On Friday, February 17, the Metrolinx Board will consider yet another update in the long-running saga of its attempt to develop an integrated regional fare policy.
It is no secret that for a very long time, Metrolinx staff have preferred a fare-by-distance system in which riders pay based on the distance travelled, possibly at different rates depending on the class of service with fast GO trains at the top of the pile. The latest update tells us almost nothing about the progress their studies, but does reveal that a fourth option has been added to the mix.
Option 1, modifying the existing structure, simply adds discounts to smooth the rough edges off of the existing zones between service providers. This has already been implemented for GO Transit “co-fares” with systems in the 905, but it is notably absent for trips to and from the TTC. Riders face a full new fare to transfer between a TTC route and GO or any of the local 905 services.
Option 2, a more finely grained zone structure than exists today, would provide a rough version of fare-by-distance, but would still have step increments in fares at boundaries. Note that this scheme also contemplates a different tariff for “rapid transit”.
Option 3 is a “Hybrid” mix of flat fares for local services and fare-by-distance for “rapid transit” and “regional” services for trips beyond a certain length. The intent is to charge a premium for faster and longer trips on services that are considered “premium”.
Option 4 is new, and it eliminates the “flat” section of the Hybrid scheme so that the charge for a trip begins to rise from its origin and there is no such thing as a “short” trip at a flat rate. The rate of increase would vary depending on the class of service.
Ever since Metrolinx began to treat “rapid transit” as a separate fare class, this created an inevitable conflict with the Toronto transit network’s design as an integrated set of routes where subways provide the spine. Riders are not penalized with a separate fare for using the subway because it was built to replace and improve on surface streetcar and bus operations. This is fundamentally different from GO Transit which replaced no significant existing transit services in its corridors, and which was designed as a high speed operation to attract commuters out of their cars.
A basic flaw in much work on fare integration has been the assumption of a zero-sum situation where any fare reductions created to reduce or eliminate system boundaries would have to be offset by higher revenue from some other group of riders. In Metrolinx’ view, the available target was the Toronto subway rider, and this would be justified by thinking of the subway as a separate class of transit service. That scheme has run into political headwinds, and even the Metrolinx Chair has stated at a board meeting that a zero-sum scheme is not workable. The problem lies with funding limitations at Queen’s Park. GO Transit is desperate to preserve its revenue base by treating its service as a premium class under the rubrics of “rapid transit” and “regional” service.
When this distinction was first proposed, Metrolinx planners only considered GO Transit and the TTC subway as candidates even though other forms of “rapid transit” – LRT and BRT lines – are under construction or operating. This becomes even trickier when one considers a line like Eglinton Crosstown that will be underground in part, but much of the line will operate at grade. Is an all-surface corridor like the Hurontario or Hamilton LRT lines a “local” service or a “rapid transit” line?
For bus operations, there are routes operating on BRT corridors, but they do not spend their entire time in exclusive lanes. At what point does a service become “rapid transit” and therefore warrant a higher fare tier? If a route operates with GO buses, should it be “regional” and charge more, but if by one of the 905 operators, be “local” and charge less?
There is wide recognition in the GTHA that transit cannot work without more exclusivity and priority, but will planning be coloured by the potential fare implications of two classes of service? Will Scarborough Subway boosters be so happy with their new line if the ride to downtown costs substantially more than a “regular” TTC fare?
That concept of a “regular” fare links with another transit boondoggle, John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme. Although this has dwindled from dedicated, frequent service to the provision of additional stations on the GO network, there remains the concept that riders within Toronto would pay a “TTC” fare to ride a GO/SmartTrack train. The sophistry lies in the question of just what a “TTC” fare will look like by the time the new SmartTrack service operates. If Metrolinx gets its way, “rapid transit” fares on the TTC will behave a lot more like GO Transit that they do today.
Ridership projections for new subway lines and for SmartTrack depend on that relatively cheap, flat TTC fare in determining how riders will be attracted. If the fare structure changes significantly, so will the projected demand for these services.
Every iteration of new fare proposals has brought the most basic question for riders: what would the new fares mean for me? Metrolinx is silent on this issue, and so there is no basis for comparison or evaluation. All we have is a few generic charts. Considering that this project has been underway for two years (with less formal discussions going back years before that), the need to propose actual values for a tariff and evaluate their impacts on rider costs and system revenues is long overdue. But this would also move the debate from a convenient, friendly academic discussion of principles to the bare-knuckle political arena.
Metrolinx provides a sample of fare structures world-wide to establish that Toronto would hardly be unique in changing its tariff.
Leaving aside the geographic challenges facing their map-maker, and the fact that this information is hardly “confidential” as the slide is labelled, all that this map really shows is that there is a variety of fare systems. One critical point missing from this review is a discussion of subsidy levels, and the degree to which zones or distance-based fares represent a significant barrier to transit use in each city. Moreover, Metrolinx planners completely ignore the role of passes or any equivalent form of bulk purchase for transit services. A city or region may have “fare by distance”, but this may be offset by pass options that render transit costs essentially flat within some part of the network.
In Toronto, over half of all transit trips are made using a Metropass, and riders pay a fixed cost per month for unlimited riding. A variation on prepaid passes is fare capping where usage of the system beyond a certain level does not incur added cost on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. This is already in effect on GO Transit, and has been proposed by the TTC as the method of implementing a “Day Pass” function on Presto. The most common web page anyone inquiring about visiting foreign cities will encounter will be one extolling the virtues of transit passes to simplify and limit the cost of getting around.
Another variant is the time-based fare where the concept of “transfers” as used by the TTC disappears, and a single fare buys unlimited riding for a set period of time. This is already in effect in parts of the GTA, but notably not for the Toronto system. The concept was rejected by the TTC in its 2016 budget discussions because of its cost. Indeed, the TTC has even floated the idea of eliminating fare discounts for seniors and students to address its budget shortfalls. Metrolinx considers time-based fares as a local decision, and yet they are designing a fare structure for the entire region. Their selective consideration of distance-based fares shows the built-in bias of their studies.
It is important to remember that all of this upheaval and desire for an “integrated” fare structure is intended to serve a minority of transit riders. Metrolinx observes that 55,000 riders are now affected by a double fare, although this number will grow. Should we tear apart the fare system now used by nearly two million daily riders?
There are actually two barriers to transit use: fares and service. Travel around the GTHA over significant distance, especially crossing system boundaries, can be tedious with infrequent bus routes and poor connections, not to mention fare barriers where they exist. But the real sophistry in this slide comes in the observation that travellers expect fare values to reflect the value of their trip. This can be read as a justification for charging more to ride “better” services, but to riders the real meaning is “I should not pay a fortune to ride a short distance”. Any discussion of fares, like taxes, is founded on the premise that “I” am paying unfairly to subsidize others who don’t deserve it.
“Riders should pay for what they use” is a simplistic phrase, but it ignores many factors underlying transit costs.
Subways are very expensive to operate (never mind to build), and a large portion of the cost is fixed whether someone rides the trains or not. Extending the subway to Vaughan will add $30 million to the TTC’s operating costs in 2018 net of new fare revenue. Who should pay this cost – all transit riders, subway riders, only riders on the extension, or governments as a matter of economic development and improved mobility?
Transit capacity necessarily exists at many times and locations where it is not fully used. That is the nature of a network. A train may leave Union Station packed to the roof, but be nearly empty when it reaches its outer terminus, and it will run nearly empty on a return trip. A guaranteed 30 or 15 minute headway might exist as a matter of convenience to encourage the sense that transit is “always available”. Local transit routes work the same way. Many trips will not be fully loaded. Should we charge more for them? If the TTC provides a guaranteed service level on a “ten minute network”, should it charge a higher fare?
Some routes are best served by a mixture of express services to handle long trips with local services to handle shorter ones. This is not a matter of pampering “express” riders but of optimizing the provision of service.
At this point, Metrolinx’ analysis of fare options shows that each has its benefits and challenges.
In an era where our “regional” transit agency, Metrolinx, is burdened by the challenge of creating a network to move people over long distances, it is ironic that their fare proposals show a “high ridership potential” for cheaper short trips. As someone who lives downtown and typically rides less than 10km to any destination, cheaper fares sound just great, but I already enjoy them thanks to my Metropass and the senior’s discount. The real question for Metrolinx is the effect of a new fare structure on people whose trips are necessarily much longer because they live far from their regular destinations.
Metrolinx attempts to mute criticism by an appeal to “equity” in transit fares.
The observation is that low income riders tend to make shorter journeys, and that these tend to be on surface routes. This chart originally appeared before Option 4, complete fare by distance, was part of the mix, and it was intended to show how retaining a flat fare for “local” transit would not affect the poor. The analysis, however, omits several major points:
- Most of “the poor” do not live in subway neighbourhoods, and their local trips will necessarily be on surface routes. It is unclear how their fares and service would be affected in a future network with more “rapid transit” serving these areas.
- The more affluent who live in the 905 but commute to the core likely have a car and use it for short trips because there is no transit alternative. Their commuting costs are substantial, but are competitive by transit on a total cost and time basis compared to driving.
- Riders who take short trips will use a pass if they can fit this into their available finances, but the barriers are considerable when future transit usage is unpredictable. Toronto plans to implement a fare mechanism to offset this problem over coming years for those who meet low-income criteria, but the benefits to the working poor may be limited.
Low income travellers are “particularly affected” by the 416/905 boundary for the simple reason that higher income commuters are either in their cars or on GO Transit which they can afford. The poor are stuck with local bus systems that actually provide transit to locations other than downtown, albeit not very well. Businesses dependent on cheap labour encounter problems attracting workers who cannot afford the time or the cost of cross-boundary trips.
If the transit network changes to address the problem of transit quality and capacity for travel that is not peak period, core oriented, the travel market will change. Metrolinx should not base its fare policies or assumptions of who will be affected on current travel patterns, but on their hoped-for future network. Building in a disincentive to longer “local” trips, let alone “rapid transit” could well work against the very goals Metrolinx claims to pursue.
A special word is needed here about riders within Toronto. In all of the debates over suburban transit expansion, regardless of where one might stand on the merits of each proposal, there is a common complaint: suburban riders are economically constrained to live far away from the best part of the transit network, and they must travel long distances to reach workplaces and schools. Any claim that a fare by distance system will benefit the less well off because they primarily make short trips completely ignores the effect on those riders who have no choice but to make long journeys.
Metrolinx planners owe everyone much more detail about how each of their fare systems would work including examples of tariffs and zone boundaries. How sensitive are comparisons between schemes to changes in local versus “rapid transit” fares? What are the implications for future travel as the GTHA network evolves? Will a new fare scheme make transit better, or simply shuffle the fare revenue between groups of users to address the annoyance of a fare boundary?
If there is to be a new system, should its effects be revenue-neutral, a zero-sum game where one group wins and another loses, or should a “better” fare system be accompanied by better subsidies? What tariffs would be possible and how much would they cost? At what point are fare subsidies counter-productive if they detract from funding for better service?
These are vital questions for the future of southern Ontario’s transit network, but none of the work to date has addressed them.
The real issue for transit is not to redistribute fares, but to encourage transit riding, increase network capacity and provide a real alternative to driving. This is a social issue (availability and perceived cost of time) and an economic one (mobility provides access to workplaces, schools, entertainment and services). Twiddling with the fare system does not provide one more seat on the subway or a faster ride. Only a commitment to better transit funding for capital and operating costs can achieve this.