Updated September 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm:
A few issues raised in this article were addressed during the presentation and debate on the Metrolinx report.
- The dismissal of “time based fares” refers only to fares that are calculated by the length of a journey measured in hours rather than kilometres or zones. Times based transfer privileges (in effect, limited time passes) are still part of the mix of fares under discussion.
- Although the initial goal of the study is to produce a revenue-neutral model, Metrolinx will also expand the scope to look at adjustments to reduce the effect of bringing about that “neutrality”, in effect to offset unwanted side-effects of balancing who pays for what. This is an important consideration so that all interested parties can debate whether we want more subsidy, or higher fares, or some combination of these in aid of the greater good of an integrated and “fair” regional system. Just telling everyone “this is how it will be” is a recipe for political disaster, especially considering any reorganization of regional fares is likely to occur just in time for the next round of elections.
- Integration is a big issue for Metrolinx because the distinction between “local” and “regional” travel is vanishing. This is actually more important than the off-cited cross-border double fare, and the RER service concept cannot operate without close integration of local fares and service to whatever Metrolinx runs.
- Still unanswered is the question of just what service classes Metrolinx will propose, and the effect of making rail services like subway and LRT lines a separate fare class when they were designed, for the most part, to be integrated with local systems as replacements for existing bus routes.
- Metrolinx plans to publish the background papers for this study including a review of the fare structures now in use by the GTHA’s transit systems.
The original article follows below:
The Metrolinx Board will receive an update on the status of its regional fare integration study at its meeting of September 22, 2015. To no great surprise, the study is pointing strongly toward fare by distance as the preferred scheme, no matter how much the entire exercise wants to give the impression of an unbiased approach and of “consultation” with municipal transit operators and the public. For some time, the Metrolinx review has the air of “any colour you like as long as it’s black”, and this update does little to change the impression.
The fundamental problem is that Metrolinx is a regional commuter system where any kind of flat fare simply won’t work, although their pretensions to being truly fare-by-distance fall apart the longer a trip gets. As the role of Metrolinx changes, both with the construction by Ontario of urban lines, and with the evolution of its market beyond the hinterland-to-downtown model, a one-size-fits-all fare system simply won’t work. Things get even more complicated where there is a mix of GO and local services serving the same territory whether these be rail or bus operations.
An “integrated fare system” has long been the goal for regional planners, although just what this means has varied over the years. For a long time, “integration” meant little more than having one farecard (Presto, of course) that would work everywhere while the actual fare structures were unchanged. The farecard would simply eliminate the pesky business of having different fare media – tickets, tokens, passes, cash, transfers – for different systems. Now that completion of Presto’s rollout is within sight, the question turns to the matter of fare boundaries and “fairness” in fare structures.
The Goals and Elements of a Fare System
The update begins by recapping the desire for a consolidated fare system and then turns to the characteristics such a system might have.
The first point about fragmented fares is valid to the point that wherever there is a boundary, this creates a barrier to use and constrains riders’ choices by making some trips simply uneconomic. The degree to which duplication exists is quite another matter because, for the most part, there is little overlap between systems. A few notable cases exist in Toronto near the borders with overlapping subway feeders, but these are the exception within a much larger network. One could argue that the GO Rail network is the largest duplication of them all with its long standing bias against short-haul riders through station placement, fares and service levels.
Just as the arrival of subway service beyond the old City of Toronto boundaries created a bizarre situation with zones and feeder buses in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough over four decades ago, the imminent presence of TTC subway service in York Region, not to mention the SmartTrack scheme to operate TTC fare service on GO Transit corridors, blurs the distinction between “regional” and “local” systems, trips and fares. Metrolinx itself is studying the possible location and potential of new stations many of which are located within Toronto.
The Vision Statement for this study is a lovely piece of motherhood prose, but it contains a few key points and potential pitfalls.
The single network experience is an important goal, but this is achieved in many other cities where overall subsidy levels are higher and preserving fare revenue is not the top priority.
Most obvious is the need for “financial sustainability”. This comes down to a zero-sum game in which the first priority is to preserve existing revenue streams, almost certainly splitting them among existing operators much as they are today. Fare integration may encourage some new riding, but in the end some riders will pay more while others pay less. Balancing this out is not a straightforward process, and it will have a strong political component for the simple reason that added subsidies will almost certainly be needed. Who will be the beneficiaries? Who should pay more in fares or taxes? The “customer first vision” does not appear to address these questions.
[The emphasis on Fare Structure above is in the original Metrolinx document.]
Two important words creep into the discussion here: “value” and “consistency”.
A basic problem is that Metrolinx confuses “fare integration” with “uniformity”, and this whole debate gets very messy, very quickly.
“Value” is very much in the mind of the rider, and almost certainly differs from how this might be calculated by a service provider. For example, GO Transit justifies its lower fare/km for very long trips by saying that the train (and its seats) travel to the end of the line even if the riders don’t. To which a rider would justly reply, “that’s your problem, not mine” and beef about being charged for the seat mileage he did not use. GO offers a “co-fare” throughout the GTHA except in Toronto, another example of its discriminatory fare structure.
Riders on lightly used services (either on minor routes, or during periods when vehicles will never be full) will view the “value” of their travel very differently than a cost accountant attempting to justify a higher cost for a more lightly-used service. A rider’s time costs the transit agency nothing, but a wait for an infrequent service, especially at a transfer point, has a huge negative value to the rider. Some all-night services are lightly used and relatively expensive to operate, per rider, but they are also among the least reliable of the TTC’s routes. Should “value” apply only to operating cost, but not to dependability?
The Metrolinx concept of “consistency” presents its own set of problems because it demands that every GTHA agency assume the same rules. No city is free to have more attractive fare structures nor to implement social goals if this would compromise the idea that fares in Hamilton, Toronto, York Region and Durham must behave the same way. The most obvious example of this is the free children’s fare implemented in 2015 by Mayor Tory. Another important example is the “multiple” applied to high-volume discounts, a multiple that sets a monthly pass in Toronto at a higher level (counted in single fares) than equivalents on other GTHA systems including GO Transit. Discounts for Seniors and Students are much lower on the TTC than on GO Transit.
There will be a particular challenge for “consistency” with SmartTrack running over the GO corridors. These trains may have a few more stops than an “express” GO train, but they will be the same vehicles making almost the same trip at a considerably lower fare because that’s what Mayor Tory said in his platform.
At what point does a subway, especially one with widely-spaced stops, become a “premium” service? What does this do to the entire concept of the TTC’s network, a tightly integrated set of surface feeders and subway trunk lines that avoids duplication of subway service with a parallel surface network? Where will the new LRT lines stand, especially any that might be unencumbered by road traffic?
The Metrolinx report presents this as a logical way to proceed, almost as a fait accompli, but omits a vital set of data: a table of existing fare structures and policies across the region. The Metrolinx Board members are not exactly masters of detail when it comes to transit operations and policy. Most members are unlikely to understand how many inconsistencies already exist nor the effect on riders and agencies (including their own) of a uniform structure. It is no excuse to say that the details will be examined in future rounds of study if the basic premise for the new system is decided in a vacuum before study and consultation occur.
What Are We Selling?
Before we start putting price stickers on various aspects of the transit network, we need to understand just what we are selling.
This chart (and the pages that follow it) gives a very one-dimensional view of transit service and “value”. Speed is generally a “good thing”, but it is associated with capital-intensive transit modes. Moreover, reliability can kick in to foul up not only speed expectations but the comfort and convenience of travel. How “valuable” is a subway line if a rider must let multiple trains pass before they can board, be jammed in like a sardine once a space is available, and sit interminably in tunnels because of congestion (or simply poor scheduling) on the line ahead? Even GO Transit has a comfort goal that most of its riders should get a seat, but this has never been achieved because they cannot afford to operate enough service. Indeed, latent demand may prevent them from ever reaching this goal.
A further problem would exist if a higher-priced subway were to replace a lower-priced bus. Yes, it might be faster (especially during peak periods), but would voters and politicians be so quick to cry for subways-subways-subways if they knew a fare increase came with their new line? GO Transit has never had to face this problem because its services are net-new, but now there is talk of GO’s role for more local travel the easy demarcation of their service will be eroded.
Another important issue with “value” is that this is not simply a question for riders or transit operators, but for the wider body politic. Mobility in general is another “good thing” and should be encouraged, but is full cost recovery counted only against raw operating costs and fares, or against wider goals such as access to jobs, reduction in traffic and environmental benefits? The Spadina Extension to Vaughan will add considerably to the TTC’s operating costs starting in late 2017 and barring a political miracle (or possibly an election) this cost will be picked up by Toronto taxpayers in subsidy and by riders through fares or deferred service improvements. Riders on the UPX enjoy a substantial subsidy because the trains run almost empty, a situation which is treated as a cost of doing business while demand builds up. We do not know what other transit spending might have occurred without the money going to prop up UPX and its pretensions to greatness.
Trip length is a surrogate for “value” although not necessarily for speed depending on one’s route and time of journey. A region-wide flat fare is simple, but it would clearly provide a substantial subsidy to those making very long trips. Variations on zone fares simplify things somewhat, and a network can have either hard or soft boundaries between the zones, or variable boundaries to reflect time-of-day incentives. Fare strictly by distance requires detailed knowledge of travel origin and destination, something which existing local fare systems make no attempt to collect. (I will not burden readers with another round of discussions on the effect “tap out” would have on local services.)
Zone fares are generally based on municipal boundaries, although there may be zones (including overlapped segments) within a region. These provide a coarse measure of distance travelled, but there will always be trips that lie just outside the one-zone limit. The worst of these, of course, is the 905-416 boundary. Already there are complaints from York University that students from York Region would have to pay a new TTC fare to ride the subway south to the university rather than a York Region bus on a York Region fare.
Turning to time-based fares, Metrolinx errs in their analysis when they say:
Trip length may also be considered indirectly, with fares based on total travel time. [p. 13]
Time-based fares are variable and unpredictable and should not be investigated further. [p. 21]
This fundamentally misrepresents “time based fares” as they have been discussed over the past few years in Toronto, and as they have actually been implemented in some locations. The implication is that because travel times cannot be know consistently, the fare charged would vary depending on conditions, and could actually be higher for cases where external effects such as weather made the trip longer. This is not what “time based fares” are all about.
The basic idea is that one “fare” buys a limited time pass. One might continue to “tap on” to various vehicles making a segmented journey, but a new fare would not actually be charged until the end of the standard time period.
Either Metrolinx planners simply do not understand the concept, or they willfully misrepresent it in order to strike the idea from further discussion.
Looking at the Options
Metrolinx begins with a table of possible generic fare structures and identifies nine permutations.
Metrolinx then turns to a comparative analysis of two major components and their interaction with fare structures.
Something important has vanished from the discussion here: service quality. A “fare” might be paid for a trip on a relatively frequent and speedy bus, or on a congested route with ragged service. It is impossible to measure all of the variations in quality (which itself has multiple aspects) let alone to plug that into a fare system or a regional subsidy structure.
Improving quality on some routes might be as straightforward as simply running more buses and managing service so that demand is evenly distributed. The evaluation model is too strongly linked to the difference between regional rail services and local transit, especially considering that vastly more riding is done on local routes and they are a vital part of the transit network. This belies a GO-Transit-centred world view in which riders magically arrive at the network by car.
Several are quickly dismissed leaving options that are not much different from the range of fare structures already in place. This reduces the debate to how the current mish-mash of fares might be consolidated and tweaked to eliminate the worst annoyances.
Metrolinx plans to study the surviving options in detail and consult along the way. Frankly, it is surprising that “detailed analysis” still does not exist to inform the overall policy direction at the Metrolinx Board or to give some context to this important debate. Either little real work has taken place since the last update, or there remains substantial disagreement about how to proceed between Metrolinx and local transit operators.
The next report to the Metrolinx Board will come in Spring 2016, although agreement across the GTHA on fare products, concession definitions and discounts is “ongoing” implying that the details will not be settled in the next six months.
“Consultation” from this provincial agency is always suspect given Queen’s Park’s history of strong-arming municipalities to support provincial policies, notably Presto which was forced on Toronto under threat of a subsidy cutoff.
Queen’s Park loves to stage press conferences to tell people they are getting more stuff – new trains, new highways, new buildings, new services – but the government shies away from saying “you will pay more”. Will Metrolinx honestly tell transit riders what the effect of a new fare structure will be and detail the winners and losers in the grand shuffle? Will Queen’s Park recognize that local revenue and the service it funds, especially in Toronto, comes overwhelmingly from riders’ fares and local taxes, and this should not be plundered to advance political aims at the regional level.
The political context is key, and with a government terrified of discussing any way to increase ongoing revenues and actually pay for transit, we are unlikely to see anything beyond band-aids trumpeted as marvels of enlightened policy.