One of the great mysteries surrounding the roll out of Presto on the TTC has been the whole debate about “Regional Fare Integration”. Now and then, discussion papers surface at Metrolinx, but folks at the TTC, especially the politicians, are strangely silent on the subject. “Wait and see” is the order of the day.
Well, folks, we have waited and now we are beginning to see the direction Metrolinx is heading in for a consolidated GTHA-wide fare structure. The results will not please folks in suburban Toronto or the inner 905 for whom long subway trips are a routine part of their commutes.
The presentation is in a sadly familiar Metrolinx format: lots of wonderful talk about consultation and fairness, and philosophical musings about what a fare system should look like. One big omission is any evaluation of the relative numbers of riders who would be affected by various schemes, and even worse of any sense of calibration of the fares to produce different results.
This comes at a time when we know from SmartTrack demand studies the importance of fare levels in attracting ridership. It is important here to remember that we are not talking the relatively small differences between types of TTC fares, or year-by-year increments, but the much larger deltas between TTC fares and those on GO Transit.
The problem begins with the arbitrary segmentation of the travel market into “local”, “rapid transit” and “regional transit”.
This is a wonderful theoretical view of the world that might find a home in a sophomoric academic paper, but it ignores the very real world in which (a) “rapid transit” today only exists within Toronto and (b) Toronto decided over 40 years ago that “local” trips paid one fare regardless of the mode they used. The entire system is designed on this principle, one that has consistently evaded Metrolinx planners.
If only the world were so simple. Why is Bus Rapid Transit omitted from this list? Why is a streetcar (aka LRT) on right of way “rapid transit”, but not a bus? How close must subway or LRT stops be to each other for the service to drop back to a lower tier? Conversely, if someone slaps a “19x” route number on a bus, should it become “rapid transit”?
The basic problem with this world view is that transit modes, especially bus and streetcar/LRT, have a wide range of overlapping implementations.
Now comes a basic principle about trip length which, in the Metrolinx world, is the foundation for all fares.
If trips are possible by two forms of transit within their primary market, the fares should be equal. Hence a short bus and subway trip should cost the same, and at the medium range, regional and rapid transit fares should be equal.
This is a wonderful theory, but it fails on basic issues:
- What do the terms “short”, “medium” and “long” represent? The only way the current TTC fare structure fits within this scheme would be to define all of Toronto as a “short trip”, but that is patent nonsense the moment we get into cross-border travel.
- If specific distances are assigned to the screen lines in this model, what proportion of trips now taken on the TTC, and on GTHA systems in general fall into each category?
- If “rapid transit” and “regional rail” are comparably priced, what happens to demand patterns? Indeed we often hear that there is no room on the regional system for more comparatively short-haul traffic.
- If fares between modes are to be normalized, in which direction will they move? Will rapid transit trips become more expensive at “medium” or longer distances?
- What are the implications for fares on the various long-haul subway extensions proposed or under construction? The TYSSE to Vaughan. The Scarborough Subway. The Richmond Hill subway.
- Should a Richmond Hill subway fare cost the same as a GO fare, and if not, how does that fit into the model above? A challenge for anyone trying to pick the boundary values is that Toronto is rectangular, and a trip from northeastern Scarborough to downtown is actually longer than one from the inner 905 on Yonge Street.
- How will this scheme fit into GO’s fare structure which is decidedly tilted in favour of its long-distance riders and discourages shorter trips?
It gets better as we delve into more “principles” behind this scheme.
Exactly what the avoidance of penalties for using multiple service types might translate to in practice is unclear. If we begin with the premise that “higher order” types of service should cost more because they provide greater speed (and implied value), then it is impossible for trips of comparable lengths using various mixtures of modes to cost the same. The need to use multiple modes is a fundamental result of the network design (especially in Toronto), and of GO’s abdication of responsibility for “local” transit. Now with the emergence of SmartTrack, will it be considered a regional service or (merely) rapid transit service? How does this fit together with Mayor Tory’s claim that SmartTrack would operate at TTC fares unless, of course, “TTC fares” change substantially to make “rapid transit” more expensive.
This chart is quite clear: if a mode gets you somewhere faster, you invest less time in the journey and should be prepared to pay more to “buy” that speed. On some TTC routes (the extra-fare Downtown Express lines), people pay for comfort and speed, but on other routes (the “rockets”), regular fares are used because it is actually cheaper for the TTC to carry people “express” between major nodes in the network. What is missing from this chart is any sense of the cost of providing a service, and we see only its imputed worth as a function of speed.
This chart is a general illustration of the problem with coarse fare zones such as the situation where the 416 is one big zone, and there is a major cost increment when crossing the 416/905 boundary including the one between GO and the TTC which is conveniently ignored in most discussions. This principle underpins the concept that “more zones are better than fewer zones”, and creates a catch-22 where zones within Toronto are almost inevitable in order to achieve the desired granularity at the boundary. The illustration below shows that Metrolinx is already thinking of zones on a scale considerably smaller than the City of Toronto.
Things start to get woolly when we dive into actual construction of possible fare policies.
Note that a flat fare scheme is “applicable” only to local service. Once again this gets us into the thorny question of just when a service ceases to be “local” using the Metrolinx definition.
A vital statement here is “Local … has the most trips”. That’s an intriguing concept considering the vast number of riders on the TTC subway network which, by definitions used here, is “rapid transit”, not local. Every so often, Metrolinx’ blinkered view of transit with “Toronto” and “everyone else” occupying a different space emerges, and this is a good example. The problem, of course, is that “Rapid Transit” is a very well used mode, on a par with all of the “local” travel in the entire network, and dwarfing “regional” travel by an order of magnitude or more. A fundamental assumption behind this process is, quite bluntly, wrong.
The details begin with a chart showing the general character of the existing fare structure. Following sections will use the same chart as a basis to diagram proposed changes.
Now we get a sense of what the new fare structures could look like.
Concept 1: Modified Status Quo
In this scheme, transfer fares between adjacent local transit systems would be low and standardized. This preserves agency boundaries as we know them, and offers only a small disincentive to cross-border travel. Another change would be to standardize transfer fares to and from GO, a change that benefits both inside-416 travel and cross-border trips. Those whose trips originate in the 905 would get a cheaper “distributor” service from the TTC system, and those travelling within Toronto would have a more attractive option for riding GO Transit as part of their journey (providing, of course, that capacity were available).
The kicker is here: “Regional base fare and Rapid Transit fares more closely aligned to improve continuity for medium length trips”. If you think this means you will ride GO (or SmartTrack) for today’s subway fare, think again. This is a clear statement that subway fares would rise for “medium length trips”, whatever those are. This is directly contrary to decades of Toronto Council fare policy and a kick in the teeth to those who complain that suburban riders are penalized to use the TTC.
Concept 2: Local and Rapid Transit Zones
A zone structure would be implemented, likely with the same geography for both “local” and “rapid” transit. For the longest of trips via regional services, fares would continue to rise with distance travelled. A transfer charge between local and rapid transit services is a matter for a policy decision — does Toronto lose its long-standing free-transfer between subway and surface routes which is the heart of the network design?
Concept 3: Hybrid
A region wide flat fare would be implemented for “local” service. The obvious question here is “what is local”, and the underlying assumption that this embraces all service provided by city buses (highway coaches are an exception so that they can charge “regional” fares).
Rapid transit fares would match local fares for “short” trips (again, an undefined concept), but would rise on a distance basis once the “medium” tier was entered. The rate of increase would become even steeper for “long” trips on regional service.
Missing Pieces of the Puzzle
Many issues are not addressed in this report, and there is not even the basis for public consultation. The whole question of how this would work in practice is punted to the future. We could well see “public participation” sessions in which the logical first question anyone might ask is “what does this mean for my fares”, but Metrolinx won’t be able to answer. Won’t be able, or won’t want to confront the rage of Toronto-based riders whose fares may go up.
This ties in with the “three cities” map and basic questions of transit equity. Affluent people can afford to live downtown and have short transit trips as their standard, daily travel. Less affluent are forced into the suburbs either for economic reasons or to get housing big enough for a family. Meanwhile, the job market is concentrating in a few locations, notably downtown, and commutes generally are not half-hour jaunts within a community. A similar issue exists for students who have only a few post-secondary institutions to choose from, and who face long commutes to get to and from class on a transit network that is, generally, not oriented to their destinations.
Another vital point the report ignores is the question of implementation costs — not for the hardware, but for new fare structures. How much will Queen’s Park shell out to make this scheme work, or conversely how much will local municipalities have to pony up to participate in the great plan without hitting up their riders for greatly increased fares? If Toronto wants cheaper “rapid transit” fares, how much would Council have to pay for the privilege, one that would also benefit residents of the 905?
What Is Really Going On Here?
This is the point where I have to think about motive and the “behind the scenes” machinations at Metrolinx. It is no secret that provincial planners have been strong-arming the local agencies to accept their world view of “fare integration”, and that some form of distance-based fares was inevitable. That this has been going on for so long begs important questions:
- How much do local politicians responsible for their transit agencies know about the direction this work is headed? Do they understand the implications for their fare structures, particularly in Toronto’s suburbs? Has their management bothered to tell them?
- Do Metrolinx Board members understand the implications of what is put before them? They are usually a docile lot content to praise anything their management tables with only the most superficial of comment. Either they have done a lot of work in advance in private discussion (in which case the report reflects a Board view of policy), or they do not understand (or want to understand) the implications.
- Why are Metrolinx management allowed to repeatedly bring a major policy issue like fare structure before the board with only superficial analysis and no specifics of what the proposed structures would actually look like, and how riders would benefit from or be hurt by the new schemes?
A good precept when considering the development of new policies is that Machiavellian plotting is rarely found, and sheer incompetence explains how things work so much better.
Work on fare integration policy has been underway for a long time. We have precious little to show for it, especially in the specifics of how it would work (an actual fare tariff), how it would affect riders, and what the subsidy requirements would be for each scheme. There isn’t a shred of Business Case Analysis (a methodology so beloved of Metrolinx) nor any sensitivity tests to determine the effect of “turning the knobs” on various plans. Most importantly, there is no sense of the broader political and social context in which transit operations and pricing exist.
Instead, we have a continuation of general statements and principles, warm fuzzy stuff that a Metrolinx Board might approve because it reads like motherhood until you look closely. Under the pretense of approving principles, the stage is set for a massive shift in fare policy notably within the City of Toronto where most transit riding occurs. It masks a revenue grab from “rapid transit” users (conveniently omitting the most common form of this mode outside of Toronto) and paves the way for an “integrated” SmartTrack fare that will most definitely not be at current TTC levels, the way the system was sold to voters in the first place.
My analysis may be totally out to lunch, but if that’s the case, then Metrolinx should pony up a much more detailed description of the plans to prove me wrong. The unmistakable odour of equine effluent is in the air.
The Metrolinx Board should reject this proposal and demand that it be reworked to better explain its implications beyond the level of “principles”, and state clearly how it will actually affect riders with dollars and cents examples. Anything less is an abdication of the Board’s responsibility.