Time-Based Fares for the TTC? Maybe in 2015

The agenda for the TTC Board’s meeting on January 28, 2014, includes a report on time-based fares.  The report cites many advantages for a shift to this form of fare including:

  • ease of understanding by riders and clarity for enforcement by operators and fare inspectors;
  • simplicity of implementation on PRESTO;
  • simplicity for routes using all-door loading where transfers would not be inspected on entry;
  • compatibility with fare policy on most other transit systems.

The downside, such as it may be, would be a loss of revenue relative to the current fare structure of up to $20-million annually (a bit under 2%).  There are additional concerns related to a transitional period before PRESTO takes over the overwhelming majority of all fare transactions, such as the increased value of transfers issued freely in the subway which would become limited time passes.

Management recommends that time-based transfers be considered as part of the 2015 budget.  This would leave a final decision on such a change to the next Council and TTC Board.  Other proposed changes include discontinuing time-based transfers on St. Clair if a system-wide policy is rejected, and formulation of a policy for locations where time-based transfers would be allowed in future as an offset to major local construction activity (e.g. on Eglinton).

This is quite a refreshing report about TTC fare policy because it proceeds from the basis that this is something that can be done, that many other cities already have implemented, and which has benefits and costs that should be weighed as part of any decision.  We do not hear about all the money the TTC would be wasting on people who would obtain more transit for lower fare.  The contrast with the typical portrayal of Metropass users is quite astounding.

The report notes that only about 10% of existing trips on the TTC involve the use of a paper transfer because more than half the riders use passes, and many trips involve connections where there is no fare barrier and therefore no need for a transfer as proof of payment.  Trips that now involve multiple fares (e.g. a short there-and-back trip, or a multi-legged trip with stopovers) would be cheaper for those riders who do not now use passes, and who do not already organize their journeys to optimise transfer use.  (As someone who has used a Metropass since they were introduced in May 1980, I still miss the challenge of getting the most out of one fare.)

An obvious point the report completely misses is that a time-based fare would give the single fare more value in that it would buy a few hours of unlimited riding rather than a single connected trip.  This is particularly important for people who tend to pay their fares one at a time.

Another effect would be that Metropass users, now portrayed as taking an almost embarrassingly high number of “rides”, would be seen as using far fewer “fares” because some trips now counted as separate would now be part of one connected journey.  The concept of “lost revenue” to passholders would become even more difficult to justify in an environment where the right to use transit was sold by time, not by trip segment.

Indeed, the TTC will have to recalibrate how it counts “riders” and “fares”.

Transfer abuse is estimated to be the single largest source of “lost revenue” today.  I put that in quotation marks because transfers, and the inventive ways riders use them, have been around for over a century, and the “loss” was never money the TTC might have collected in the first place.  It is part of the cost of doing business, and indeed is a “cost” brought on by the obvious incentive riders have to maximize the return for their fares.

The TTC claims it loses almost $15m to transfer abuse each year, but that is not real money they could recoup without a large investment in enforcement.  The lost fares represent under 1.5% of the annual total (7.6-million fares out of 540-million).

The cost for a two-hour, unlimited use fare is estimated at $20-million annually.  This would have to be made up by additional subsidy (less than 5% over the current operating subsidy level), by an extraordinary fare increase (about 2% based on $1-billion in annual fare revenue) or by some combination of these.

Modified schemes with more restrictive policies would cost less, but they have drawbacks:

  • a shorter time period such as 90 minutes would catch more riders and trigger second fares;
  • restrictions on where a transfer could be reused would be confusing and would not completely eliminate arguments between staff and riders about transfer validity.

One aspect the report does not mention is the problem of delays and short-turns.  What happens if someone’s trip is pushed beyond the time limitation because of erratic TTC service?  In the case of manual fare inspection, there is at least a chance for a conversation to explain the circumstances, but where the fare check is automated, this is much more difficult.  Should riders be penalized with extra fares because of poor TTC service?

Time-based fares will be essential for regional fare integration.  A rider should be able to “buy” the ability to ride transit and change between routes regardless of which company operates the bus.  There could be a premium for including GO trains in a journey, but it should not be a full additional GO fare.  (This would make system-wide the existing co-fare practice between various 905 transit systems and GO.)  All of this is comparatively simple (from the technology, if not the political perspective) with a smart card fare system, and all but impossible with the TTC’s current transfer rules and fare collection.

Discussions of time-based transfers go back almost a decade.  The report includes excerpts from studies in 2005 and 2009.  The 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy looked at fare-by-distance and at time-of-day-based fare discounts, but not at transfers as short-term passes.

This is not a new idea, but one that until now has always been sandbagged by the combined effects of “we can’t afford it” arguments and an attitude that any fare reduction is “lost money” for the TTC, not an improvement in the system’s quality and attractiveness for riders.

A thorough discussion of this is long overdue and, but for the Ford interregnum, we might have seen this a few years back as part of the TTC’s concept for smart fare cards even without PRESTO.

The shift to time-based transfers, in effect to short-term passes, would complete the TTC’s move away from a one trip, one fare model.  This would increase transit’s attractiveness for casual or irregular users whose travel is penalized, compared to pass holders, by that outdated model.

Mayoral and Council candidates would do well to consider the benefits of this system, and look to implementation in 2015 at the latest.

46 thoughts on “Time-Based Fares for the TTC? Maybe in 2015

  1. Before we go to time based transfers all the transfer machines are going to have to be replaced by ones tied into the turnstiles or ticket booths but with a switch to POP this will be required anyway. Right now if you are downtown you can have one person get on at Dundas, pick up any number of transfers, ride to Queen and then pass out the transfers to his/her friends. All can ride for 1 fare.

    If you want to ride the TTC all day and have lunch at a nice restaurant for only one fare get on the St. Clair car and trade any valid transfer for a timed St. Clair transfer. After a nice lunch get back on the car and ride to the subway. With system wide all door boarding and POP timed transfers make a lot more sense than the current system.


  2. Steve wrote:

    “The cost for a two-hour, unlimited use fare is estimated at $20-million annually.”

    I don’t fully understand how they calculated this cost. Does it include the cost of adding capacity to the system (to handle more riders)? Or is it only “lost revenue”?

    Steve: This is only the “lost revenue”. Turning the argument around, if the “loss” is so small a portion of the total revenue (less than 2%) then the amount of extra service needed, if any, cannot be much. I would be very surprised if this showed up as a justification for any service increases.

    Gord wrote:

    “On a more important issue; if the TTC does implement time-based transfers, my desire is that the cash fare would rise to $4.00!”

    I think it would be good to phase in a time-based transfer at the same time as a fare increase. That way, the TTC can give an added benefit to the consumer, as a result of a higher fare. In other words, the TTC may be able to use that to justify a fare hike. Hopefully, the fare hike will bring in revenue greater than $20M so that service can be improved at the same time.

    Steve: Remember, please, everyone, that the timed fare ONLY affects riders who are now paying by token, ticket or cash. The majority of trips are already using passes and this number is growing. If this is implemented in conjunction with a fare increase, especially of 33%, it will be seen as a cash grab and this will undo the benefit the timed transfer would confer.

    Probably the most important reason for going to a time-based fare is to provide a method that Presto can reliably handle that does not depend on figuring out what a “valid” trip might be. It also simplifies any regional, cross-border fare integration that might occur because the TTC and the 905 systems would operate on a common basis. There could still be zones (as in York Region), but a common two-hour fare would simplify a lot. Yes, it would require more operating subsidy, but that is going to happen with any regional fare integration including bringing GO/TTC into a combined fare structure.


  3. If I had a nickle for every time this has to be explained…

    When riding a pay-as-you-enter vehicle, the transfer (paper or Presto) need only be valid when one enters.

    When riding a proof-of-payment vehicle, the transfer should be valid until the moment you step off the vehicle (or out of a fare paid area). Though hopefully, fare inspectors will give some leeway for just-expired transfers (at least, YRT’s fare inspectors do – having experienced this once in the days of paper transfers and once since using Presto).

    This needs to be made very clear though. Vancouver has had time-based POP system (90 minutes) for over 20 years, and has had those paper-magnetic transfers for a decade or so, and even the spokesperson for Translink isn’t quite sure how the transfer window works. There are countless incidents of people being ticketed by fare enforcement for traveling out the back end of their 90 minutes, despite the fact that the official word is that this shouldn’t happen. Apparently the new Compass Cards (Vancouver’s Presto, which will be tap-on-tap-off) will give a half hour credit to the end of the POP period, essentially giving you 90 minutes to tap in (including transfers) and 30 more minutes to finish your trip and tap off, for 2 hours total. The system is still in roll-out though so no one really knows how that will work in practice.


  4. Steve wrote:

    Remember, please, everyone, that the timed fare ONLY affects riders who are now paying by token, ticket or cash. The majority of trips are already using passes and this number is growing. If this is implemented in conjunction with a fare increase, especially of 33%, it will be seen as a cash grab and this will undo the benefit the timed transfer would confer.

    This gets me to thinking: how about these fares for January 1, 2015:

    2-hour time-based transfer implemented
    Cash fare: $4.00 (33% increase)
    Tokens: $3.00 (11% increase)
    Day pass: $11.50 (4.5% increase)
    Weekly pass: $40.00 (2% increase)
    Metropass: $134.00 (0.2% increase)

    The argument about a cash fare increase hitting the most vulnerable, which is somewhat dubious to begin with, is softened since the new cash fare buys two hours of transit use. At the risk of generalizing, I suspect that the “most vulnerable” are more likely to make multiple use of a cash fare, which would effectively reduce their transit costs below what they are paying now.

    In this scheme, I would have suggested no increase for the monthly pass, but it looks nicer to have all round numbers. I was tempted to suggest no increase for the day pass as well, based on my experience that in a number of cities, a day pass is the price of two cash fares.

    I also believe that the $4 cash fare should apply to EVERYONE. If you want concession fares (children, students, seniors), then purchase tokens or passes.

    Steve: Any new fare structure also needs to take into account the capabilities of Presto including the option of funding it through social assistance programs for low income riders at a special fare rate. “Casual” riders should be expected to obtain a Presto card and load it with an appropriate type of fare. Limited time passes (three or four days, a week, etc) would be of particular use for tourists and for people with bursts of transit activity who might otherwise not use the system much.

    We need a much more extensive discussion of fare options, but the TTC Board is so hopelessly uninformed on even what we have today that this is unlikely.


  5. You say

    ‘The idea that we should price transit by distance runs counter to encouraging better system use.’

    May I suggest the timed transfer encourages the longer trip over the shorter one since it is a good deal. It is subsidized by the short trip.

    There is no such ‘encouragement’ for a three stop 7 minute journey.

    So far, also, there is no mention of peak/non peak fare differentiation, something that might alleviate the crush a little.

    And why pay more for your quicker Broadview Station subway trip downtown? You get to choose. If I were to choose it would be streetcar over the quicker subway any day. Although discounting the Streetcar might relieve the Yonge/Bloor squeeze a little.

    By my observation in London the tap out of the underground does not add a choke point; after all, both systems have a turnstile to negotiate.
    From your comments it sounds as though Presto will not have the processing capabilities of London, thus the need to choose fare systems that are simple for a limited processor.

    Steve: London has always had fare by distance, and station designs were set up to include provision for “tapping out” by showing you had a valid ticket. Toronto has always been designed for free flow, especially at transfer points to surface routes. Adding the need to “tap out” (or in) for a subway connection at these locations would create a choke point that does not now exist.

    And, yes, I prefer to ride downtown on the King or Dundas car, provided one is actually somewhere in evidence, rather than all short turned before they reach Broadview Station. Capacity relief would be a problem, however, because there is little room for more streetcar service at Broadview Station today, especially on the 504 King platform in the AM peak if all of the cars do reach the end of the line. One operator answering a call of nature can back up the service out onto the street. The cars may not be full when they leave Danforth, but I have been on cars that left people at stops before they reached Queen, never mind the additional demand with all of the new housing west of there.


  6. Sorry to have to be such a Donnie Downer, but what about the poor people and the children who don’t have bank accounts to be topping up the Presto Card? What will they do? Those classes of people won’t be going away anytime soon.

    Steve: This is a big issue for Presto because their existing rider base has been commuters who, by definition, have jobs, bank accounts, etc. Some form of non-Presto fare will remain in use for quite some time, but an obvious question is whether there will be incentive fares to shift people onto Presto as was done on GO. Even though there is a shift now to giving recipients of various forms of social assistance a mechanism to allow them equivalent to banking privileges, there will remain two problems: some people, as you note, simply won’t have an account from which an auto-reload can be done; and some people’s financial situations could be harmed by an auto-reload of a large dollar amount unexpectedly.


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