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People in Toronto can't help but notice a drastic drop in the number of ads on the TTC

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there are some key aspects of daily life that feel like they'll never be the same again, among them the foreseeably long-term trend of working from home (at least part of the time) and our collectively heightened fear of germs and crowded public spaces.

These two new post-COVID realities have been particularly unfortunate for public transit systems in major cities like Toronto, where ridership numbers and profits started dwindling to untenable lows last year and may potentially be permanently hindered despite the TTC's hope that it will be able to attract residents to ride the rocket once more after (/if, it sometimes seems) we get over this whole health crisis thing.

Though the recovery toward normal TTC numbers is underway, some are still concerned about a "transit death spiral" of reduced ridership leading to reduced service that in turn causes ridership to fall even more, which is not at all helped by service cuts due to a small segment of unvaccinated transit workers.

And, all of this has caused another revenue shortfall: a loss of advertising, which is usually quite lucrative.

It would be hard for anyone who's been on a subway, bus or streetcar in recent months to ignore the glaringly blank interior panels that used to be completely full of all kinds of ads back when there were more commuter (read: consumer) eyeballs to see them.

Though the TTC is now faring far better than it was when it experienced an 86 per cent drop in monthly ridership back in peak lockdown during April 2020 — it had returned to 44 per cent of normal levels by this September, per the Starthe commission's board has expressed fears that flexible work-from-home conditions will have a lasting impact on transit demand.

There is also the fact that many former riders have made new habits of driving, walking or cycling around due to crowding and transmission fears, a factor that has reduced transit demand by an estimated 12 per cent.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green notes that though there are certainly still ads on all TTC vehicles, "it is fair to say not as many as there used to be."

Back in July 2020, Pattison Outdoor Advertising, the firm that manages ads for the transit agency until the end of 2023, noted that it may need to change its payment schedule and pivot its strategy due to the "the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and reduced transit ridership" which spurred "a significant reduction in monthly advertising sales," which explains all of the empty panels.

This led to a request to amend to the contract between Pattison and the commission.

As the threat of omicron looms and residents fear a return to more prohibitive lockdown measures, public transit, hospitality and other sectors may indeed have to brace for a more enduring struggle than was expected at this point.

Lead photo by

Becky Robertson

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