shown. Not only does downtown Toronto get a new inset, so does a complex section in north Scarborough, where the 102 Markham Road, the 53 Steeles East, and the 42A Cummer routes converge. The TTC design team has done a fine job.

But I did find a few things about the new 2016 edition that I would like to see improved:

  • Hospitals are labelled inconsistently. Humber River, Sunnybrook, and Scarborough Centenary are, but North York General, Etobicoke General, Scarborough General, St. Joseph’s, East Toronto General, and the downtown hospitals are not.
  • Some suburban connections are shown, most are not. Pearson Airport shows GO, Brampton, and Miway logos, and York U shows GO, Zum, and YRT logos, but they are missing from Humber College, a major terminal for Brampton Transit (511, 11, 50) and Miway (22, 107), it’s a terminus for a YRT route as well. Rouge Hill GO shows a DRT logo, even though this is a very limited service, but there isn’t one for Miway at Long Branch, where two major routes, 5 and 23, terminate.
  • I’m not sure I like how branches are labeled now; I miss the use of the “+” that denoted a section of a route on which all branches operated on.

Hopefully, we will see these relatively minor issues corrected in the next edition of the Ride Guide, which will likely be issued later in 2016.

If you’re interested in the history of TTC maps, Transit Toronto has a fine archive of old system and subway maps dating back to the 1930s. It’s worth a look.