A Little Rant About Transit Fares

A recent article, The Flirtation With Fare By Distance, has sparked a debate in the comment thread about the relative merits of flat vs distance-based fares, and the whole issue of how we choose to subsidize some groups of riders versus others. In a recent reply, I took strong issue with some of the concepts advanced by writers, and the thread of my argument is strong enough that it deserves to be seen in an article of its own.

There are two related comments, and I will reproduce them here to set the stage:

Rishi (@PlanGinerd) wrote:

Fare-by-distance is a tricky one that I’m not yet firmly decided on. It clearly works on many large systems worldwide, and I have tons of friends and family who live in Zone 4 or Zone 6 in London who while they do complain the Tube is expensive, they still take it daily and never ever drive or take a cab or a regional train into the core. Perhaps it can only be coupled by changing the economics/costs of driving?

I am 100% sympathetic that FBD benefits those who can afford to live closer to the core, whilst disadvantaging those who live within the borders of Toronto but farther out. I haven’t done enough research yet, but I always think about why someone who lives so far from the City of TO core, would still choose to live within our borders vs. in Peel, York, or Durham regions. Is it really the cheap access to the TTC or is it other services? In other words, what incentives are there to convince them to live in “expensive” Toronto in the first place?

My friends deep within Metrolinx and TTC are also torn. They feel that it is not the role of the operator to handle the social equity, but the role of the province through transfers and tax breaks. I ask Steve and the community, if the province was to pair FBD for all GTA transit agencies and truly integrated fares, with a tax break to help those disadvantaged, would that change your mind?

It reminds me of a conversation I had last week on Twitter with Moaz RE how social programs that give out free TTC fares would cope without tokens. I see Presto tech. as enabling if done right, and it would be easy to give out cards with balances on them, or a periodic reload to help with fares, whilst also giving valuable O-D and usage data.

Maybe I’m too much of an optimist but things like this, and exiting fare gates are commonplace and the norm in cities everywhere. Yes local context is critically important, but I think we have to get away from the nay-saying that Toronto is always different and every other best practice could never work here.

Jonathan C wrote:

Flat fares are a very ineffective way to reduce inequality as the benefit is not well-targeted to those who need the help. There are plenty of people making long trips who could afford a higher distance based fare, and plenty who struggle to pay the flat fare for short trips or end up walking long distances because they can’t justify the cost. In most cases everyone would prefer better service. If you want to help those in need then push for an increase in the low income tax credits, don’t try to use the transit system as it is a very blunt instrument.

In a way the flat fare leads the poor to live further from the core as only those who are better off can afford higher housing costs plus the flat fare. The poor service to far-flung locales also pushes commuters into cars, while those who can’t afford to drive end up trading their time for a lower fare.

My replies:

This discussion seems to be taking place as if we were proposing to introduce flat fares as a net new subsidy that would benefit people who don’t need it. If that were the case, I could certainly understand arguments for targeted rather than broad-brush subsidies.

We are not. The discussion is of the potential effect on a wide range of transit users who now have a common fare no matter how far they travel compared to what they pay today. If you want to talk about actual need, then let’s expand the debate to free fares for all children, or reduced fares for all students and seniors. During the whole debate over cheaper fares for university students, I was struck by the absence of advocates for the truly poor saying “hey, what about us”, and the hand-wringing extended to a group that on the whole comes from relatively affluent backgrounds.

I have yet to hear a cogent argument for distance-based fares beyond “other people are doing it”. Well, no, throughout much of the GTHA, “local” fares are flat. Even London UK, that oft-cited bastion of fare-by-distance, uses flat fares for its surface system with time-based transfer privileges.

Correction: London does not have time-based transfers on its surface routes, with very limited exceptions. [July 2, 2015]

The question of flat fares vs fare by distance has nothing to do with “nay-saying” or “best practices”, it is a political and social choice the city has made. If we want to talk about fare collection technology, or the best way to operate a transit system, those are fair game for criticisms of the “not invented here” syndrome so common in Toronto.

“Equity” as Toronto defines it may well mean a flat fare. Don’t forget that the pesky border with the 905 is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and problems of low market share for transit within 905 systems (i.e. for local travel in York Region, or Durham, or Mississauga) have nothing to do with fare by distance, but with built form and the relative lack of competitive transit services. Fare by distance will only “solve” the problem for trips that are now cross-border by giving them a (presumed) discount. It won’t add better bus service unless there is a substantial jump in revenue to offset costs, net costs that are higher in the 905 because of the much richer per rider subsidies.

Where people choose to live is a product of many factors including income and service (broadly defined) availability. Try living without a car out in the 905 — the TTC for all its problems is a damn sight better, and it can certainly be argued that there is a stronger, longer history of community support services within Toronto than elsewhere even if these are stronger in the “old city” than in Toronto’s suburbs. Some of this is also historical — the 905 suburbs simply didn’t exist when many families moved to the outer 416, or they were aimed at a very different demographic. Markham is not noted for its large pool of social housing.

When we speak of transit discounts as a “social service”, this is usually in the context of truly disadvantaged groups who for mainly economic reasons are deemed worthy of additional social supports. There is a big problem with arguments that they should be funded through alternative means to transit fares such as tax rebates. Social subsidy programs are chronically underfunded and have exclusionary eligibility tests. Tax credits are a wonderful thing, but they are almost always structured to benefit those who have a taxable income in the first place, and can even disproportionately benefit the well off.

If we start talking of flat transit fares generally as a “social service”, we miss the whole point that encouraging people to use transit has an economic benefit for the city by avoiding pressure for more road construction, and a general benefit to all residents by reducing the need for one or more cars in their families. This is the sort of thing that would show up in any full accounting of costs and benefits. The hidden subsidies to motorists are not subject to the same scrutiny, nor are they regarded as some sort of social service. We also build roads for the economic benefit of the trucking industry and all of its clients. Maybe we should start thinking of that as a “social service” too because it is a form of job creation.

It is very easy to characterize things we don’t want to spend money on as “social service” or even worse “welfare”, while the things we prefer (often for political and ideological reasons) as “investments”.

Any scheme that discourages transit use relative to what is and has been in place for decades is the equivalent of a “disinvestment”, almost like asset stripping where dividends are more important than the health of a company.

If you want to call me a “nay-sayer” for that attitude, you have that right, but it’s a pejorative term, an artificial, ad hominem argument that does not engage in debate of the basic principles.

I would remind you that the “nay-sayer” epithet was used by John Tory during his campaign against those who criticized SmartTrack, and we now know what a bag of crap that proposal was.

The availability of vast amounts of travel data is routinely cited by those who would move us to fare by distance. Dare I remind readers that distance-based fares have existed for much, much longer than the ability to collect this data, and they are a product of political and business decisions about pricing service, not a means to collect O-D info.

The next time you go shopping and someone makes it harder for you to get through the store because they want detailed data about your buying habits, be sure to co-operate fully.

The TTC does not, repeat, not need a mountain of O-D data to provide better service. You can find out where the riders are simply by looking at the buses and streetcars, and broad network demands can come from O-D data in the TTS survey.

They already have a mountain of data documenting the behaviour of their vehicles, and after many decades are finally starting to analyze it in ways similar to the work I have published. Problems with vehicle bunching and poor headway management contribute a great deal to crowding on the TTC. Even with this documented in excruciating detail, little is done to fix problems of “TTC culture”. This is even a double-edged sword in that with all this data, some claim that all we need to do for more capacity is to improve management and schedules, not to actually operate more service. This is a variation on the “efficiency” argument that neatly avoids an actual commitment to better service.

Let us have a debate on fare structure by all means, but let it be a real debate, not simply a fait accompli that shows up because Andy Byford and Bruce McCuaig decide to impose fare-by-distance on us all as a matter of simplicity for Presto’s implementation. The technology should serve what we, collectively as cities and a region, want to help transit achieve, not get in the way or penalize riders who happen to live in the wrong place. Let’s talk about GO Transit’s uneven handling of short trip fares and the discount structure that makes travel from Kitchener to Union Station far cheaper, by distance, than travel from Rexdale. Let’s talk about what is needed to make transit service in the 905 truly attractive so that more people will want to use it, and transit will have political support for spending on more than a few subway extensions and GO improvements.

That would be a real debate. What we have today is an utter sham.