“Money for subways” is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s stated top priority at a day-long gathering of 22 mayors across Canada in Ottawa today. It’s the first time Ford has attended the conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities since he was elected in October 2010. In the past he’s called it a waste of taxpayer’s money. But while most of the focus on the event has centred on whether Ford, who was stripped of most of his mayoral duties following his admission of using crack cocaine, will be a distraction, the underlying goal of the meeting remains vital to the future of Canada’s cities—how can they prioritize access to the $14 billion the federal government has committed to spend on infrastructure over the next decade.
High on the agenda is increased funding for transit, whether it’s Ford seeking money for more subways, or Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi looking for funding for a new LRT line.
Statistics Canada recently released data on urban transit ridership and revenues for the full year of 2013, and when looking back over the past decade a clear picture emerges: More people in cities are turning to transit to get around, but at the same time, it’s costing them a lot more to do so.
As the chart shows, transit ridership rose steadily between 2003 and 2013, but that wasn’t only because of population growth. The green dotted line shows where ridership would have been had it grown at the same pace as Canada’s biggest cities. (StatsCan doesn’t say which specific transit systems it draws its data from, only that they are 10 of the largest in the country representing 80 per cent of total urban transit traffic. For the purposes of this chart, we derived the annual rate of growth using population figures for Canada’s 10 largest census mentropolitan areas.)
Yet while ridership is on the rise, passengers are increasingly feeling it in their wallets. Revenues for transit systems (excluding subsidies) have skyrocketed by comparison, a sign of how fast transit fares are rising. Yes, transit systems draw revenue from other sources, like advertising, but it’s minor. Just slightly more than two per cent of the Toronto Transit Commission’s operating revenue comes from ads. This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, when you consider Canadian cities have some of the highest transit fares in North America.
For those who like to grumble that people who take transit get a free ride, the data make it clear just how much deeper riders are having to dig. Yes, transit is heavily subsidized, but the cost to riders is rising incredibly fast. At the same time, it raises the question—at what point will soaring fares deter people from taking transit?