Canada reverses trend & increases ridership (Reconnections)


With 2.11 billion passenger trips in 2017, Canadian transit systems bucked the North American trend of declining ridership and reported their first increase in national ridership since growth levelled off in 2014, the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) announced in November 2018. This resulted in a 1.5% increase in Canadian transit trips over the previous year, translating to 30 million additional passenger trips.

Montréal’s Lionel-Groulx interchange station

In comparison, the American Public Transit Association reported a 5.9% decline between 2014 and 2017 for US transit systems overall, or a 1.57% average decline per annum. It should be noted that many US cities have added numerous light rail and commuter rail lines, as well as New York City’s Second Avenue Subway over this period.

Comparative analysis

CUTA had laid out the factors that contributed to the Canadian 2017 ridership increase in their report, which are attributed to:

  • more service hours
  • higher service efficiency and reconfigured routes
  • growing student populations
  • increased tourism
  • higher gas prices
  • economic development, and
  • higher employment rates in some communities

Most Canadian transit systems increased ridership despite the increasingly widespread use of transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft, which has been cited as one of the major reasons why transit ridership has eroded in US cities. Furthermore, micromobility (bikeshares, eScooters etc) is more widespread in major US cities than in Canadian ones.

Another factor is the relative lack of investment in large US transit systems compared to Canadian cities, exemplified by Los Angeles reducing its bus services to fund rail expansion, and New York City failing to fund decades old subway infrastructure replacement.

However Canada’s three major cities experienced differing effects:

Vancouver’s Canada Line

Vancouver’s SkyTrain lines, West Coast Express commuter rail, bus and trolleybuses led the way with a 5.7% increase in ridership over the previous year. This was on account of the addition of more than 200,000 bus service hours, higher gas prices, a strong economy as well as the December 2016 opening of the Millennium SkyTrain line’s six station Evergreen Extension.

Montréal’s Métro Radisson

Increased service on Montréal’s Métro, bus and commuter rail network, as well as major bridge and road works, have led to a 2.9% increase in ridership.

Toronto’s King Street Pilot

Toronto’s subway, streetcar and bus network passenger levels were stagnant in 2017 due to many routes being over capacity, but the region’s GO commuter rail and bus network saw increased patronage during the period due to increased service.

Edmonton LRT over the North Saskatchewan River

Ridership has also plateaued in some other major Canadian cities, as overloaded systems physically cannot carry any more passengers during rush hours, suppressing demand.

Deeper Research

Released in time for its 2018 Annual Conference and Transit Show which took place 19-21 November in Toronto, CUTA had also commissioned the Ridership Trends Research Project, conducted by the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, to analyse and identify factors that influence ridership changes. The study used ridership data from over 100 conventional and more than 70 specialized transit systems across Canada from 1991 to 2016.

This research found that for every 10% increase in vehicle revenue hours in Canadian transit systems, a 10% increase in ridership can be expected, provided all other factors remain constant. The analysis used 79 indicators, categorised into four sets of factors:

  • the built environment, eg population density and land use
  • socioeconomic factors, including workforce size and car ownership
  • transit service, such as service frequency and network coverage
  • external and contextual factors, ranging fromweather to congestion

Of these, the built environment and socioeconomic factors were determined to be the largest influencers. The largest negative factor to ridership is a neighbourhoods percentage of single family dwellings.

In summary

As Vancouver and Montréal show, declining ridership is not inevitable in large North American cities. Increased service tuned to riders’ needs, not to budget restrictions, and ongoing investment are key.

No Patreon funds were used to attend this conference.

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Written by Long Branch Mike