Should Seniors Get Even Cheaper Transit Fares? (Updated)

Updated April 30, 2015 at 12:40 pm:

The text of motions passed regarding this item have been added at the end of the update below.

Updated April 30, 2015 at 9:30 am:

The debate on the motion asking for a report on a pilot project for a $1 off peak seniors’ fare went on at great length at the April 29 TTC board meeting and provided some political theatre along the way.

At its heart, there are interlocking issues in any debate about fares:

  • Should seniors as a class of riders receive discounted fares, and how generous should this discount be?
  • Are other groups of riders equally or more deserving of discounts?
  • Should a “pool”of subsidy related to discounts be allocated to various groups based on needs, or should the scope of such subsidies be increased?
  • How will eligibility for any subsidy be administered?
  • How should any fare subsidies be funded, and what is their priority relative to other transit needs such as improved service and maintenance?
  • Should the standard fare structure be revised to provide benefits to all riders rather than targeted groups?

The proposal for a $1 off peak seniors’ fare came from Commissioner Vince Crisanti, a member of the Ford faction in the previous administration who was not noted for his generosity on the subject of social programs. Moreover, when he did sit on the TTC board (before the coup d’état that ousted many of the Ford crew), his knowledge of transit matters could not be described as encyclopaedic. To be fair, at this point the proposal was only a report request – tell me whether it would be feasible to have a pilot program to test the lower fare – and one might expect the whole thing to disappear if the result proved impractical, especially from a financial standpoint.

The problem, of course, is that everyone wants cheaper fares for one or more deserving groups, or even for all riders as Mayoral candidate Tory advocated, without getting into the questions of whether this is the best use of transit dollars or how a net new subsidy would fit into the allegedly tight city budget situation.

Public deputations on the issue, of which there were few despite the large crowd of seniors in the audience who arrived as a group, concentrated on support for the lower fare. In one case, the presentation by TTCRiders ran into a basic problem that their primary desire is to help low-income riders, but they have been pulled into the $1 fare issue as a jumping off point for their larger cause.

Questions from board members were generally civil, although there was a common thread of “how should we pay for this”. One deputant tartly replied that if the city can afford to eat the sunk costs of cancelled LRT projects and build the Scarborough Subway Extension, then availability of revenue is not the issue.

Toronto Councillors love to pretend that any discussion of new services or expenditures must be a zero-sum game with higher costs in one area balanced by reductions in others. This ignores the considerable taxing powers of the City that go unused thanks to pandering to motorists (the vehicle registration tax) and to the no-new-taxes philosophy that hobbles modern political debate.

The best moment came in a testy exchange between an old Chinese lady, speaking through an interpreter, who was harangued by Commissioner Denzil Minnan-Wong with a series of questions ending up with, to paraphrase, how can we pay for fuel if we let people ride for free? After a short pause, the reply came back: “that’s a stupid question”.

For far too long DMW and others have grandstanded at the expense of citizens who just want to exercise their right to speak on public issues, and chairs of meetings (including the TTC’s Chair Josh Colle) have failed to rein in such abuse. That one response burst DMW’s balloon, and will long be remembered.

Colle himself noted that he had come to the TTC a few years ago with a similar incentive – helping seniors with lower fares – but has since learned that as a group, seniors are rather well off. The real issue is to identify those who are in need regardless of their age.

Commissioner Alan Heisey proposed a motion asking for a report on a variety of fare options to come forward in October 2015 as input to the 2016 budget process. This would allow TTC staff to explore a range of new or revised fares, and in particular whether technical capabilities or limitations of the Presto fare card would affect the implementation.

The decision on future subsidy levels will be up to Toronto Council, but the TTC board should already have taken a position on the matter rather than simply inheriting a campaign promise as they did with the free rides for children in the 2015 budget.

Voting on the items took a bit of diplomacy as nobody wanted to actually vote against Vince Crisanti’s proposal. In the end, it was amended to request a “briefing note” by June, and then Heisey’s much broader motion was passed. A briefing note does not come back to the TTC agenda and simply updates members on information from staff. A report becomes the subject of future debate.

The motions as they were passed are:

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How (Un)Reliable Is My Service

This article updates my ongoing compendium of TTC route performance statistics to include the first quarter of 2015.

Route_Performance_Summary_15Q1

The numbers reported by the TTC represent performance relative to the planned headways (time between vehicles), not to scheduled arrival times on routes:

The percent means that proportion of vehicles that were within +/- 3 minutes of the scheduled headway. More specifically that when each vehicle passes a ‘timing point’ it is compared to the vehicle in front of it that last crossed that same point. [From TTC Route Performance report]

In my version of the table, the TTC data are arranged in route number order with values for each quarter. Where there are blanks in the table, there was no data in the corresponding TTC quarterly report.

Also shown are the maximum, minimum, average and standard deviation values for each route’s statistics. This gives a sense of how much these values have moved around. A high standard deviation flags data that have widely varying values.

Of the 179 routes reported, 87 have higher ratings in 15Q1 than their averages for the nine quarters reported to date. To put it another way, about half of the routes did better than average for the first part of 2015, while about half did worse. If the extremely bad winter were a factor overall, one would expect a less balanced situation. On the streetcar lines, only three of eleven routes bettered their averages in 15Q1 (King, Lake Shore and St. Clair), but many of the differences are small with five of eleven falling within one standard deviation.

Headway reliability numbers are consistently bad on the 14x Downtown Express routes, and this implies that these infrequent services have a problem with running on time. What is not known is the measurements times and locations used to produce the stats for these routes and whether the service is at least on time where it collects passengers.

Similarly, headway measures for the 3xx Blue Night services are unimpressive, and what matters much more for these routes is on time performance and reliability of connections between routes, such as they exist.

The TTC claims that it will be introducing new “Journey Time Metrics” later in 2015, but there are as yet no details of what exactly these will measure. In parallel, there are moves to change the service reliability standards so that they look at routes end-to-end, not simply at their central points. (This was described in a presentation at the TTC board meeting in March 2015 (see p7 of TTC Modernization).

The TTC has yet to settle on a reporting mechanism that takes into account the difference in rider needs depending on the nature of a service. When a route is supposed to provide “frequent service”, the important point is that it be reliable. A 5 minute headway is not “frequent” if this actually means three buses every 15 minutes. When service is less frequent, then waiting times for off-schedule vehicles are a huge annoyance and on time performance is key. Short turns, of course, play havoc with both of these measures for riders who need a route beyond its common turnback points. Plans to measure the proportion of service that actually arrives at termini will highlight these problems.

Underlying all of this is the absence of a clear goal, a definition of what constitutes “good” transit service. Too often the goal has been to constrain cost increases and make the best of whatever resources the TTC has at hand.