Special Report: Transit

HSR Ridership Drop is No Mystery

It is no surprise that imposing steep fare increases and moving service from abysmal to just bad have failed to produce the desired results.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published February 06, 2017

Last week, Hamilton Spectator columnist Andrew Dreschel wrote an article reporting that HSR transit ridership "dropped dramatically ... by about 435,000 trips" in 2016 despite service improvements.

HSR bus (RTH file photo)
HSR bus (RTH file photo)

He also reported that bus ridership is "either flatlining or declining" from "Toronto to Halifax and from Calgary to Vancouver" and "across the United States", but without giving any figures or dates.

The casual reader would get the impression that transit ridership is in crisis everywhere, despite big service improvements, and no one really knows why.

Those inclined to oppose investment in transit, and particularly those opposed to to the LRT project, will feel vindicated in their opinion that transit is just an unpopular waste of money.

However, this impression would be deeply mistaken. The article gives no context or proper analysis of either the local situation or the longer term trends in transit use.

Decades of Under-Funding

First, although any decline in ridership is disappointing, the proportional drop is only about 2 percent. This is hardly dramatic, but stagnant or dropping ridership is not a new problem for the HSR.

The HSR has suffered from decades of under-funding and repeated vicious cycles of service cuts and fare increases.

In fact, HSR service levels by all measures are far lower than they were 30 years ago, despite population growth and amalgamation. In the 1980s, the HSR carried 29 million riders (38 percent higher than today) and had 50 percent more buses on the road than in 2014.

Not only has service on existing lines been cut dramatically since the early 1990s, but the fast-growing suburbs are not properly serviced, or not serviced at all, because Hamilton's unique area rating formula for transit makes adding new lines to under-served areas politically impossible.

The scale of under-investment is clear from the fact that tax levy funding of the HSR was actually 42 percent lower in 2016 than in 1994 (inflation adjusted).

Last year, former HSR Director David Dixon explained to Council that service was abysmal along the major routes and unable to match demand, with frequent over-capacity buses and drive-bys.

Dixon pointed out that the "city is lagging behind in all targets" and urgently required new investment.

Steep Fare Increases

Council decided to start with steep fare increases and then gradually improve service, with the entire cost borne by the ridership.

In just one year, between September 2015 and September 2016, cash fares rose by about 18 percent from $2.55 to $3.00.

To put this in perspective, over roughly the same period, hydro rates increased by "only" 15 percent for the average consumer - and this has led to widespread outrage and may lose the government the next election! It is not all surprising that HSR lost riders.

On the other hand, the service improvement figures cited by Dreschel might sound impressive, but as Dixon pointed out, they only begin to address the status quo of terrible service levels, let alone decades of under-funding.

They don't provide the sort of real improvements that might actually attract new riders with the option to drive: new lines, extended lines, increased frequency (say, to 15 minutes from 30 minutes), or better service in fast-growing suburbs.

And remember that those new riders would likely be paying the $3 cash fare that jumped 18 percent in one year.

Reasons are Clear

So the reasons for Hamilton's dismal track record over the last three decades are clear: repeated cycles of service cuts and fare hikes, no service to fast-growing suburbs and an unsatisfactory, crowded customer experience on the Main/King corridor that accounts for over 40 percent of all trips.

Added to that is the HSR's poor customer service: no social media presence until late last year, and a website with little information about the organization and a general attitude that riders are not valued customers.

This is echoed by a Council that views transit as a minimal social service for those who can't afford to drive, rather than an essential piece of civic infrastructure that can boost our economy.

We must also not forget that the HSR has no reliable way of measuring ridership. The last comprehensive physical count of riders was done by IBI in 2008-2009 for the 2010 HSR Operational Review.

Basing ridership estimates on revenue could underestimate student pass rides, senior passes and others who don't pay with cash, tickets or presto.

Other Systems Have Been Growing

But isn't this the same story everywhere? Not at all: Hamilton is more or less unique in the deliberate long-term neglect of its transit system.

Over the past decade, other systems have grown their ridership dramatically.

In the period of 2006-2014, St. Catharines, London, Mississauga, York Region, Brampton, Waterloo, Durham saw ridership increases between 21 percent and 101 percent. Hamilton grew by only 5 percent.

While it is true that growth in ridership has levelled off in the last couple of years in many cities, this follows big increases in the previous decade. Even the TTC, which has not significantly improved service levels, saw ridership increase by about 21 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Despite the impression left by this article, other transit systems have seen big ridership increases when they make significant investments in improving and increasing service.

Brampton saw a 101 percent increase in ridership between 2006 and 2013 and Waterloo Region saw a 60 percent increase. Calgary's transit use grew by about 45 percent between 2005 and 2013 - faster than its population.

The reasons for the levelling off of ridership growth in other transit systems in the last couple of years after many years of strong growth are indeed unclear, and it is also unclear whether it is a blip or a long-term trend.

However, real service improvements in Hamilton, especially to the under-served suburbs and in response to demand along the Main/King corridor with the B-line LRT, will definitely lead to increased ridership.

What is no mystery is that imposing steep fare increases and moving service from abysmal to just bad have not produced the desired results.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 09:38:02

One of the reasons given for the recent slow down in transit numbers continent wide is that, our largest population cohort the "baby boomers" are now retiring in greater and greater numbers and are not going to a daily 9 to 5 job anymore. Many companies are not placing new hires in these jobs and are usually getting rid of the positions all together. Or they are being replaced with part time workers who don't travel at the same times. The result is fewer and fewer people are actually going to work thus, the numbers of people taking transit, especially during the important peak travel period, is leveling off.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 11:54:15 in reply to Comment 120706

That's an interesting suggestion, and should be pretty easy to check. Has anyone tried to track labour force size to transit numbers in major cities? I would think that labour force is still growing in places like Toronto and Calgary (and Hamilton) due to immigration, but I don't know.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 19:30:58 in reply to Comment 120710

Labour Force growth itself isn't enough to explain this. You need to know more about the geography of employment and how it might be changing. Locations such as downtowns or central business districts generally have favorable modal splits (in terms of transit ridership). Dispersed concentrations of employment such as Office Parks near major highways do not. If we are still experiencing faster job growth in car-oriented locations then you won't find the answer from Labour Force numbers.

That is aside from possible changes in the nature of the jobs ... i.e. the possible shift from 9-5 full-time jobs with a regular place of work.

We do know that historically the TTC in Toronto went thru a period of declining ridership during the 1990s in response to falling employment levels as the economy restructured. That may well explain ridership declines in Calgary ... falling oil prices led to pretty significant job losses in Calgary.

Don't know what would explain Hamilton's numbers ... demographics may be part of a wider trend continent wide. So Haveacow has a point.

And yes for certain riders the fare increases may tip the balance in favour of another mode of transportation, or simply dissuade them from making a trip period.

You also need to look at per-capita distances driven ... is car usage also falling?

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-02-07 19:34:47

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By Lage_guy99 (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 11:07:50

Has anyone given thought to the impact of the SOBI Bicycles on HSR?

I can say that I, for one, take a lot of bike trips now that would probably have been bus trips in the past. If the distance is reasonable, the SOBI is cheaper, leaves when I want (not 30 minutes from now) and goes where I want (not two transfers and I still end up three blocks from home).

I can't be the only one.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 11:59:04 in reply to Comment 120709

Some people have suggested that the rise of bike share might have an impact in other cities, but I would suspect that in Hamilton the 18% fare increase over one year is a bigger factor.

In some cases, bike share could drive more transit trips from drivers if it makes it more convenient to take transit one way.

And, as I mentioned, Hamilton has had a multi-decade history of declining or stagnant ridership due to lack of investment in the system.

It would be interesting to survey bike share users to see whether bike share replaced walking, their own bike, driving or transit.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2017-02-07 11:59:55

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By Lage_guy99 (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 20:35:25 in reply to Comment 120711

I completely agree with your point--I think both points go together. If a rider who would have taken the bus a $2.55 now decides not to take that ride for $3.00, then he has to get to his destination another way. So we need to figure out what he is doing instead.

My own hunch is that in an environment of terrible service and high fares (the main factors, as you say), bikeshare ends up having a negative impact that it probably would not have had for a bus system with lower costs and better service, where bikeshare would have minimal if not positive net impact. But we'd need data to know that--would be great to have.

To put it another way, I think it's pretty ridiculous that in the middle of January I'd still rather ride a SOBI than take the HSR for all the reasons you cite in the article.

Comment edited by Lage_guy99 on 2017-02-07 20:36:14

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By OliverV (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 13:17:05 in reply to Comment 120711

Sobi may be able to provide something on this. There was a survey they sent out late 2016 (link is dead now) and I seem to remember there being questions about personal transit and car use changes due to Sobi use.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 17:10:08

I had to scroll back to the top of the page when reading that Spec article to make sure I was reading a Hamilton publication. They make it sound like the HSR has vastly improved into this spectacular transit system and can't figure out why ridership is dropping. I avoid the HSR every chance I get, unless I don't care how late I arrive somewhere, or how wet I get standing around waiting.
I'll walk or bike over using the HSR.

Comment edited by JasonL on 2017-02-07 17:10:30

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By JimC (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 18:26:14

What exactly is the point you're trying to convey? Who cares what the reason is or if it's a mystery or not the point is that the HSR isn't overwhelmed and therefore the LRT is not necessary. There is unused capacity and there is no reason to increase capacity.

Also, since you've managed to figure out what the HSR and other major transit providers haven't, maybe you should hire yourself out as a consultant. Information like this shouldn't be given away for free. According to Dreschel, even the transit director, under questioning from city councilors, couldn't provide answers and yet here you are, with THE answer. Wow. So either the city transit director is incompetent, not as informed as you, or Dreschel is flogging fake news. What's the story? Why do you seem to know what the transit director doesn't know?

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By CVenni (registered) | Posted February 07, 2017 at 21:04:07

I gave up my car so you'd think the bus would be my 'go to'. But no. Allow me to count the reasons. 1) it's completely depressing, between the darkness from the window wraps to the endless public service announcements on lead pipes, teen pregnancy, etc. Nobody moves down and the driver never says anything. 2)there are no easily understandable maps or schedules or routes at the bus stops. Google is the most helpful and even it gets confused on how to get to Dundas downtown. 3) I can get to King & James but I can't easily get back to King & Wentworth by bus from James or take a bus east from the Farmers market...this makes the $3 investment that would serve me for an entire round trip not tremendously useful. 4) I have the option of SoBi for shorter trips, with a basket for groceries. For all the reasons I listed above plus the excercise is good for me :-)

Comment edited by CVenni on 2017-02-07 21:15:05

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 08, 2017 at 09:30:41 in reply to Comment 120719

All good points.

I was actually interviewed for the 2010 operational review and when asked if I had a simple suggestion to improve the rider experience I pointed to all the depressing "social problem" adverts and blocking of the windows with anti-graffitti film and exterior adverts.

Both factors really harm the rider experience: the window coverings make the bus dark and unwelcoming and stop one of the nice things about taking the bus compared with driving: looking at the view out the windows.

And these "public service" adverts don't even make the HSR any money ... apparently they donate the space.

And the depressing adverts dealing with diseases and social problems send a clear message that the bus is for poor people and those with addiction or mental health issues, or living in unsafe environments. The GO bus and TTC and other transit systems are not dominated by this depressing message! Even worse, the "happy" positive adverts are all on the outside of the bus. I've never seen a "pornography hurts", "addiction services" or "I'm drowning in my own lungs" advert on the outside.

I've also emailed Councillor Johnson about this to support his effort to get the coverings off the windows.

Any occasional rider would be immediately put off by stepping into a dark bus full of depressing ads.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2017-02-08 09:31:22

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By bobby2 (registered) | Posted February 10, 2017 at 13:50:58 in reply to Comment 120724

Wow, kevlahan, all great points. However, real bottom line is buses are unwelcoming environment (as you outlined) & are only a last resort mode of transit when no other is available. LRT, buses, no matter, stand in the environments until they come, very, very often closest stop is very far from your end destination a total waste of time if you are going somewhere that the visit is say only 15 minutes but takes you 1 1/2 hours to get there & back home! The question, how are these issues resolved so public transit makes sense to the masses?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 10, 2017 at 14:47:12 in reply to Comment 120734

The straightforward and obvious way to raise transit ridership is to provide transit service that is more accessible, convenient, frequent and reliable - and those factors flow directly out of the City's transportation spending priorities.

Hamilton had an overall transit mode share of 10 percent in 1986, just before the City started dramatically cutting its annual transit budget and service levels. By 2001, the transit mode share was down to 5 percent and has been stuck there ever since.

We get what we pay for. It's really that simple.

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By Bryan (registered) | Posted February 17, 2017 at 16:16:39

For some actual data that is not speculation, I have been a transit rider in Hamilton since the mid 80's. For the majority of the last few years I have faithfully purchased 80$ per month of HSR tickets for work or various appointments. Since they raised the price to 3$ a ride, even tho it did not effect the overall price per 5 tickets by that much, I have stopped riding the bus all together, just because it rubbed me the wrong way. Now I walk everywhere, and get picked up for work or appts I cannot walk to. If I absolutely have to take the bus I schedule my roundtrip in the transfers timeframe, so I only pay one fare. This latest price increase has lowered their income off of me by roughly $960 per year. I certainly won't be riding the LSR at the increased cost either. (which I have read will be approx 5$)

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 17, 2017 at 17:40:21 in reply to Comment 120789

Metrolinx has stated that their construction in Toronto will use the TTC system for fares, they will not cost more. There's no reason to assume Hamilton LRT is different. It won't be $5, and whoever said that is fearmongering.

And yes, the fare hike feels like a terrible bait-and-switch, because it was supposed to be getting us improvements to the HSR. And what we're seeing is a few more buses on the most congested routes, but nothing to shout about.

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