Is Free Transit a Solution or a Distraction for the TTC?

My latest for NOW, this week’s cover story, looks at the pros and cons of making transit free as a quick fix for issues with Presto, confrontations over unpaid fares, and poverty.

9 thoughts on “Is Free Transit a Solution or a Distraction for the TTC?

  1. One problem that has developed in cities that have it, especially those in cold areas, is that it becomes a rolling homeless shelter. Is this good or bad? It protects the vulnerable but it also tends to drive away some passengers. Price capping would probably be the best compromise in my view.


  2. I think the TTC should be affordable. Not free.

    I don’t know of any large developed city with completely free transit. Either it’s a very limited area with free transit (such as in a city centre, where other forms of traffic may be curtailed or banned), or they are small towns. There is an article in NOW (linked below yours) that advocated for free transit in Toronto, and mentions Tallinn in Estonia as an example. Well, Tallinn has no rapid transit of any kind and a fairly small (<20 km of track) tram network. The rest are buses and trolleybuses. The capital and upkeep costs there are much smaller than for a subway system and a very extensive (83 km in Toronto) streetcar network. It says free transit was rolled out country-wide in Estonia, but Estonia has less than half the population of Toronto, and outside of Tallinn, the largest city (<500k people), transit consists just of bus routes.

    Then there is the example of Kansas City which voted to eliminate bus fares…again, bus fares. KC does not have the transit infrastructure that Toronto has.

    In a city that's allergic to property tax hikes to pay for what the city is on the hook for already, 100% tax-funded transit is just not going to fly.

    Steve: The linked article is about three months old, and I don’t want to get into criticism of a colleague at NOW. However, I think my position is clear. Free transit advocates cherry pick examples that are not representative, and this both hurts their cause and diverts from discussing changes that could improve transit’s attractiveness and affordability on a much more targeted basis. Free transit is the equivalent of “no tax increase”. We could do it, but it would hobble growth of the system.


  3. People want good transit more than cheap transit. If it was free, guaranteed it wouldn’t be very good transit.


  4. Today I witnessed a fare inspector ticket another passenger who was sitting in the seat in front of me. I saw the passenger sit down, rummage in his pocket for his Presto card, then reach across the aisle to tap the card reader. The card reader emitted the tone indicating a successful tap.

    About 30 seconds later the fare inspector asked to inspect his Presto card. When the inspector tapped the card against the portable reader, the reader emitted the ‘reject’ tone. I had witnessed the successful fare payment seconds before.

    The fare inspector told the passenger that he had witnessed the passenger reach across the aisle to tap, and that since the passenger had not tapped for the previous 4 days, the fare inspector intended to ticket the passenger. The fare inspector acknowledged the tap that had just occurred, even though his portable device had emitted the ‘reject’ tone.

    The fare inspector had obviously surreptitiously and intentionally set his portable reader to emit the wrong tone. The TTC has devised a fare inspection system designed to deceive the passenger. So that’s where we are now, with the transit police attempting to mislead passengers about the status of their fare payment, in order to bully them.

    I hope you find this account worth pursuing with the TTC. They should not be trying to deceive their passengers. Do the fare inspectors have the ability to over ride their portable reader, in order to set it to emit whatever tone the fare inspector wants? Have the fare inspectors been trained to do this, in order to trick passengers into paying the OUTRAGEOUS fine, rather than disputing it? (The false tone emitted by the portable reader misleads the passenger into thinking that there is physical evidence to back the fare inspector’s accusation, which appears to be untrue.) The conduct of the fare inspector in this case appears to be intentionally deceptive.

    I want to add, this is about probable cause to ask a passenger to provide ID. If the portable card reader can be set to emit a false ‘reject’ tone by the fare inspector, at the fare inspector’s discretion, it would give the passenger the false impression that the fare inspector has the grounds to ask for ID, whether or not that is true. It would be wildly deceptive, and the TTC ought not conduct themselves this way.

    Steve: I have asked the TTC for comment on this. Without trying to sound officious, when you see anything that bears investigation, it would be very useful for you to record the location, time and vehicle number. Otherwise, the TTC can use a “needle in the haystack” argument about finding evidence of what happened on their video records and the transaction records on the Presto system.


  5. I boarded the 504 eastbound at Portland around 15.45 on Thursday Mar 5.

    504 eastbound at Sackville/River area, roughly 4.30 pm. The other passenger declined to provide photo ID, but did provide a name and address.

    Also, I think that if the fare inspector has the ability to make the portable reader emit whatever tone he chooses, that’s a scandal. The fare inspector does not have the right to ask for ID unless he has probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed. By emitting a false tone, the fare inspector would be attempting to trick the passenger into voluntarily complying with a request for ID. The passenger had demonstrated that he paid the fare. There was no probable cause.


  6. Let me just show some raw meat into the pen with the mistreated dogs …

    I don’t think TTC (or any transit provider) should offer a discount at all. One fare for everyone and extra if you bring a bike. It’s a policy decision — that no one wants to study let alone make — as to what percentage of operations and capital that fare should cover.

    “But what about the ??? How can you — how *dare* you — make them pay full fare?!?!?”

    You want to subsidize seniors/school kids/low income folks/whoever, great! (I’m especially sympathetic to the working poor) Do that! Plenty of social service agencies that can buy tickets/passes in bulk from Presto or whoever and distribute them to their clients. School boards could to the same for their students.

    Why does the *transit service* have to provide social discounts? Net, for society, is zero probably … but it sure makes the accounting for transit clearer.


  7. Steve wrote: “Something we already give away is the free parking at GO stations for all but a handful of riders willing to pay for a reserved spot… These spaces fill up quickly, leaving latecomers to forage for whatever space they can find.”

    This is an excellent example of a perverse incentive. After peak hours, when it may now be feasible to drive a car into Toronto, it is difficult or impossible to find a car parking spot at the GO station. Surprise, surprise, this results in a lot of car drivers driving cars into Toronto instead of taking GO.

    I highly recommend Donald Shoup’s book, “The high cost of free parking.” Here is a short video featuring Mr. Shoup.

    It is, of course, possible to turn around this perverse incentive. For example, charge a car parking lot entry fee of $10, but only from 6-10 AM Monday to Friday. Certain laws of mathematics, in particular geometry, dictate that it is impossible for many more people to drive cars into Toronto in that time period. So the choices are to pay up or find another way of getting to the GO station.

    My crystal ball says that a lot of car drivers who were whining about how impossible it is to ride a bike or take a bus to the GO station will suddenly find it not quite so impossible after all. It’s a miracle! And, faced with voter pressure, suburban municipalities will suddenly figure out how to provide proper cycle infrastructure and transit service to GO stations.

    This provides several knock-on benefits. Firstly, the cycle infra and transit service required to get commuters to GO stations can also be used by everyone else in the community to go other places along those routes. And once people are riding and taking public transit to GO and the sky does not fall, they may ask themselves if they really need to own a very expensive car. The now-surplus car parking lots can be turned into high-density housing. Finally, we have the “problem” of what to do with all that money from car parking lot entry fees and from the sale of surplus car parking lots. I have no doubt that politicians will figure out a way of spending it.


  8. plaws0 wrote: “You want to subsidize seniors/school kids/low income folks/whoever, great! (I’m especially sympathetic to the working poor) Do that!”

    In order to do just that, Ontario conducted a three-year Basic Income pilot project starting in 2017. The incoming PC government then cancelled the pilot project. Based upon approximately zero evidence, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod stated that the project was “failing.” Perhaps failing to pass through the PC ideological filter.

    The evidence-free ideological approach of the Ford government to transit planning appears to be a common theme with social services. What a surprise.

    There is a lot of real evidence, in Ontario and elsewhere, that Basic Income is a success. It has attracted a lot of attention recently due to being advocated by US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. What we do know for certain is that the present patchwork of various social assistance programs winds up having enormous administrative costs.

    See this article for a description of the Ontario pilot project.

    And a CBC article about some preliminary results.

    And one of the participants in the pilot wrote about his experience.


  9. Free transit is a misnomer. Of course it isn’t free. The idea is just there are much more efficient ways to gather funds than a few dollars at a time from the user base. The funders of transit should be the beneficiaries of it. That is more than the user base, more than the property owners of Toronto, certainly the GTA and beyond. My preference would be income tax, based on postal code with rates decreasing by distance. That of course would need to be organized at the provincial government level. So I’m not holding my breath.


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