At the April 26, 2018 Metrolinx Board Meeting, two of the public agenda items dealt with changes in fares and in the fare collection system:
Presto Mobile is a new smartphone app that is intended to become a single point of access to Metrolinx services including fare payment and trip planning.
On the fare integration front, Metrolinx is contemplating the effects of funding announced in the 2018 provincial budget to subsidize lower fares for short GO Transit trips, and for cross-border fares between Toronto and the 905-area municipalities.
For the sake of discussion, this article assumes that the provisions in the budget will actually be implemented regardless of which party forms the government after the election in June.
Updated May 7, 2018 at 9:50 am: Metrolinx has confirmed that the double discount for GO+TTC fares would still apply to the new $3 fare within Toronto.
There’s little secret that Presto is a brand in serious trouble especially within Toronto where the roll out has not gone well thanks to a mixture of bad design and unreliable hardware. The cost of Presto overall has gone through the roof, and that’s a hard legacy to live down. Now Metrolinx plans to roll out new Presto features with an app, “Presto Mobile”, intended to be a consolidated hub for future offerings including trip navigation and fare payment. Conventional web access will not disappear, but added features are possible with smartphones.
In its first iteration, Presto Mobile places the functionality of the web-based Presto account management system in a smartphone based app. Through this, riders will be able to check accounts and top up the balance on their cards (one device can manage up to 10 cards, a necessary feature for families and other groups) and review the transaction history. Android-based devices will be able to directly update the balance on a card so that riders do not have to wait for central system to refresh info in the Presto reader network as it does today. The app would perform the same function as a Presto add-fare machine.
At present, a direct update of values stored on cards is limited to Android-based phones that support NFC (near field communication). This is the type of link used by Presto devices to read and write data on the cards. In time, this will come to Apple devices, but they do not currently support the functionality Presto Mobile needs.
A future enhancement will be the provision of a “virtual” Presto card within the smartphone app which will communicate directly with fare machines. Again, this is an Android-only function pending updates from Apple. Real Presto cards will not disappear because many people will not carry a smartphone simply to pay their transit fares, but the option will be available for those who choose it.
Accessibility has been included in the new app design. I inquired about the details, and here is Metrolinx’ response:
Accessibility for customers with disabilities has been—and will continue to be—considered throughout development of the PRESTO mobile app.
Specifically, the design and build will follow accessibility best practices specified by Apple and Google. It will also adhere to the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. where appropriate for the mobile app context.
With regard to visual accessibility, the app will respect the font size settings that the customer has set centrally in their phone settings. Also, the app design will be usable with screen readers that are native to iOS and Android. This will be verified through both internal testing and by testing with screen reader users, including members of the Metrolinx Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC). [Email of April 30, 2018 from Suniya Kukaswadia, Metrolinx Media Relations]
A fundamental part of Presto’s design currently requires that the payment medium – a physical Presto card or a virtual card in an app – contain the account information and be capable of interacting with fare readers. This harks back to early Presto days when network reach was poor and GO operated in areas with no coverage. The entire transaction takes place locally between the card and the reader without requiring network access. Central account data is updated typically when vehicles return to the garage.
This model does not work for credit/debit cards because Presto cannot write data onto a card they do not control, and can only interrogate basic information such as an account number.
A basic change that is needed is for Presto to move to a system that simply accumulates “taps” and reconciles fares including transfers and discounts to users after the fact. The fare calculation and billing would be done in a back end system similar to the way that phone usage is accumulated and billed periodically. Metrolinx acknowledges this will be needed eventually, but making that move is a big jump because it requires a complete rethink of the back-end systems. (This is also the model that the TTC contemplated for implementing its own fare card until Queen’s Park forced them to adopt Presto.)
Prototype demos and explanations of Presto Mobile can be seen in the meeting video. Among the details an eagle-eyed viewer will note is that the price of a TTC Adult Metropass (and other fares) in the demo app does not match the current fare. Such is life in the world of IT demos, but for a wider audience this should be fixed to avoid confusion.
The target for Phase 1, the provision of account management functions in the app, is the end of 2018. Beyond that, discussions with the government will be needed to get agreement for the investment in greater functionality.
Fare integration has been a holy grail for Metrolinx in their search for a truly regional transit system, but at times their planning and policy development have worked counter to true “integration”.
For many years, the greatest barrier has been that any new tariff had to be “revenue neutral” – no additional subsidy would come from Queen’s Park to underwrite consolidation of the various regional and local fare structures. That inevitably led to proposals which, despite political spin with messages about “equity” and “regional fairness”, amounted to pillaging revenue from and raising fares on the TTC, specifically on the subway network, to cross-subsidize trips between multiple service providers. Proposals for a provincial takeover of the subway network are linked to this scheme whereby “rapid transit” would be a separate fare class from local travel.
In a miraculous reversal, Metrolinx now presents subsidy for fare integration as an “investment” that will bear a huge payback in regional benefits. This is a classic Metrolinx volte face where a policy is downplayed until it becomes politically desirable to change course, at which point the numbers magically support the new policy. One might almost expect chair Rob Prichard to appear in a long gown and a sparkly, pointed hat waving a wand with cries of “Presto!”.
Metrolinx has served the region extremely badly by pressing on with the revenue neutral scheme for years, and much time was wasted defending an unworkable policy rather than developing and advocating for alternatives.
The fare proposals depend on funding announced in the 2018 provincial budget, but there is no guarantee that this will survive a change in government. The importance of a strong “business case” for fare subsidies is all the greater when Metrolinx could face a penny-pinching regime that might be predisposed to dismiss any election-cycle proposal as Liberal hot air, not as a worthwhile scheme in its own right.
However, the Metrolinx analyses inevitably depend on a substantial “benefit” from the presumed value of travel time and avoided auto costs that accrue largely to the travelling public, not to government accounts. Whether this approach will be supported by a new regime remains to be seen.
The proposed spending on various fare subsidies would build up to $72 million annually by the 2019-2020 budget year. This is small change as provincial programs go, and getting to the point where the amount is “committed” has taken far too long.
3-Year Commitment Annual GO-TTC Double Discount: $18.4m 905-TTC Discount: $70 million $23.3m GO Short Trip Fare Reductions: $90 million $30.0m Total $71.7m
GO-TTC “Double Discount”
A discount for riders making trips on both GO and TTC was implemented in fall 2017 whereby up to $1.50 is deducted from the combined fare for the two systems.
There is a caveat for the GO+TTC discount, however, in that a rider must pay a full fare using Presto. Riders who travel on other fare media (passes, tickets, tokens, cash) get no discount, and the discount for concession fares (seniors, students) is reduced by the amount of discount already built into the concession. In other words, an adult gets $1.50 off their combined fare, but seniors and students only save $0.55 because there is already a $0.95 discount built into their TTC fare ($2.05 versus $3.00).
The double discount is cost effective for riders who only use transit for their commute trips and pay full adult fares because they pay less for every trip taken. However, a passholder, especially someone buying with the “monthly discount plan” (soon to become the “annual pass” option), faces the problem that to obtain the GO+TTC discount, they would have to pay full fare for all of their TTC travel, not just the trips using both systems. The break-even point is at about 65 trips/month. (For a regular Metropass, this point occurs at about 69 trips/month.)
Adult Metropass at MDP Pricing $134.00 40 TTC Fares at $1.50 discounted rate 60.00 25 TTC Fares at $3.00 full fare 75.00 Total $135.00
Clearly the situation would be different for someone who uses GO+TTC for more than their commutes, but this depends on the degree to which off-peak GO service figures into their travel patterns.
905-TTC Fare Discounts
Riders who travel across the 905-416 border using local bus systems now face a double fare – one for their journey outside of Toronto, and another for their trip on the TTC. By contrast, where a trip involves three systems (Local 905 bus + GO + TTC), both the local co-fare with GO and the double discount fare with TTC apply.
The political challenge has always been to decide which government(s) make up the difference for 905-TTC trips that do not involve a GO segment. Until the budget announcement, this sort of subsidy has been treated as a local issue to be worked out between the municipalities even though there was a clear bias in provincial subsidy toward trips using their GO system.
Metrolinx now proposes that 905+TTC full adult fares paid using Presto would receive a discount of $1.50 just as GO+TTC trips do. Based on present riding patterns, this would affect about 63,000 daily trips (equivalent to 31.5k transit users, assuming that most of the trips are commuting trip pairs). The discount is expected to increase cross-border travel by reducing the fare barrier, but the report does not estimate the amount of additional riding that would occur nor any extra operating cost to provide service capacity.
GO Transit Short Trip Fare Reductions
GO’s tariff has always been biased in favour of long-haul riders for two basic reasons:
- If a flat distance-based value were applied in calculating fares, the longest trips from outlying parts of the GO system would be very expensive. These are precisely the type of trip GO is intended to shift away from car travel, and a high fare would be counter-productive.
- Conversely, a flat distance rate would make short trips on GO very cheap, and would attract riders who would consume capacity that might be better used for long-haul trips. “Better” in this case is a judgement call depending on what goals one has for the system.
With the congestion on the local rapid transit system in Toronto showing little sign of vanishing in the near future thanks to construction priorities for new lines, it has become fashionable to look to GO as an alternate provider within the 416 and a short distance beyond. SmartTrack built directly on this with the presumption that a great deal of additional local capacity could be provided using existing infrastructure. That is a separate debate, but ST created a situation where continuing to maintain high GO fares for short trips was not politically tenable. We have already seen the effect of pricing the UPX service at a rate to attract local travel, and this concept will now come to GO services generally.
Within the 416, all trips on GO rail and bus services, including UPX, would be priced at $3 for adults and at unspecified discounted rates for concession fares.
What is not clear is whether the GO+TTC discount disappears as part of this arrangement. (I have sought details from Metrolinx and await their reply.)
Current Adult Presto Fares to Union Station GO GO+TTC GO Trip Origin $7.33 $8.83 Milliken $6.44 $7.94 Rouge Hill $6.26 $7.76 Agincourt $5.02 $6.52 Kennedy, Danforth, Scarborough, Eglinton, Etobicoke N, Weston, York U, Old Cummer, Oriole $4.98 $6.48 Mimico, Kipling $4.71 $6.21 Exhibition, Bloor
For example, the GO fare from Agincourt Station to Union with Presto today is $6.26 for adults, and the combined fare if TTC is used to access GO at Agincourt and/or to complete the trip downtown is $7.76. For trips from Mimico to Union, the GO fare today is $4.98 which, combined with a discounted TTC fare makes $6.48.
If the $3 fare replaces the double discount, then all GO+TTC trips would cost $6 with the benefit dropping the closer one gets to Union. Obviously if the $3 fare and the $1.50 discount both applied making a combined $4.50 fare, then this would be a substantial discount compared to current practice, but there is no mention of such an arrangement in the report.
Updated: Metrolinx has confirmed that the double discount will remain in place so that a GO+TTC fare within Toronto would be $4.50. [Email from Vanessa Barrasa, Meyrolinx Media Relations, May 7, 2018]
Metrolinx also intends to reduce fares for any trip of 10km or less on their network to $3, and to reduce fares for trips from some near-416 stations into Toronto. The full details of the new tariff have not been published.
The report claims that the fare changes would affect “approximately 75,000 GO/UP customers” who would receive reduced fares. I checked with Metrolinx to determine whether these are individual riders, or trips, because this makes a big difference. If they are riders, then they would represent about twice as many daily trips. With GO only carrying 250k+ trips per day, that would (a) bring discounts to a huge portion of GO’s rider base and (b) imply that the vast majority of GO trips are short-haul rides, not the long-hauls GO was originally created to serve. This does not make sense.
In reply to an email query about this, Metrolinx responded:
The 75,000 is customers not trips. We have observed that a large number of those making the transfer are occasional riders. [Email of April 30, 2018 from Suniya Kukaswadia, Metrolinx Media Relations]
In other words, although 75,000 customers are shown as receiving a benefit, a large number of these do not ride GO every day, and so they represent a smaller proportion of daily travel than the number might appear to show. This is a misleading representation because, unlike the discussion of the 905-TTC trips, these are not daily trips.
The new fare structure is projected to increase ridership by 10-15%, or 25,000-37,500 (based on 250,000 daily trips), and that would translate to about 12,500-18,750 daily customers.
One might ask whether Metrolinx chose to report the benefit against the much larger base of occasional riders to inflate the scope of its perceived effect, or if this is simply sloppy report writing.
The new $3 fare, and whether the double discount would still apply for riders within Toronto, are important parts of the SmartTrack implementation because this is, in effect, the “TTC level fare” SmartTrack riders have been promised. There is no suggestion of a further discount specific to stations on the SmartTrack corridor (Milliken to Mount Dennis).
One benefit of the new tariff, assuming that it is implemented uniformly on all corridors, is that the lower fares would apply to all trips within Toronto, not just those on the supposed SmartTrack service. This is a huge improvement, but another nail in the coffin of anything resembling a distinctive SmartTrack operation overlaid on GO Transit.