Metrolinx Mulls Fare System Changes (Updated)

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.

Presto Mobile

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

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.

16 thoughts on “Metrolinx Mulls Fare System Changes (Updated)

  1. 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.

    Is Metrolinx only proposing this for 905+TTC trips, or would this also apply to cross-boundary trips (ie. using MiWay & Brampton Transit) that stay in the 905?

    Steve: The report states:

    “As part of the March 28, 2018 Ontario Budget, the Province has committed transitional funding over the next 3 years, starting in 2019 to help address the 905-TTC fare barrier. It was announced the Province will work with the TTC, York Region Transit, Mississauga’s MiWay, Brampton Transit and Durham Region Transit to introduce discounts to transit users who transfer between these municipal transit networks and the TTC. The discount for a combined TTC-905 transit agency trip will be up to $1.50 and will only be available to travellers using PRESTO.”

    It is silent on the question of 905-905 transfers.


  2. Max asked: Is Metrolinx only proposing this for 905+TTC trips, or would this also apply to cross-boundary trips (ie. using MiWay & Brampton Transit) that stay in the 905?

    Perhaps they are silent on this because there ALREADY is a full transfer agreement in place between ALL 905 transit agencies in the GTHA. It was part of the agreement that came with Presto.

    I can board a YRT bus, and tap on to pay the adult fare and ride it to a GO station where I board a train or bus. I can travel on GO to, say Hamilton, and once there, I can tap on to an HSR bus and if it has been under two hours since my YRT tap on, I will not be charged another fare.

    Oh yea, my GO fare for that trip will have been reduced by the difference between the regular YRT fare I originally paid and the the YRT “ride to GO” fare.

    As long as one still has time left on their 2-hour fare, it doesn’t matter which GTHA system they tapped on (HSR, Burlington Transit, Oakville Transit, MiWay, Brampton Transit, YRT, or DRT), their fare is good on ANY of these.

    Steve: Thanks for this correction.


  3. Follow-up to my previous comment: The full transfer acceptance across all the GTHA (except TTC and GO) systems was an extension of the practice at the time where neighbouring agencies allowed transfers between each other.

    It appears that various websites are no longer making it clear that inter-agency transfers are possible (with some specific exceptions). I had not heard of this policy being discontinued, but as I have not made use of it in some time, I cannot say for sure if a change has quietly been implemented.


  4. I am beginning to suspect that full transfer acceptance is still there (see Oakville and Brampton below), but the move to not advertise it is in place…

    HSR only mentions transferring to Burlington Transit.

    Burlington Transit only mentions transferring to HSR and Oakville Transit.

    Oakville Transit shows, “A time-based transfer gives you unlimited travel to any transit system (except GO Transit and TTC) within a two-hour transfer window.

    In addition to mentioning transfers to Oakville and Brampton, Miway shows, “Burlington Transit, Hamilton Street Railway, York Region Transit and MiWay will accept each other’s transfers at any location, but only when there is time remaining on the transfer.

    Brampton Trainsit shows, “Brampton Transit will accept transfers from the following Transit Agencies at any location, only if there is time remaining on the transfer: MiWay, YRT/VIVA, Oakville Transit, Burlington Transit, Hamilton Street Railway, Durham Region Transit

    YRT only mentions transferring to Brampton Transit, while DRT only mentions transferring to YRT.


  5. To the comment above vis-a-vis 905-905 transfers, don’t the 905s already have an arrangement where they have free transfers and accept each others’ customers? Except for Milton.


  6. The $3 GO fare anywhere within the city would certainly cause me to rethink routings. I’ve taken the TTC between Gerrard and Main and Long Branch, and it’s a long ride. $3 fare on the Lakeshore line (instead of $8.45)? Yes please.

    It will be interesting to see if a culture of gaming the fares develops in the GTA. For example, whether it may be cheaper to buy two separate fares, a $3 for the inside-Toronto leg, then another fare from the last Toronto station to the final destination.

    (I know fare arbitrage is a popular exercise in the UK. When I was vacationing there a few years ago, I purchased two round-trip train rides and threw one leg of each away. It was cheaper to buy round trips than the individual one-way fares, one for Glasgow-Aberdeen, the other from Thurso to Glasgow.)


  7. Max said: Is Metrolinx only proposing this for 905+TTC trips, or would this also apply to cross-boundary trips (ie. using MiWay & Brampton Transit) that stay in the 905?

    There is no need for anything not involving the TTC, as everyone else had some level of intergration. MiWay, for example, accepts Oakville passes and transfers from everyone (excluding TTC until this goes through). So ignoring the TTC/GO and passes, you buy 2-hours of transit in the GTA every time you buy a single fare.


  8. TTC remains by far the most expensive transit system in North America on a monthly-pass basis. Fare integration across systems is also a joke compared to places like London or Paris, where you can not only use the same fare media but the cost is the same regardless of whether you are taking bus, subway, or commuter rail within the core city.

    Until those two things change I can’t be bothered reading any more on this depressing topic.


  9. It doesn’t seem fair (fare?) that commuters are favored for better TTC discounts than people that reside in the city. Especially when the competition is Uber, E-bikes, bike lanes, or just walking outdoors or in The Path. Which I’m sure the majority of GO riders do as well. So help me if they get off at Union and ride the subway to King, then go to a gym after work. Favoring the few is NOT going to make up for the loss of the majority. Which has already been unpublishly awful, and is bound to get worse.


  10. When will it worthwhile to install the Presto mobile app?

    Steve: First it has to be available. Then you need the functionality which especially for iPhone users is limited until they sort out technical issues with Apple.


  11. I’m not sure if this is relevant. I would appreciate any clarification. The city staff produced this report.

    Staff has confirmed that it means that for a full year, it is estimated that the TTC will lose $11.5 million in revenue from passengers transferring to the TTC from GO. Currently these passengers pay full fare and Metrolinx pays them $1.50. With fare integration, the TTC has a projected shortfall of $11.5 million.

    Steve: This is to be made up by the provincial subsidy. TTC would get $1.50 directly from Presto (the charge to the rider) plus $1.50 in new subsidy so that they still get $3 in total (correspondingly lower amounts for concession fares).


  12. iSkyscraper said :

    “TTC remains by far the most expensive transit system in North America on a monthly-pass basis. Fare integration across systems is also a joke compared to places like London or Paris, where you can not only use the same fare media but the cost is the same regardless of whether you are taking bus, subway, or commuter rail within the core city.

    Until those two things change I can’t be bothered reading any more on this depressing topic. ”

    In London the fare for buses is different from the fares for the train services. The train services have fare by distance fares and the buses have a single flat fare. There are no free transfers from bus to train but there are passes and daily capping options where you can pretty much use all services within allocated zones. You are correct for Paris where there pretty much is a flat fare for all services in the core city. Metrolinx was looking at the London model for one of their fare integration schemes but such a model would not work in Toronto where we historically have had a flat fare for services in the city.


  13. iSkyscraper said: TTC remains by far the most expensive transit system in North America on a monthly-pass basis.

    That doesn’t seem right. TTC currently is CAD$146.25 and MTA is USD$121.00. The exchange rate has been above $1.21 for the last three years (a low of Sep 11 it hit 1.20998), so the MTA right off the bat is more expensive. Washington DC doesn’t offer a “monthly pass”. LA is $122 for 30 days. Seattle/OCRA has a complex system that maxes out at USD$360 a month. If you aren’t worried about exchange rates, Mexico City has a higher raw number.

    iSkyscraper said: Fare integration across systems is also a joke compared to places like London or Paris, where you can not only use the same fare media but the cost is the same regardless of whether you are taking bus, subway, or commuter rail within the core city.

    Come again? It’s been less than a decade of London Underground and London Overground being integrated and aligned. However, buses and trams are still cheaper than subways. Try the difference between Gatwick and Euston via the various forms suggested and tell me that they are the same cost.


  14. Steven West said: It doesn’t seem fair (fare?) that commuters are favored for better TTC discounts than people that reside in the city.

    What are you talking about? There is no indication by location. If you do TTC-GO within Toronto, it’s $4.50. If you do GO-TTC within Toronto, it’s $4.50. If you do TTC-GO-TTC within Toronto, it’s $6.00. If you do GO-TTC from outside Toronto, it’s more than $4.50. If you do TTC-GO leaving Toronto, it’s more than $4.50.

    Steve: I’m not sure about your $6 fare for TTC-GO-TTC. According to the TTC fare policy, a trip using GO as a bridge pays one fare. Come August when there are two-hour transfers, the two hour rule will apply.

    Adrien Groulx said: When will it worthwhile to install the Presto mobile app?

    One of the features coming would allow you to load your Presto card with zero wait time via NFC. I’m getting the app when it comes out just for that feature alone.


  15. Mapleson says, “If you aren’t worried about exchange rates, Mexico City has a higher raw number.”

    The better question to ask is what percentage of an individual’s disposable income goes towards transit. A direct comparison as you have done does not provide enough information.


  16. Do I have this right? With the new Metrolinx fare integration if you are an adult with a Presto card catching SmartTrack from Lawrence East station and you want to go to Union (can you go to Union on a SmartTrack train or can you only go to other SmartTrack stations?) it costs you $3.00. If you are an adult with a Presto card transferring from a TTC bus and you want to take SmartTrack from Lawrence East you pay $3.00 TTC fare plus $1.50 GO fare. Without a Presto card an adult going from TTC to SmartTrack to Union would pay up to $3.25 TTC fare and around $5.02 SmartTrack/GO fare.

    Steve: Actually, the TTC leg of your journey costs you $1.50 (subsidized by the Province) if you transfer to or from a GO/ST service and use Presto AND are not using some form of pass on the Presto card. The TTC fare discount only applies to full fares. The GO/ST fare will be $3.00 for Presto users regardless of whether they originate on a TTC feeder service or walk into a station, and independent of whatever TTC pass might be on their Presto card.


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