TTC ads encouraging people to ride draw questions amid fare increase, service cuts

The marketing campaign tells possible transit customers to ride "the better way" after a decrease in ridership but the images and messaging are being questioned. Mark McAllister reports.

By Mark McAllister and Meredith Bond

The TTC wants to bring customers back onto transit after a drop in ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s hoping a new ad campaign will try and convince people.

However, the timing and messaging is being questioned as a debate over rising fares and depleted service takes place.

The cost of the ads over two years was $900,000 for print, social media, TV, digital and radio.

The ads tout the TTC as a better alternative to vehicle traffic and gas prices, use tag lines like “The relaxing, affordable choice” and “The entertaining, affordable choice,” and features Canadian Olympic hockey player Sarah Nurse.

The TTC is currently planning a fare hike of 10 cents while also preparing for a nine per cent cut to service.

Ridership has been down significantly, 70 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, and that loss in fare revenue has created massive funding shortfalls in recent years, prompting Mayor John Tory and Toronto city council to lobby for gap funding from the provincial and federal governments.

The transit agency’s 2023 budget included a $53 million increase and was recently approved by the board.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said this campaign for ride requisition began in September as school was restarting.

“Just reminding people that, again, we’re there for people. We’re certainly more efficient and cheaper than driving,” explained Green. “Largely, there’s still room on the vehicles for more people. So, we’re reminding people about that and the environmental benefits and just a better way to get to work.”

Herman Rosenfeld with the transit advocacy group TTCRiders said he wishes they would’ve spent this money on operations or elsewhere, especially as a fare hike looms.

“The raising fares, all of these things are the kinds of things which are not going to get more people to use transit,” said Rosenfeld.

About 60 per cent of the TTC revenue comes from the fare box, and a 30 per cent reduction in ridership is a “pretty significant hit.”

“The reality for the TTC is that we rely on the farebox quite heavily for revenue. So we look at it as an investment, frankly. We need to get people back on the system,” added Green.

Rosenfeld said the cuts they are making to service create a vicious circle.

“People have to wait longer for their buses, and they’re much more packed. People might say, ‘Well, I’m afraid to be late to work,’ and then fewer people use it, and so much of it is funded by fares, and so that leads to further deterioration.”

University of Toronto Marketing Professor David Soberman said the ads excel because they don’t paint a full picture of what it’s like to ride the TTC.

“I think one of the most important things with advertising is to be relatable to the people that you’re talking to. There are really two different segments that we’re talking about. There are people that use the TTC to get to work in rush hour … with people in rush hour. [This is] not the right message because it’s not really very relaxing,” Soberman explained.

Soberman pointed out these ads would’ve been a good opportunity to highlight the good that is being done on the TTC.

“One of the things that you can actually do to address those needs is talk about the things that you’re doing for your customers. And I think that’s probably an area as well where this campaign falls a little bit flat,” he said.

“They [could] talk about any security method measures. They could talk about security cameras and things that they’ve done.”

“I think there are some key things that are missing because the issue of security and congestion and not being relaxing are three problems that many people have, and what you want to do is say what are the things we’re trying to do to address those issues,” Sobermand added.

The 2023 budget included the hiring of 50 new special constables in an effort to increase safety along the system following a number of high-profile incidents in recent months, such as a woman fatally stabbed at High Park station as well as six people attacked at St. Clair station in December

The advertising campaign is expected to run through February.

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