The Siren Song of Regional Fare Integration

The Toronto Region Board of Trade recently published a discussion paper on the subject of regional transit integration focused on fare structure and the barriers it creates to regional travel.

See: Erasing the Invisible Line: Integrating the Toronto Region’s Transit Networks

This is to be the first of four papers with others to follow on subjects such as increasing utilization of the regional rail network and improving service on the local bus networks around the GTHA. No publication dates have been announced for the remainder of this series.

The absence of those papers leaves the first one on fare integration out on its own missing some of the context that drives choices of what might make an appropriate “solution”. In particular the key roles of both GO Transit and local transit systems, or at least as the Board of Trade might see them, inform the proposal of a new fare structure, but more as background. Are these assumptions valid and does a new tariff based on them actually stand up to scrutiny?

Schemes to unify the regional fare structure have floated around the GTA for years. Lots of ink was spilled on reports, models and consultation. Nothing much has actually happened, or at least that’s the impression one might get, in part because different players have different goals.

Metrolinx is absolutely wedded to a zone fare system because that is how their fare collection technology works. They speak of it as “fare by distance”, but their zonal structure contains many inequities because it evolved piecemeal along with their network. Long trips are cheaper than short ones, measured in cost/km, both to discourage short-haul riding and to give greater incentives to long-haul commuters to switch from their cars to GO’s trains. Relatively recently, GO introduced reduced short-haul fares so that it could attract more short trips, but the tariff as a whole remains a patchwork.

When Metrolinx first proposed a distance-based regional fare strategy, it had an added wrinkle with a premium fare for “rapid transit” which meant anything on rails on its own right-of-way including the subway. Any trip longer than 10km (slightly above the average trip length on the TTC) would cost more than it does today, and drawing 10km circles around various centres easily shows who would pay more to travel. This had the effect of preserving GO Transit’s revenue stream, while raising the cost of subway travel for longer-than-average journeys.

This was in aid of a “zero sum” solution where the cost of lower fares for riders crossing the 905-416 boundary would be recouped from higher fares within Toronto. Metrolinx showed only a few sample fares to illustrate changes, but neglected to present a thorough review of the effect on TTC riders who are by far the majority of transit users in the GTHA.

In time, Metrolinx, or at least some members of its Board, came to realize that this was not a viable solution, and that any new fare structure would require added subsidy to avoid penalizing one group of riders to reduce fares for others. Alas, nothing official ever came of this.

The regional transit agencies were not sitting still, however, and the now-universal fare model is based not on distance travelled, but on the elapsed time for one or more trips, in effect a limited duration pass. Not only is this scheme easy to understand and administer, it removes a long-standing penalty against riders who took multiple short trips, typically to run errands or stop off in a longer journey just as one would do as a motorist.

Even Toronto, after much foot-dragging, embraced the two-hour transfer when it became politically beneficial. What was once portrayed as an unaffordable fare giveaway morphed into a modest-cost change that greatly simplified fares and improved system convenience. The only remaining gap in this arrangement is the lack of reciprocity across the 416-905 boundary so that a two hour fare can buy rides inside and outside of Toronto.

The odd man out remains GO Transit, a regional, long-haul carrier, an operator of fast trains where two hours would take a rider a far greater distance than on a bus, streetcar or subway. There will always be a conflict between seeing GO as a “rapid transit” line serving local demand as opposed to “commuter rail”. Just to complicate things, GO buses fall somewhere in between because they operate limited stop service with much more comfortable accommodation than, say, the Dufferin bus.

GO faces an additional problem with a penny-pinching master at Queen’s Park for whom spending more money on transit operations (as opposed to capital construction) is not a priority. Even the GO-TTC co-fare was eliminated although it remains in place for GO-905 travel. It is ludicrous that a “first mile” trip in the 905 gets a co-fare subsidy, but not one in Toronto.

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