May 1, 1980, saw the introduction of Toronto’s Metropass and the beginning of a shift away from pay-as-you-ride travel on the TTC.
The pass did not come without some political battles, and the stock TTC line was that this just wouldn’t work in Toronto. What they really worried about, of course, was lost revenue, a topic that comes up every chance TTC management gets to cry in their beer about the good old days when people actually paid full fares to ride.
The fare multiple in 1980 was 52 – the price of the pass at $26 was the equivalent of 52 tokens at, wait for it, fifty cents each. Over the years it was wrestled down to 46, but has been drifting up again in an attempt to make those pesky pass holders pay more. The ratio stands at 50.5 today for a regular pass with no discounts.
In fact, passholders now represent over half of all TTC rides. In 2014, out of a total 534.8-million rides, 290.7m were paid for with transit passes. It is long past time that we should think of pass users as if they are some small privileged group, but rather that they take the majority of trips on the TTC. It is their fares which are the “standard”, not the higher priced token users nor the real cash cows, those who pay the full cash fare. The chart below shows the evolution of fare media usage over the past three decades.
At its April 29, 2015 board meeting the TTC approved a request that staff report on various fare options including:
- fare by time of day
- 2 hour transfer
- Seniors fares by time of day, including $1.00 seniors fare during off-peak hours
- Fare by distance
- Concession policy overall as informed by Fare Equity Strategy
- Monthly pass versus daily / weekly / monthly capping
- Free regular transit fares for Wheel-Trans qualified passengers in addition to the visually impaired
This report is expected to arrive on the October 2015 board agenda.
Fares are a much bigger issue than the TTC, of course, and Metrolinx is working on its own regional fare integration strategy. Like the TTC with any form of passes, Metrolinx has a built-in aversion to any fare system different from the one they are already using, a pseudo fare-by-distance system. Indeed, in their March 2015 report, Metrolinx leaned heavily on schemes using distance or zone-based fares, and omitted any mention of limited time-based fares such as the two-hour transfer. So much for an exhaustive review of existing practices, especially considering that this type of fare is already used within the GTA and long predates any specialized technology such as Presto in, for example, Vancouver. (I wrote to Metrolinx about this omission and was assured that time-based fares would be added to the review.)
It is quite clear that a flat fare is impractical on a broad geographic scale unless some combination of governments is prepared to greatly increase the subsidy both for fare revenue and for the additional service such a scheme would require to handle induced demand. The problem becomes just what do we mean when we talk about “distance” or “zones”, not to mention classes of service such as “premium express” or “rail vs bus”.
GO Transit’s distance fares are from a formula that allegedly works like this:
- base fare common to all trips, plus
- distance based fare depending on length of journey
In fact, even a simple analysis of GO fares reveals that this formula is at best a goal, not a rigourously applied scheme, and long trips are charged substantially less than short ones relative to distances. This has very serious implications for the proposed RER network that will lie substantially within the higher-cost portion of the network, and for any additional stops made possible through the higher speed of electrified service. Another problem is that RER will depend on local feeder-distributor services, and these must be available at a very low marginal cost over the train fares. Otherwise, the cost of a train plus local transit trip (let alone one using local transit to access GO at both ends of the journey) will be prohibitively expensive.
Regional fare integration between the TTC and its neighbouring systems is very important, but this requires a scheme that will reflect that a shared fare will necessarily be lower than the separate fares now charged to cross-border riders. New riding might offset some of this, but that riding will also require more service and there is no guarantee that things will magically work out without more subsidy dollars.
RER itself faces a challenge in operating costs, and by implication fares, in that it is a departure from GO’s past practices. Until now, GO adds a train here and there with the expectation that the seats will be full and fare revenue will come in at least on a par with existing operations. Only the recent move to a 30-minute service on the Lake Shore trains was a case of putting in service and hoping for the best. Ridership has gone up, but there has been no accounting of the net cost. RER includes a promised 15 minute all day headway on many lines, but there is no guarantee they will generate ridership and fare revenue to support this level of service. Will the balance come from better GO subsidies, or from fare revenue?
On the TTC itself, we commonly hear calls for some sort of distance-based fare. These usually come from people whose trips cross existing fare boundaries, and who hope to see lower combined TTC+905 fare. However, there is a fact of life about TTC trips that must be considered: the average journey is under 10km, and if fares are rebalanced based on distance, then those who have long commutes will pay substantially more for the privilege of spending much of their lives on the TTC. A trip from northeastern Scarborough to downtown could easily cost twice or more the present TTC fare, and such long-haul trips on the TTC could be as expensive as comparable trips on GO Transit.
Toronto eliminated its zone fare system four decades ago precisely because of suburban objections to supporting the TTC through taxes, but getting worse service and paying more to ride a two-zone trip into the core. At a time when the single zone fare was 20 cents, the two zone ticket cost 33.3 cents.
Some “suburban” subway stations were originally built with a fare barrier between subway and surface routes and these were reconfigured after the elimination of “Zone 2” to provide a transfer-free connection from buses to subway.
On top of the question of zones, distance or time as the unit of measure for fares, there are a number of questions about concession fares. Who should receive discounts? How deep should these be? Should discounts be extended to classes of riders such as seniors and students, or to those of limited financial resources? How will various discount schemes on the TTC, GO and the 905 systems be reconciled? Should any existing discounts be eliminated?
What constitutes a “premium service”? GO Transit rail? GO Transit buses? Express buses on BRT routes? Limited stop buses running in mixed traffic? The subway network? Should there be fare premiums at all for the basic network, or should calculations of fare levels be the same for a GO Train to Hamilton as for a TTC bus to York University?
Should fares reflect the capital investments in higher-order infrastructure, or of higher operating costs associated with rail modes, particularly those underground?
These are not just straightforward matters of socio-economic analysis, but of political issues with a long history. Fare systems and revenues have developed over decades on each transit system as they have in other cities to which Toronto might look as potential models. The problem with any change is that what “works” in city “A” has been there for years and is part of the transit political landscape. People might not like fare by distance in, say, London England, but things have always been done that way. However, the degree to which the central city has become the preserve of the well-off raises issues about the affordability of transit in such cities for the transit captives who are likely to be forced into longer journeys as gentrification moves outward.
It is easy to wave one’s hand (usually after lifting it briefly from a steering wheel) and pontificate about how fares should be reorganized, but coming up with a workable “solution” is quite another matter. If this must be done without any investment of general revenues to give some cushion to the elimination of fare “inequities”, then the task is almost impossible. It will provide great political theatre for those of us who enjoy watching insensitive, unthinking politicians being set upon by voters with torches and pitchforks, but this will not address the basic problem that cutbacks in public funding for transit over past decades leave no “wiggle room” to simply rebalance revenues among fare classes with little effect on most riders.
Municipal and provincial politicians should give careful thought to this the next time they trumpet new investments in transit infrastructure. If riders cannot afford to use the systems built in the name of “fighting gridlock” and “improving the economy”, then their benefit will be limited.