Metrolinx Contemplates Regional Fare Integration, Again

As regularly as the seasons come and go, Metrolinx produces new reports on its long-running contemplations for a new regional fare system. Like the seasons, reports come and go, but there is little real progress toward an actual solution.

The root problem has always lain with Metrolinx. Although it bemoans the inconsistencies among fares in regional agencies, Metrolinx itself has clung to one fare model – fare by distance – as the Nirvana to which all should aspire. If there is something to be said for the current report, it is that at last there is a shift it focus and a recognition of two essential issues on the provincial side of the discussion:

  • Metrolinx’ existing fare structure is not purely a fare-by-distance system, but contains many inequities and idiosyncrasies built up over the years. In particular it discriminates against short and medium distance travel, but that is only one of its problems.
  • Integration across the 416 boundary will not occur without some new type of subsidy. Previous attempts to craft a revenue-neutral fare scheme inevitably required pillaging from Toronto (where most of the fare revenue is actually collected) to provide a subsidy for the 905.

The Executive Summary includes the following points from a consultant’s study that led to a Draft Business Case (this document has not yet been posted online):

  • All fare structure concepts examined perform better than the current state, offering significant economic value to the region
  • Making use of fare by distance on additional types of transit service better achieves the transformational strategic vision than just adding modifications to the existing structure, but implementation requires more change for customers and transit agencies
  • More limited modifications to the status quo have good potential over the short term
  • Further analysis has been conducted on other aspects of the fare system such as concessions, products, and loyalty programs
  • Metrolinx and GTHA transit agencies continue to independently make decisions regarding fares that widen the gap that fare integration needs to bridge

At the risk of prejudging the outcome, it is quite clear where this is heading. There will be come sort of “limited modifications” to achieve the “good potential over the short term”, and we may never actually reach, nor need to reach, the end state.

Staff recommend that the Board approve the following:

  1. The Metrolinx Board endorse the step-by-step strategy outlined in the Report and that staff report back on December 14th 2017 on means to advance the strategy which

    • Discounts on double fares (GO-TTC)
    • Discounts on double fares (905-TTC)
    • Adjustments to GO’s fare structure
    • Fare Policy Harmonization
  2. Staff undertake to engage the public and key stakeholders (including municipal elected officials) on advancing the step-by-step strategy
  3. Staff post the consultant’s Draft GTHA Fare Structure Preliminary Business Case

Metrolinx argues that an integrated fare strategy would require substantial standardization of fare policies notably the discount structures for concession and loyalty fares and rules regarding the validity of transfers. While the 905 systems use time based transfers, the TTC requires a new fare if there is a stop-over or doubling back on a journey. This and any other “local options” complicates Presto, and as we have seen in the case of the TTC leads to odd behaviours due to the difficulty of mapping trips and “valid” transfers under all circumstances. Although the report does not mention this, TTC management have already indicated tentative support for time-based transfers (this is to be part of a forthcoming Ridership Growth Strategy). The problem lies in the political arena where City Council will have to cough up funding to offset the cost.

Until the study is actually published, we should take the statement that “all fare structure concepts examined perform better than the current state” because an essential part of any new structure would be the elimination of the boundary between TTC and other fares. This does not necessarily endorse any of the alternatives.

Like a dog with a bone, Metrolinx simply will not give up on its preferred alternative:

Fare by distance should be a consideration in defining the long-term fare structure for the GTHA

The question here is what is merely “a consideration” and what is an unchangeable goal across the entire network.

Metrolinx acknowledges that it has to talk to people, and that it simply cannot impose its will on the region.

A formal and inclusive decision making process needs to be put in place to establish the longer-term GTHA fare structure vision

This is a rather odd statement considering all of the study this issue has been through, and the degree to Metrolinx has previously claimed widespread agreement. Moreover, it implies that someone might actually disagree, although the outcome of such a position is unclear. Would Queen’s Park welcome local political input (after demolishing the original Metrolinx that included local politicians) if it provided a way to impose unwanted policies on individual members of the region?

What is particularly galling about this summary is that after all this time we still do not see worked examples of possible fare structures and their effects on various types of trips, on groups of riders and on the revenue streams of each transit agency. Possibly this is in the as-yet unpublished report, but if it isn’t, Metrolinx will effectively admit that the real effects are not as rosy as their claims. The most obvious question any new scheme will encounter is “what’s in it for me” both as positive and negative issues.

Appendix 1 discusses “Key Fare Integration Challenges” and is somewhat more realistic than previous attempts at the topic. First up is the question of “tapping off”, a pre-requisite to fare-by-distance. The report acknowledges that tapping off is not the effortless addition to fare collection procedures:

Emerging technological solutions may allow tap on-only customer experience while maintaining compatibility with fare-by-distance or–zone structures


As GO fares require origin/destination information, any regional fare structure requires either:

  • acceptance that different customer behaviours will be required depending on service type,
  • moving all transit to tap on/off, or
  • new technological solutions

Other issues include the handling of cash fares and mobile ticketing.

With respect to distance travelled, there is a notable difference between GO and TTC subway fares because the former are distance based and skewed against short trips, while the latter are flat and provide free transfers to connecting services. The report observes:

As GO fares cannot feasibly be flat, any regional fare structure requires either:

  • acceptance of different approaches to distance based on service type, or
  • moving all services to fare by distance/zones

The problem with this statement lies in the term “service type”. Metrolinx has previously touted the idea of “premium” services that would include all rail-based modes, while leaving buses untouched. This arises from a flaw in a previous study that did not consider “bus rapid transit” because (it is claimed) there were no BRT services when it was undertaken. Such is the quality of Metrolinx “research”.

If we decide that some services should pay a premium fare, the obvious questions is “what is a premium service and why should I pay more for it”? This is easy to argue for GO rail because these are express services with widely spaced stops (although even that model is under attack thanks to SmartTrack and the Minister of Transportation’s love for extra stops), but much harder for subways, let alone LRT and BRT that are a much lower step up from local transit than a GO train.

Each municipality has its own local concession fares often in response to local history or to the perceived value of certain types of discounts. Toronto has free rides for children, while seniors’ and students’ fares vary around the region, and there are different approaches to discounts (if any) for disadvantaged groups. How all of these will be reconciled is a knotty question: does the most generous arrangement get implemented across the board, or do the outliers (e.g. Toronto with children’s fares) drop their concessions? What is the appropriate multiple for loyalty programs such as the Metropass?

Unless Queen’s Park is willing to sever the link between farebox revenue and local service costs by providing subsidies for a more generous (and “integrated”) fare system, this discussion won’t get very far. Indeed, it might still run into problems if municipalities that do not now offer “discount X” get a provincial subsidy when others who provide this out of local funds today are left with that cost.

The whole study of Fare Integration has bumbled along for quite some time without any clear answers, but with an attempt to preserve the status quo from Metrolinx’ point of view. This has wasted a great deal of time when a better-informed conversation might have taken place. With an election coming in June 2018, the current proposal adds to the consultation, but conveniently punts a decision beyond the end of the current government’s mandate.

11 thoughts on “Metrolinx Contemplates Regional Fare Integration, Again

  1. Steve wrote: Integration across the 416 boundary will not occur with some new type of subsidy.

    Surely you meant ‘without’, based on what’s relayed later in the article about discounts on double fares.

    Steve: Thanks for catching that!


  2. I have a stupid question. What is Metrolinx trying to accomplish by integrating fares? Presto takes care of the inconvenience of transferring from one mode or transit agency to another. If I am paying to take the GO Train in from Barrie every day, the $3.00 to jump on the TTC is hardly noticable, so I don’t need a discount to change my behaviour. Someday PRESTO will have GO and TTC monthly passes available, so where is the issue? What behaviour are we trying to change? If the goal is to get people to take transit for the whole route instead of driving for part of the route to avoid a fare, I am pretty sure traffic and parking costs are taking care of that problem.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate on individual policies to shift ridership from peak hours to off-peak? Discounts on the Lakeshore line or TTC outside of rush hour might shift some riders onto the trains when they are less crowded.

    I really don’t understand what Metrolinx is trying to accomplish, why is this an issue?

    Steve: The mythology of “fare integration” for years is that the 905-416 border is a sticking point for “many” riders even though they are a minority of travel. Of course there is the catch 22 that without the fare boundary, there could be more cross-boundary travel, but the issue goes much deeper than that. Travel in the outer 416 is challenging, and if this has to cross into the 905, things are even worse. GO’s service and subsidies focus on downtown Toronto. Meanwhile, Queen’s Park doesn’t want to hand out new operating subsidies and instead prefers to find ways to stiff the municipalities for paying for services to get them off the provincial books such as Presto and the future cost of LRT line operations.

    It is only quite recently that Metrolinx has acknowledged that their own fare system needs work, not just those of the local systems around the GTHA.

    As for shifting to off-peak travel, that’s a nice idea provided that the service is there to handle the demand. This can have unintended consequences for those whose jobs and/or personal circumstances prevent off-peak travel, or whose commutes are so long that being “outside of the peak” is not an option. It is ironic that the most likely beneficiaries of this would be people living downtown who have short trips and who work in “understanding” jobs where hours can be shuffled.


  3. Great write up Steve.

    Go Transit fares have increased exponentially in the last 5 years and are now either the highest or 2nd highest in North America for daily commuters. If the day arrives where the TTC ever comes under the umbrella of Metrolinx, many TTC riders will be in for a shock. Metrolinx has an insatiable appetite for money and they don’t know how to do more with less and it’s leading to them making decisions to finalize a decision before the review process is completed. They are tailoring data to suit their preferred outcome. 2 hour windows are off the table due to cost. Co-fares like those in Durham/York/etc where you pay $0.75 after transferring to or from a Go Train/Go Bus are also off the table – again due to cost.

    Why is this latest report not taking advantage of the absolute latest information? Every single system in the region now has Presto up and running. Surely some solid numbers can now be reviewed from the number of taps on the system from every regional transit agency even after only 6 months of being in full service.

    It makes sense in theory that they want to eliminate the lines on a map, but the fact is that those lines do exist and they do serve a purpose. Co-Fares and timed transfers should absolutely be put back on the table and put under consideration.


  4. The simplest first task is to figure out which concessions could be traded to get closer to a common concession setup for the region…

    For example if we get rid of children ride free, but add a discount for seniors maybe they would be close to the same amount of money.

    Once you go through that process you look for concessions that could be traded across borders (or across 3 or more borders) that would even things out.

    Simple first steps….

    Steve: Both of those concessions bring counterarguments. When Tory announced free kiddies fares, this was pitched as a poverty fighting tactic even though many children live in affluent homes. Meanwhile we hear about all of these affluent seniors who don’t deserve subsidies while forgetting that many of them live in relative poverty. And don’t get me started on whether students are “rich” or “poor”.

    The basic problem is that Toronto, at least, doesn’t want the complexity and cost of a needs-based subsidy, and prefers the broad brush approach of concession fares for groups of riders. The situation is different in the 905 because transit has a much lower share of the travel market, and the cost of any discounts is trivial compared to running frequent service.

    All of the talk of fares is meaningless if we do not also address service quality and standards. When I pay my fare, whatever it might be, I want a vehicle to show up promptly and with space for me to ride.


  5. The co fare exists in the 905 because Metrolinx decided that paying a subsidy for local transit is cheaper than providing more parking spaces. There is no incentive for Metrolinx to offer a co fare in Toronto. If anything, it will create more problems for them. Metrolinx does not have enough capacity to serve all the Toronto commuters using GO. On the Stouffville Line, it is already standing only at Milliken Station. If a lot of Toronto commuters start using GO lines, it will overflow quickly. Before fare integration, it will require a big expansion capacity beyond the RER proposal.

    Another problem is that most GO stations have poor connectivity or are in poor locations. If a passenger boards a train on the Stouffville Line at Union, that person occupies a spot on the train whether he is heading to Agincourt or Lincolnville. If he disembarks at Agincourt, another passenger will not board to take his place. This means that GO is hauling an empty space with no revenue all the way to Lincolnville. Most of the GO stations aside from Union have no employment nearby or served poorly by local transit. Unless the person uses a Zipcar, bike or able to walk, most GO stations are like deserts in the middle of no where. A tram route like the 504 has fairly even utilization from the beginning to end. A GO train gets emptier as it approaches the terminal station.

    GO has a huge last mile problem. This is why getting to the GO station and going to the destination is such a problem. This is why the discussion on fare integration. If people begin and end their trips on GO, this discussion is irrelevant. Fare integration is a nice concept, but once RER rolls along, it will trigger a lot of need for local service. Will Metrolinx be able to pay for all the co fares? Or will the GO stations redevelop into hubs where people can work, play and eat close to the station?

    If Metrolinx can operate a car and bike sharing service like Zipcar and Bixi, it might be better for them as long as it can break even. Most people know that travelling on the GO is faster. For someone going from Union Station to Erindale Station, GO only costs $7.24 . This is about the same as a TTC plus Mississauga Transit fare. As long as there is a car or bike share at both ends, it will cost more, but faster than using local transit.


  6. I’m a downtowner, cyclist when possible, but I do believe in good transit. And it must be good if it is supposed to supplant cars.

    Lots of talk about distance-based fares, but no resolution. What about time-based fares? Time can substitute for distance as a measure of usage. And for TTC users, it might avoid the unfairness of having two short trips costing twice as much as one long one to the suburbs. Also it might encourage use if a single fare can encompass several errands. I feel sorry for those almost empty buses in the evenings.

    I heard that the TTC recently refused to consider a time limit instead of transfers, afraid it would cost them. I am afraid they are neglecting the bigger picture, bigger possibilities.

    Steve: Time-based fares will be back on the table in November as part of the new Ridership Growth Strategy. What the TTC Board and Council do with this is another matter, and I don’t expect we will see something definitive until at least the 2019 budget, after the election next year.


  7. Operational subsidies for cross-border transit should be provincially based.

    Steve: Calculating those subsidies could be tricky. The real problem is that QP, having walked away from operating subsidies, still wants to impose policies that affect operating budgets. This will be a problem within municipalities if they attempt to force the creation of better transit services through the Regional Plan (Next Big Move) without operating support. The “last mile problem” is as least as much a financial/political one as it is a technical problem caused by dispersed trip origins and destinations.


  8. Steve writes Travel in the outer 416 is challenging, and if this has to cross into the 905, things are even worse.

    I frequently plug the Mississauga transit connections in Etobicoke because I used to ride them as a reverse commuter and I thought they were reliable and convenient for my shift times. (Shout out to any 70 Keaton riders out there) Expensive, yes. I needed a Metropass and 40 Mississauga transit fares. I did consider at one point getting GTA weekly passes but I don’t think it was worth it for the month. Does that pass exist on Presto? How was that fare subsidized?

    Steve: No, there is no GTA pass on Presto. I am not sure how the TTC is handling funding of this service given the provincial cutbacks in subsidies, but will check. These passes are responsible for less than 1% of ridership.


  9. The way fare integration should look from the rider’s perspective is simple and has been implemented in multiple other regions:

    1) Zones. The GT(H)A should be divided into zones, which should overlap in order to avoid charging a double zone ticket for short trips across the zone boundary. The zones should (roughly) correspond to the current areas of operation of the local transit agencies, i.e. Toronto (TTC) is one zone, Mississauga (Miway) is another zone, etc.

    2) Fares within a zone should be flat. A single zone fare should ideally be identical in each zone, but this is not necessary if the funding would be too complicated to figure out in that case.

    3) Time-based fares. A single-zone ticket would be valid for e.g. 2 hrs, a two-zone ticket for 3, etc. GO should fit within this structure, i.e. the fares should be independent of the operator, if I have metropass for the Toronto zone I can ride on the GO, TTC, Miway as much as I want as long as I don’t leave that zone. If I have a monthly (daily, weekly) pass for a single zone, I can cross on a single (2h) trip into another zone by purchasing a zone upgrade.

    If they can’t figure out the funding to make this work, they shouldn’t do GTA-wide fare integration, since any other scheme would be an incomprehensible minotaur.


  10. A question came up in this thread about the funding of GTA passes. Here, from the TTC’s Brad Ross, is how it works:

    A revenue sharing agreement exists and through it TTC gets 54% of the revenue of the pass (regardless of who sells it) – with the remaining 46% going to the neighbouring municipality that sells the pass (or if sold by TTC) the 46% is allocated to the municipality that is closest to where the sale occurred (e.g. Islington station = Mississauga, Finch Station = York Region etc..). The costs of producing the pass are also split on a 54% TTC/ 46% other municipalities combined basis. TTC handles the printing, distribution and reconciliation and bills/remits funds to neighbouring municipalities as required.


  11. Steve said: Travel in the outer 416 is challenging, and if this has to cross into the 905, things are even worse.

    And because of the sometimes arbitrary nature of the fare boundaries, TTC buses serving the boundary lands cannot take all passengers as far as they want to go, and the more frequent 905 buses heading to/from the subway can’t pick waiting passengers up inbound or outbound.

    20 years ago the Lawrence West bus used to stop under the 427 where passengers had to pay a second fare. The boundary is now at Pearson Airport, a far more sensible place but still not helping all bus passengers.

    In another example, the Eglinton West 32 used to stop at the Renforth loop but now travels further into Mississauga to connect with MiWay buses at the Skymark Hub…but only reaches halfway into the sprawling Corporate Centre. With the Renforth station opening again this fall, and changes to Skymark hub likely to follow, what should the TTC do?

    Benny Chung said: If a passenger boards a train on the Stouffville Line at Union, that person occupies a spot on the train whether he is heading to Agincourt or Lincolnville. If he disembarks at Agincourt, another passenger will not board to take his place.

    On the other hand, I have gotten off the Milton-bound GO train at Kipling and seen dozens of people waiting to get on. I suppose that is the advantage of a rapid transit connection which Agincourt doesn’t yet have.

    I am curious to see what happens at Kennedy today, what will happen at Downsview Park beginning in December, at Leslie-Oriole when the GO platform is moved north, and at Mount Dennis, Caledonia when the Crosstown is finished (OK, and Agincourt when/if the Sheppard East LRT happens).


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