Ontario Transit

Why Durham Region is going the microtransit route during the pandemic – and what it means for other transit systems

Durham Region Transit and GO Transit buses meeting at Durham College/Ontario Tech University

Previously on this site, I expressed my skepticism about Durham Region’s commitment to improving transit service. But in the five years since, the region east of Toronto has done exactly that by creating a route grid along major corridors, fusing together a network from four separate municipal systems.

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has seen transit ridership plummet across the province, followed by service cuts to match the reduced demand, Durham is doing two interesting things: firstly, it is adding additional service on its main corridors, and it is replacing twenty-five low ridership routes with on-demand transit.

In my latest article for, I take a closer look at Durham Region Transit’s response to shifting ridership during a pandemic and the benefits and pitfalls of microtransit as a potential solution.

Ontario Toronto Transit

A sudden drop in transit usage across the Toronto Region

IMG_6299-001Last week, I wrote about how several TTC routes were facing overcrowding, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and a severe drop in system-wide ridership since early March. I shared this analysis on Spacing’s website, and Ben Spurr at the Toronto Star reported more about the story this week.

Though detailed ridership data is not freely accessible, I wanted to see how ridership on the TTC, GO Transit, and other Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit agencies was faring. Helpfully, the team behind the Transit app, a trip-planning smartphone tool, made their usage data available to transit agencies, journalists, and data nerds to track transit demand during the pandemic. Although there are some limitations to using this data (more on that later), it’s an excellent metric for tracking transit ridership for dozens of major transit authorities across Canada and the United States, representing nearly every major metropolitan region.

The numbers used to determine transit ridership demand is based on usage of the Transit app. (While Transit is one of several apps that can be used to plan trips, including Metrolinx’s own Triplinx app, Transit is my favourite). Normal usage is defined by Transit as app sessions observed on the same day of the week one year ago, averaged over three weeks and corrected for yearly growth in the corresponding transit agency. Hence, a rapidly-growing system, such as Brampton’s, can be represented accurately by the app.

Data was available for every transit agency in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, apart from paratransit services (e.g. Wheel-Trans, Transhelp, DARTS, etc.) and Milton and Caledon Transit, the smallest fixed-route services. The graph below shows the how the usage of the Transit app fluctuated based upon the expected value, reflected as a percentage.

GTHA Transit app usage from Feb 15 2020
Transit app usage compared to expected for GTHA transit agencies, February 15 to April 6, 2020 (click for larger image)

Note how the actual Transit app usage dropped by over 40% for every transit agency on Monday, February 17, which was Family Day, a provincial holiday in Ontario. Most transit services were operating on a weekend or holiday service, while students and many workers did not take transit. This was likely compared with normal Mondays, hence the one-day drop.

It wasn’t until the second week of March that ridership began to decline as the number of COVID-19 cases began to surge in Canada and the United States, and governments began announcing new measures to reduce the rate of infection. On Thursday March 12, Ontario announced that public schools, scheduled to close for March Break, would stay closed for two additional weeks (the shutdown has since been extended). That day, the National Basketball League suspended the season, followed quickly by all other sports leagues. Employers began to implement contingency measures, such as work-from-home arrangements. By Monday the 16th, all restaurants were closed to sit-down clientele, and most entertainment venues closed.

By the week of March 29, transit demand was down by 75 to 82 percent across the Greater Toronto Area. Although many workers were either laid off or were sent home to work, employees in the healthcare, personal care, logistics, essential retail service (i.e. grocery workers), and food manufacturing industries remained on the job. This is evident in the difference between the demand for the subway (-81%) and the surface network (buses and streetcars, -76%) as they serve very different employment centres. Transit’s numbers are comparable to the TTC’s own ridership estimates.

Map depicting estimated drops in transit demand for GTHA transit agencies compared to expected use for week of March 29 to April 5, 2020. Data from Transit app.

Brampton Transit had the lowest estimated reduction in demand, at -75%. This could be for the same reasons that several bus routes in Toronto saw crowding despite a system-wide drop in ridership. Brampton’s population is relatively lower-income than many other suburban municipalities in Halton, Peel, and York Regions. Brampton also has many large food processing employers, such as Maple Lodge Farms, and many warehouses and distribution centres, including two major Amazon Fulfillment Centres. Brampton Transit connects to other major manufacturing and logistics employment areas in Mississauga, Vaughan and Toronto, including Pearson Airport.

Oakville Transit had the greatest drop, which can be explained by two factors. The first is that Oakville, is a relatively more affluent municipality, with fewer logistics and food industry employers. Secondly, its bus network is designed entirely to connect with GO Transit’s Lakeshore Line, which feeds Downtown Toronto. Therefore, the ridership dependent on Oakville Transit is more likely to be working from home than Brampton’s.

It must be noted that Transit’s figures are not the same as detailed ridership numbers collected by each transit agency. For example, Metrolinx cited a 90% drop in ridership across the GO Transit train and bus network, compared to Transit’s 79% estimate drop. Nonetheless, Transit’s data is a valuable metric.

With the sudden drop in ridership, there’s also a sudden drop in revenue. While many systems, including Brampton Transit and GO Transit have made service reductions, they have been careful to ensure enough capacity remains to safely meet demand. Every system has also increased vehicle and station cleaning, and most have stopped collecting fares to protect both passengers and operators. Just like laid-off employees, students, and freelance workers, transit too will need a bailout of some kind to rebuild lost ridership and maintain safe and healthy services.

Transit projects such as the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, the new relief transit service for central Toronto (be it the Relief Line or Ontario Line), and GO Transit expansion must go on, as does the progress made in building ridership at suburban systems such as Brampton and Durham Region.

Toronto Transit

On transit ridership in the GTHA

Earlier this week, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) released its agenda for the next board meeting, to be held on March 23. Among the items to be discussed are updates on the delayed Line 1 subway extension to York University and Vaughan, plans for the Line 2 subway extension to Scarborough Centre, the new MiWay/GO Transit terminal at Kipling Station, the planned new 514 Cherry streetcar line and other Waterfront bus improvements, and a ridership update.

As always, Steve Munro is on top of it all, and I encourage you to read his post.

I wanted to make a few observations about ridership, especially in Toronto’s suburbs. Growth in the TTC’s ridership has slowed down in the last three years, from a 2.1% annual increase in 2013, to a much more modest 0.5% increase in 2015.

Ridership figures are not detailed enough to know at what times of the day ridership is changing, nor on what routes. But ridership growth has fallen (or even declined) for other major Canadian transit systems, including Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa. There are many causes for changes to ridership — population and employment growth or decline, fare increases, service improvements or cuts, even the cost of gas, which has been declining in the last two years. Much of the employment growth within the City of Toronto has been in the downtown core, but so has the population growth due to new residential highrises. (I’m one of thousands who live and work in or near the downtown core — my TTC use is now mostly during the evenings and weekends as I mostly walk to work).

Hopefully, the Commission and the city don’t use this short-term trend as  an excuse to hold back on needed service improvements or projects such as the Relief Line — for one thing, many buses, streetcars and subway trains are already overcapacity, and it is impossible to know whether slower ridership increases represent a long-term trend, or a short-term blip.

There was one table in the TTC ridership update that caught my attention. The table, on page 5, shows the ridership for every Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit system (though excluding Milton Transit). I reproduced that table below.


GTHA transit agency annual growth rates, 2013 to 2015. Adapted from TTC 2016 Ridership Update, page 5.

While the TTC’s ridership growth has slowed, ridership in many suburban municipalities have either flatlined or declined. Only Mississauga and Brampton show consistent, positive growth over the last three years. MiWay, previously known as Mississauga Transit, hasn’t expanded transit operations that much in the last few years, but that city continues to enjoy modest employment growth and improved connections to the airport, Brampton Transit and the TTC. It is currently building a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line, the Mississauga Transitway (more on that in a later post), and city council is backing the Hurontario LRT line, which would largely replace bus service on its busiest corridor.

Brampton’s growth has been, by far, the most impressive. That suburban municipality is growing thanks mostly due to new sprawling subdivisions, but since in the last decade, Brampton Transit has been introducing annual system improvements, including the Zum “BRT-lite” network of limited-stop bus routes. Brampton’s ridership is now almost that of the Hamilton Street Railway (HSR). Unlike Hamilton, Brampton doesn’t have two major post-secondary educational institutions, nor a dense urban core, though it serves Humber College, York University, and two secondary Sheridan College campuses in Brampton and Misssissauga.

In Hamilton, ridership dropped by 1.8% in 2015. Most ridership in Hamilton is concentrated in the lower city, as well as a few trip generators in the suburbs, including Mohawk Collage on the Mountain, and Lime Ridge Mall. Many parts of the lower city have been hit hard by job losses in that city’s major industries, though new subdivisions (and, to a lesser extent, downtown gentrificaton) have contributed to modest population growth. Hamilton is going ahead with a provincially-funded east-west light rail line that will connect McMaster University, Downtown Hamilton, and the east end.

Elsewhere, transit ridership growth has been quite disappointing. Burlington Transit saw a drastic 13.3% decline over the last three years, Durham Region, which I recently visited, saw a major decrease in 2015. However, there is lots of promise in its five-year service strategies, which will improve and simplify the agency’s route structure and provide enhanced service.

2015 Ridership
2015 ridership for GTHA transit agencies (Milton excluded). The TTC, with narly 75% of the region’s ridership total, dominates. GO Transit holds another 9%. 

York Region Transit, serving a population of 1.2 million, has only 1 million annual riders more than Brampton, whose population is nearly half of York’s. And despite adding new subdivisions (and a few new residential towers), ridership declined in the last two years. As illustrated in the table below, YRT’s ridership per capita is less than half of Hamilton’s or Mississauga’s.

YRT Ridership StatsComparing York Region Transit to other Canadian transit systems, 2013. From the VRT/Viva 5 year service plan, page 7. 

It’s interesting that despite poor transit ridership (amid York Region Council-mandated service cuts and steep fare hikes) York Region, with senior government assistance, is spending $1.4 billion on dedicated median busways on Highway 7, Yonge Street and Davis Drive. York Region will get the Spadina subway extension in 2017, and it pines for an extension of the over-burdened Yonge Subway to Richmond Hill Centre.

In York Region, there’s a troubling disconnect between spending money on capital projects and funding the services that will use the shiny new infrastructure, or feed ridership to it. Brampton has proven that growing service, not necessarily fancy infrastructure, will grow ridership. That said, it remains disappointing that the suburban municipality with the best record for ridership growth in the Toronto region rejected a funded light rail transit line to its downtown core.

Cycling Transit

Dispatches from Durham Region, and Kingston Road tokenism

Two weeks ago, I was out exploring Durham Region, the eastern end of the Greater Toronto Area. While south Durham Region is mostly made up of generic suburban sprawl, there are some interesting historic villages and new urbanist neighbourhoods. North of Highway 7, Durham Region is still mostly rural, though plans for a new airport in North Pickering may change that.

Sadly, Durham Region remains auto-centric in its outlook, even more so than other suburbs to the north and west of Toronto. The provincial government is constructing an eastern extension of Highway 407, with two new connecting highways to Highway 401 either nearly complete, or proposed. Oshawa, the largest city in Durham, is the birthplace of General Motors Canada, but while the auto industry declines, the city has been continuing to make many civic planning mistakes. And in Ajax, a small symbol of change – new bus and bicycle lanes – is still merely a token effort.