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.
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.
I spoke with the Erasing the Invisible Line’s principle author, Jonathan English, to explore the rationale behind the proposed regional fare structure.
Certain themes, outlined at the outset of the report, are key:
- There is no appetite for one gigantic agency. Local autonomy and control over transit are essential. Indeed, an amalgamation would bring years of bureaucratic, financial and political wrangling that could well be interrupted by a change in government(s) and a new transit orthodoxy.
- Any fare system should have “mode neutrality” so that it does not reward or penalize riders whose trips are best served by one mode versus another, especially considering that Toronto’s system was designed with this intent.
- GO rail services and the subway should not be viewed as premium modes, but integrated in the TTC and the local networks beyond the 416.
- There should be minimal unnecessary disruption in any change leaving Toronto’s flat fare intact, but without unreasonable subsidy of long trip commuters on GO.
These are noble goals, but it is not clear that they can all be achieved at the same time.
There are two fundamental assumptions here:
First: Past Board of Trade proposals doomed their credibility by treating the “governance” problem as one that could only be solved with centralization. There is a classic flaw of thinking that if only the “right people” were in charge, all our problems would be solved. I am sure that the Board’s idea of the “right people” and mine would be very different.
The concept of a grand, unified agency as a way to “fix” transit has been replaced by the European concept of a Verbund, an association of agencies serving a common territory. This puts the focus on finding ways to operate and improve transit rather than playing musical chairs with transit management and politicians.
Second: There is a clear need for more revenue to make a “better” fare structure, whatever it might be, work. This leads to questions of how much new subsidy would be required, who would pay, and how reliable a partner they would be in any arrangement.
The “zero sum” solution with frozen subsidies is nowhere to be seen nor is the idea that if only riders paid “their fare share”, there might be no need for transit subsidies at all.
Chatting with English, I argued strongly that no matter how attractive the fares might be, it is the quantity and quality of service that determine the attractiveness of transit. Service is a key factor, English agrees, and he has written about the quality and importance of suburban TTC service in the Globe & Mail. Unfortunately, the “service” volume in the Board of Trade’s planned tetralogy will be the last to be published even though its topic is key to making any transit network actually useful for riders.
This is a difficult problem, at least as challenging as fare levels, because the quantity of service – frequency, hours of service, coverage – in much of the area outside Toronto is nowhere near as good as inside. Having a cheaper fare to cross Steeles Avenue or Etobicoke Creek is little value if the “connecting” bus service is infrequent or non-existent. This applies whether there is a forced transfer at the boundary or if the connection occurs at a regional terminal such as Finch or Kipling Station.
“Better service” usually translates into demands for “more buses” and possibly a new garage. But those buses are useless without operating subsidies so that the fleet can actually show up for riders rather than sitting in a shiny new depot. “Accessibility” to transit is not just a question of a few ramps and blue seats, but of service that riders can count on to arrive promptly.
The Board of Trade Proposal
The Board begins by mapping transit usage in the GTA. The report notes that the rate of transit usage in the 905 is lower than within Toronto “in part as a result of fare boundaries”. The other part, of course, is that there is a strong disincentive to use transit in the 905 because of service levels, route patterns and development patterns. Making travel between the 905 and 416 cheaper will help riders making that type of journey, assuming that service exists that they can use, but it will do nothing to improve transit’s attractiveness for travel within the 905.
Presenting the problem with a strong focus on Steeles Avenue, Etobicoke Creek and the Rouge River is a very Toronto-centric view of travel patterns and needs. This is not to say that the cross-border fares are “fair”, but there are many more trips in the GTA that transit does not serve as a visit to any suburban arterial or expressway will demonstrate.
To put it another way, if your obsession about transit is that you pay two fares, you might focus on the tariff rather than any other factor in “solving” the transit problem.
Within Toronto, there is a problem that populations who are more transit captive are concentrated in the parts of the city where housing is cheaper, but where transit is less attractive. The map below shows Toronto’s “Neighbourhood Improvement Areas” (or NIAs) but significantly it does not show where people living in these areas go to work or school, nor does it show comparable areas and trip patterns for the 905.
An underlying reason the Board of Trade would like to see a new tariff is to encourage use of the GO rail network for trips within Toronto. I will get into that in more detail later, but for now the chart below shows the problem as they see it. A hypothetical rider travels from Steeles & Markham Road to Union Station. By TTC, this is a single fare but it takes an hour and a half (peak period, local bus service used). In theory, the rider could transfer at Milliken GO station and get downtown 40 minutes faster, but at an extra cost of $7.62. The fares shown do not include any concession allowances, pass-based fares or loyalty discounts.
Both Agincourt and Milliken GO stations are far enough from Union that they are not part of GO’s reduced fare zone for “short” trips which only kicks in at Kennedy and points closer to Union. Therefore, the fare comparison here emphasizes how GO’s cost is disproportionately high for some trips even within Toronto.
Not shown is the GO service level today. The presumed travel time saving requires that a rider make a good connection to a rail line that is much less frequent than the TTC (hourly service most of the time). GO plans to have frequent service on this line some day, although exactly how much depends on which plan you believe. This is also, of course, SmartTrack territory, and we still have no idea how much GO will charge the City to provide ST service at TTC fares. That operating subsidy would almost certainly compete with the local TTC services for funding.
With any fare scheme, it is possible to construct trips that show the tariff in a bad light. By contrast, if the GO-TTC co-fare were still in place (a $1.50 discount) and if the $3.70 short-trip GO fare at Kennedy were charged at Milliken, the total fare via GO would be $5.45 or half of the example cited in the map. [$3.25 for TTC plus $3.70 for GO less $1.50 co-fare]
Any attempt to concoct a tariff that treats GO trains and local transit equally implies that the fare should be the same no matter which mode one uses to travel from “A” to “B”. However, preserving Toronto’s single fare requires a large zone through which any rider can travel for a flat fare rather than the more finely-grained zones needed to preserve GO’s quasi-fare-by-distance scheme.
The Board of Trade proposes a zone system where travel between adjacent zones would be free, but travel through more than two zones would attract an extra fare. Toronto is carved into an inner and outer zone so that travel anywhere in the city would be at a base fare, as would travel between the outer (larger) zone and the immediately adjacent zones in the 905
The northern boundary of Zone A (Inner Toronto) is Eglinton Avenue on the dubious premise that someone should be able to travel across the city on the Crosstown and beyond the 416 boundary for one fare. However, someone who took the GO train via Union (or even the Bloor-Danforth subway) would pay a surcharge. This is complete nonsense.
Someone who crosses Steeles from York Region but stays north of Eglinton would pay only $0.50 more than today, but if they worked at Davisville (TTC headquarters, say) they would pay a lot more. Putting the core area its own zone makes a trip from Mississauga, Southern York or Durham (Zones C, E and G respectively) a three zone trip for a total fare of $5.75. This is not a huge discount compared to current bus+subway fares and certainly not an elimination of the invisible line at Steeles Avenue.
Outside of Toronto, the proposed zones split some municipalities such as York and Durham making any trips within them a single fare, but imposing a surcharge for trips that cross both an internal and external boundary.
Like Metrolinx, the Board of Trade fails by omitting before and after comparison of fares for typical trips.
This map illustrates the huge problem of attempting to consolidate GO’s fare structure strongly rooted in a radial, commuter oriented history, with a grid of municipalities and their travel patterns which are completely absent here.
This produces some odd results because the region is, more or less, rectangular, and there are more zones for east-west trips than north-south. Additional problems arise for trips that go diagonally across the zonal grid. For example, on this map a trip from Waterloo to Toronto by train skirts the northern tip of Mississauga. Should riders pay an extra fare because the CNR did not align its rail corridor with a municipal boundary?
As for the tariff itself, the rationale behind the various zone-to-zone fares is not explained, and one cannot help think that some tweaking went on to get the numbers to “come out right” in a regional revenue projection. I have split the tariff itself out of this map to display it at a resolution where the numbers are clear.
Among other problems here, note that the ratio between monthly passes and the single fare varies considerably. The zone A-B pair (inside Toronto) is 48 based on the existing TTC multiple. Outside of Toronto, passes are priced at $125 or $150 against base fares ranging from $3.25 to $3.75 with multiples from 42 to 38.
English (as do many other advocates for cheaper TTC fares) feels that the 48 multiple for TTC passes is out of line. However, the basic issue has always been that there is much more off-peak riding in Toronto simply because the TTC has so much more service during that period compared with the rest of the GTA. A pass priced strictly at 20 round trip commutes per month would represent a considerable revenue loss. Indeed, it took heroic budget fights to get the multiple below 50.
The multiple actually used to be close to 40 until the transit tax credit was eliminated. That credit might have been a boon to commuters looking to reduce their costs, but it brought no new money to transit coffers.
Another anomaly here is that the multiple for the extra zone premium is less than 40 ranging from 28 to 35. This perpetuates the long-commute discount already found in GO fares.
The fares shown are for “adult” riders who do not have any discount due to local policies such as senior, student, child or low-income fares.
There is a huge complexity built into all of this, not to mention the incentive for long debates to gerrymander the map to suit local interests. That could make the discussion of new station names on the Crosstown seem positively simple by comparison. (Metrolinx famously devoted an entire Board meeting to one station with two competing names, and in the end opted for a hyphenated solution.) This scheme would replace one invisible line with a multiplicity of others.
Why, one might ask, are time based fares, a standard already used across the GTA and built into Presto, not on the table? The reason, of course, is that this conflicts with integrating GO’s fares into the scheme. The tail is wagging the dog here. Of particular note, there appears to be no recognition that time based fares should survive so that, for example, a trip south then north across Steeles in a brief period would not attract another fare.
Tap-on, tap-off would be required across the system to capture destination information and calculate an appropriate fare. Claims that other systems do this routinely are misleading on a few counts.
First, and most importantly, the existing local transit systems are not set up for this. Successful implementation should include a powerful incentive to changing everyone’s fare-payment behaviour, but this is a change for administrative, not rider convenience.
Second, some systems have a mixture of flat and zone fares, and this eliminates the need to tap off for some rides. London, UK, is often cited for its distance based fares, but these only apply to the rail networks, not to the bus system.
Third, the hassles of getting people to tap off are well known to GO who provide the option within Presto for a “standard” destination where one does not have to tap off. This works because most GO trips occur between the “home” and “work” stations of a typical commuter. When GO Transit gets rid of that option, then we can talk about the “convenience” of tapping off.
If you start out with the premise that all fares must be unified including those of the commuter railway, then all manner of distortions and complexities are inevitable in the local transit systems. On its face, this looks like a “reasonable” arrangement, but actual implementation would bring many headaches both operational and political.
Looking Into the Details
Mode Neutrality: The current network is neutral as to mode except for commuter rail and a handful of now-suspended premium express bus routes. Whether you cross the city by bus, streetcar or subway, the fare is identical. What is not, however, is the service level either within Toronto itself, or across the region.
Subways are typically over-served off-peak as a matter of policy regardless of demand, and because the marginal cost is lower than for other modes. (Subways have a large fixed cost even if trains run infrequently.) By contrast, surface routes are scheduled based on demand (and budget) with a maximum permitted headway in Toronto of 30 minutes. Service can be considerably less reliable than the advertised schedule thanks to bunching, gaps and a laissez-faire approach to service management.
Bus services outside of Toronto are reasonably frequent in some areas, but not in others. Their span of service may be oriented to peak commuting, but not necessarily be good for off peak and counterpeak travel.
One might speak of “equity” in fares, but a bus that runs every half hour is little more than a line on a map, not a service. This is one big reason for the demand for subways – not only are they faster, they will have guaranteed frequent service from 6 am to 1:30 am unlike the bus and streetcar routes.
GO Rail corridors are under-used: This is a strange position for the Board of Trade to take considering that they have hosted presentations by Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster about the marvels of GO’s expansion plans, and have also been quite warm about John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme, ephemeral though it may be.
Planned service levels on GO can be hard to pin down because different numbers are cited in different circumstances. The current round of public consultation on GO expansion, as described in a Metrolinx Blog post of November 27 enthuses:
Get a glimpse at the latest design of a transit system that will deliver 15-minute two-way, all day service on core segments of the GO rail system.
However, tables in the GO Business Case Analysis for the same project cite more frequent service, even during the off-peak, on some corridors. The Stouffville line, for example, would see 8 trains/hour each way if one believes that report.
Still other service levels have been cited in reports for SmartTrack with “subway-like” service of 10 trains or better per hour, at least if the demand projections for the service are to be believed. Currently, with the Mayor no longer running for election on that scheme, the proposed service level is every 15 minutes which just happens to be what GO claims they will run anyhow.
Jonathan English argues that there are many rail corridors around the world with very frequent service, and that by analogy more could be squeezed out of the GO rail network. This begs two questions. First, can more service and riders be carried on GO even beyond their current plans (whatever they actually are). Second, what are the implications of concentrating very frequent service on corridors that meet at Union Station.
An important distinction here is not just the number of trains per hour, but what these trains might look like. There is a big difference between a locomotive-hauled 12-car train of GO bilevels and, say, a five car train of electric multiple units. (EMUs are essentially the same technology as subway cars and streetcars, but with a different body and performance characteristics). Running a five minute headway (12 trains/hour) does not necessarily mean running the huge trains we see today. This is a tradeoff between service frequency, convenience and operational constraints. The choice affects both infrastructure planning and future network capacity.
All of these claims are not just a question of shifting political and spending priorities. As GO rebuilds its physical network, certain assumptions are built into the track and signalling design that are driven by the service plan. Track must exist for the proposed service including local and express trains. Signal systems must be capable of handling very frequent service with trains close to each. Power supply for electrification must be sufficiently robust to support service at the planned level.
A major issue for GO Transit is the constraint on service through shared parts of the corridor, notably at Union Station. Metrolinx has already been clear that the design of the Ontario Line including shared stations with GO at Exhibition and East Harbour is intended to offload some traffic otherwise bound for Union.
This does not sound like a system with a lot of spare capacity sitting around needing to attract riders. The distinction, of course, is between peak and off-peak services. However, the Board advocates better use of GO to shorten peak trips and to relieve subway crowding, and that only applies to the peak period when GO capacity could be at a premium.
What Does the Service Network Look Like?
From a regional planning perspective, one might jump for joy at the concept of a subway-like service reaching out to corners of the city and beyond, but much travel in the GTA is not bound for the core or even lies along the rail corridors. What will be done for those travellers? What service and fare structure can they expect on their suburban buses routes?
If we are to have a new fare system, that alone will not attract riders to transit in sufficient numbers to dent the mode share now held, and held strongly, by auto travel.
Far too many plans show maps with no indication of the reach or quality of service they represent. A badly-needed planning tool are maps showing the accessibility of various locations at different times of the day. Does the transit network actually serve the pattern of trips it might carry?
How far does a one hour ride get you from, say, Malvern or northern Etobicoke? What is the corresponding reach from a concentration of jobs? How much of the region is an hour or less away from work? What is the effect of including access and transfer times? How do these maps change between peak periods, midday, evenings and weekends?
Most importantly, does the network serve the actual patterns of demand, particularly demand that is not bound for the core area?
A cheaper ride is little benefit if there is no bus to connect with. This may be the topic of a future Board of Trade report, but the fare proposal is silent on this issue.
A hypothetical rider, “Celestino”, in the Board’s report would welcome transit systems that “coordinate their fares”. He makes a longer medical trip than necessary to avoid the extra fare crossing into Toronto. For him, time is less valuable than money.
The real issue in a fare scheme is not just lost revenue for transit. Is travel hampered by service levels even without a fare boundary? What is the cost in restricted mobility that poor service brings?
Another hypothetical rider, “Tanisha”, talks of transit fares in terms of the hours needed just to earn a round trip from home to work. At $15, that is at least an hour’s work, not including the effect of taxes and other deductions. This is an important way to look at transit especially if one claims to make it relevant to people of low incomes.
An essential change for Metrolinx is to break the assumption that the typical riders are fairly affluent suburbanites who calmly sit on trains, beavering away on their laptops. For them, the cost of travel by GO is offset by reduced or eliminated car expenses including parking downtown, and the hassle of driving. This comparison does not exist for someone who could not afford to drive in the first place.
Any truly regional network will serve a wide variety of riders, but will not be able to charge commuter rail prices. Whether fares are changed across the board, or by targeted subsidies such as the Toronto Fair Pass, is a policy decision. Do we treat subsidies as giveaways to rich and poor alike? Do we treat mobility, the availability of low-cost transport, as a social and economic benefit both to riders and to those businesses that depend on people getting to their front door?
Before the name SmartTrack was invented, a similar scheme aimed to make outlying job centres in Markham and near the airport more accessible to would-be employees. That’s an economic development lens that saw better transit as a cost of doing business, not as a subsidy to employees or employers.
Any debate on fare structures must occur in this larger context.
The Bus and Subway Networks Are One
The Board recognizes the importance of the bus network in getting people to and from the subway system. They are one network and this should not be arbitrarily split by charging a premium for subway travel.
However, station nodes bring their own problems in that the route structure can be distorted to force feed the subway to the detriment of local non-subway trips.
Expanding the concept to GO stations brings several problems:
- Is the local transit agency prepared to run enough service to the station to handle current and future demand?
- Do GO stations, many of which are in industrial neighbourhoods because of the historic purpose of the rail lines, become distorting factors in a local route network?
- Can GO remain attractive if parking is not its primary mode of access?
“Last mile” access to GO is a big challenge across the network, and it requires far more than a revised fare structure to address demand particularly for off peak and counterpeak travel.
Quarter-hourly service all day on GO rail is of little value if little or no service connects with it. Within Toronto, it is assumed that TTC service already exists at most GO stations, but the situation is much different in the 905.
Subway stations were built, for the most part, in areas of demand, and many are destinations in their own right. The bus and streetcar networks are physically integrated. GO stations, by contrast, did not have to worry about this because they could be in the middle of a field. All that was needed was lots of parking for morning commuters.
GO has two parking spaces for every three commuters on its network. As of winter 2019, there were 219,000 daily boardings on the rail network, or about 110,000 passengers allowing for round trips. There were about 75,000 parking spaces. The province is happy to pay for parking lots and structures and give away the service they represent free of charge.
This is as much a part of the fare and service argument as any debate about zones. Why should riders who arrive at GO stations by bus have to absorb the hidden value of parking in their fare? Should a parking fee be charged separately so that only those who actually use this service pay for it? This would allow the base GO fare to be reduced. The Board is silent on that subject, although they do note that parking occupies valuable land that could be developed.
The Airport: A Major Node at Many Boundaries
The Board rightly cites the airport district as one where fragmentation of services hampers transit access.
Bus routes themselves are also not always designed to connect seamlessly between agencies. Some routes end abruptly at a boundary, forcing riders to get off and switch to another route to continue along the same street. In several places, 905 routes run to a terminal in Toronto, but they cannot pick up or drop off passengers along the way when they pass through the city. […] The airport employment area, which spreads across three municipalities and transit agency service areas, plus GO Transit, is an important case study of fragmented routes and schedules. This is the second-largest employment area in the region, and its transit accessibility is significantly hampered by transit system divisions. [p. 13]
The airport is a particularly complex area to serve for several reasons. One major demand is focused on the terminals – the passengers – while another is on the many businesses that ring the airport but are certainly not “next door” the way downtown is a compact district of business, government and entertainment. Travel times differ for each group, and origins are scattered around the region.
This was a problem for the Union-Pearson Express which approaches the airport from the southeast where there is a concentration of air passengers in central Toronto. However, most who fly from Pearson Airport do not come from downtown. There is a similar problem for workers who originate all around the airport, but who in addition do not necessarily work right where the UPX drops them off. They have a “last mile” problem.
This is a service and network design issue far more than a question of fares. A special employee fare was implemented on UPX because its original pricetag, aimed at affluent tourists, was impractical for day-to-day travel. However, that was simply a bandaid for a specific problem and did not address the wider question of how to get to and from the airport and the businesses around it.
SmartTrack was intended to serve the district south of the airport, but suffered from an unworkable design with a mainline railway on Eglinton Avenue. (Opponents of a surface LRT don’t know what they missed!) This morphed into a western extension of Line 5 Crosstown, but even that will have a last mile problem because the area is designed for access by car.
Untangling this knot does not require a formal, unified agency, but better coordination and cooperation between the relevant local agencies, together with a willingness to make this work. This will not be simple because the airport district is the size of downtown Toronto, but with a much more dispersed potential market. There is no “King & Bay” there, nor is there a pre-existing network of subways and rail lines serving the airport from many directions.
Some form of fare integration will make network planning simpler, but the airport’s problems are much more complex than fares alone can solve.
The Board notes that Presto has its problems in part due to the complex pre-existing fare systems in the region. They neglect to mention that a major factor is the age of Presto’s technology and a desire by Metrolinx to get as much out of the original investment as possible. As things stand, any fare change has to be programmed into every reader in the GTA, and there are limits of the reader architecture on the complexity of programs they can accept. This will change in the next iteration of Presto, expected in the mid 2020s, when all of the logic involved with fare calculations will move to a central system and the readers’ sole job will be to keep track of cards presented. This will shift any system and tariff updates to a central location where changes, especially ad hoc promotions or discounts, will be easy to implement. This will do a lot for Presto’s flexibility and it does not require a harmonized fare system.
It is important that cause and effect be clearly understood here. Fare integration may be a nice idea, but improving Presto does not demand that integration occur as a pre-requisite.
The Presto system has faced considerable implementation challenges, in no small part because of the extraordinary complexity of the Toronto Region’s fragmented fare system. Significant progress has recently been made but even more can be done to harmonize everything from passes to discounted fares. When policies differ between agencies, each variation has to be programmed into Presto at considerable cost. A single, fully harmonized system would greatly improve the efficiency of Presto while making transit much simpler for riders. [p. 13]
What Would a Transit Federation Look Like?
The term “federation” is important because it implies the continued independent existence of its parts. There is no point in having a powerless talking shop whose sole purpose is to rubber stamp provincial decisions, nor should local decisions about transit quality be left to a regional agency beyond, possibly, setting minimum standards.
There will always be two “elephants in the room”.
One is the TTC which is not just a large, well established agency but an important part of the regional transportation network. The same cannot be said of others who might sit at the same table. Even GO Transit carries only a fraction of TTC’s ridership and, as its lacklustre covid-era riding stats show, is overwhelmingly dependent on core-bound commuting traffic.
The other is the province who can throw their weight around by the simple fact that they control both the funding and the legislative framework for any transit systems.
Metrolinx was created as a regional agency whose work focused on planning for the region’s future. GO Transit was not folded in until later, and the marriage between operations, planning and capital project management has not been an easy one.
It is a common story that the “Metrolinx I” with a board containing many regional politicians could not get anything done because of bickering. The real problem for Queen’s Park was that as a political board, it could not be controlled. Municipal priorities do not necessarily include making the Premier and Minister of Transportation look good. “Metrolinx II” is a board that conducts almost all significant business in private, and its members can be counted on to sing from the provincial song book.
Any federation must be a real working body, a transparent co-operative effort to improve transit through an open relationship with riders. We do not need another secretive, arrogant, we-know-what’s-best-for-you organization like Metrolinx.
The Board of Trade proposes that scheduling and public information be co-ordinated through this federation, although I cannot help noting that customer amenities such as a consolidated information portal could easily already be in the Metrolinx mandate. Scheduling – ensuring that connecting services actually connect – depend on funding issues and budget decisions.
For example, there might be a rule requiring “clock face” headways on all services that run less often than every 10 minutes. What happens, in practice, is that a 15 minute headway is stretched to 17, a 20 to a 23, or a 30 to 33, simply to give drivers a bit more time without adding another bus. Budgets are preserved, but riders have no chance of predicting when a bus will show up (even if it is on time) and scheduled connections are impossible.
Many potential changes to the tariff will require provincial agreement and funding. For example, restoring the GO-TTC co-fare or extending the short-trip GO fare to all stations within Toronto can be done today by the Metrolinx Board. The governance problem lies in the foot-dragging and doctrinaire politics at Queen’s Park, not in the absence of a transit federation.
If any regional transit network is to be credible, service will have to be at an attractive level to be an alternative to driving. That means more buses and all of their associated costs. If collectively the municipal and provincial governments do not see this as a priority, a federation will be little more than a chance for a quarterly coffee-and-a-bun among its members with no real progress.