A Review of Fare Structures

This article has four parts:

  • An introduction and overview of the history of fares in Toronto, particularly on the TTC.
  • A short discussion of technology especially as it relates to Presto.
  • A review of various schemes for building a tariff and charging fares.
  • An overview of the fare systems in several major cities.

The TTC’s fare structure review is now underway. See: 5-Year Fare Policy and 10-Year Fare Collection Outlook. Recently, I wrote about their rider survey: A Curious Study of Fare Options. Other proposals float to the surface from time to time including those from the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Metrolinx. Both of these would shift Toronto to some form of zones or fare-by-distance in a bid to “integrate” the city transit system tariff with those of surrounding regions.

Lurking in the background is Metrolinx, an organization not exactly noted for sensitivity to local concerns. After beginning some years ago with work on a “transformational” change that would have robbed riders within Toronto to fund lower 905/416 cross-border fares, Metrolinx backed off. However, they are now back at “transformational” planning which could impose a fare-by-distance scheme on the entire GTA.

In particular, we do not know whether this will be a truly collaborative design and reflect the input of local transit agencies, or will be imposed by fiat from Queen’s Park making any work the TTC and others do now irrelevant.

This article will not propose a new scheme. That would imply I somehow have access to stone tablets with the One True Word on the subject, and that I am already wedded to one scheme in spite of the plethora of ways one might calculate and charge fares. There are many variables and issues such as the level of subsidy available, the scope of a unified system, and the goals transit is supposed to achieve.

We cannot simply propose a new scheme without debating these underlying issues, and anyone who avoids the policy debate is leaving out the most important, foundational part of a study.

This article is intended to tell some of Toronto’s history, and to look at the many options for constructing a new tariff.

Fares are a sensitive topic, and the details bring out more of the “dark side” about how each type of riders would be affected, and what the implementation and operating costs and procedures would entail. A common problem is that proponents of new schemes inevitably present their “solution” in sunnier terms than detailed review might justify.

The fundamental question of any fare system must answer is this: what are we trying to achieve? Transit has many goals, but actually paying for itself is not the only one. There are economic issues (social equity, mobility), development issues (transit enabling and/or requiring density of jobs and housing), and environmental issues (trip diversion from autos, reduction of road-building). Some of these have a quantifiable value, others have soft benefits and costs such as avoided personal expenditures and the value of commuting time.

There is no one “right” way to charge fares without also being very clear about which of these goals are important, and how the tariff will address them. Benefits and penalties are inherent in any fare scheme, and these should be recognized, not papered over to “sell” any model.

Some goals will produce conflicting results. For example, if we wanted to shift people out of cars, there would be good, inexpensive transit reaching into the commuter shed well beyond downtown. This could involve free parking, reduced fares on (or subsidies to) local transit for “last mile” links, and a lower fare-per-km than a strict fare-by-distance model might otherwise bring. All of this would confer benefits on (usually) affluent commuters in the name of an environmental good, while placing a relatively higher cost on transit for shorter trips. Such conflicts are inevitable and they require openly and honestly balancing the goals of the fare system.

A vital question separate from how one builds the tariff is what proportion of system revenue should come from fares, and what from the public purse? This is directly related to service quality because the amount of revenue, wherever it might come from, affects the level of service that can be provided. If transit agencies are fighting for every dollar, then any move that might affect their revenue stream will be resisted. Conversely, riders will not take kindly to fare increases if they do not also see better service.

The complexity of the tariff in any city has a lot to do with the maturity of the technology used and the political decisions about how much riders will pay. Every city’s fare structure has a long history affected by geography, political organization, technology and business climate. “Our way” of doing things makes sense, or at least is an accepted practice, in each location, the result of decades of evolving trade-offs.

The Evolution of Toronto’s Fare Structure

In Toronto the two primary fare structures are flat fares and zones as a rough version of fare-by-distance.

Flat fares are charged for local travel in the City itself (aka the “416”), and in the regions around Toronto (primarily the “905”). There are free transfer arrangements within each region, but not across the 416/905 boundary. That is the motivation for a lot of talk about “unfair” transit fares. (There are no remaining zone fares in the 905’s transit network.)

Local fares include various schemes to make transit more attractive:

  • cheaper fares for riders who make many journeys (e.g. passes or their equivalent),
  • cheaper fares for specific classes of rider (seniors, students, children, low-income),
  • simplification of transfer rules to eliminate penalties associated with trip chaining (multiple short journeys).

Toronto’s fare structure evolved together with its history. The original single fare within what was then Toronto was a condition of the franchise granted to the Toronto Railway Company in 1891. As the city expanded and with the creation of the Toronto Transportation Commission in 1921, the single fare zone covered what we now think of as the “old City”. Service beyond was operated on a few radial lines with their own fares (such as the line to Lake Simcoe, later cut back to Richmond Hill), and by some suburban bus companies. Remember that most of what we now think of as the “inner suburbs” was then farmland and a collection of small towns.

With the creation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1954 (itself still a cluster of former towns and cities), the renamed Toronto Transit Commission’s service territory expanded to roughly its present boundary. Zone fares applied outside of the old City and fragments of the inner suburbs that were blended into the “Central Zone” to simplify the layout. Suburban zones 1-5 covered the territory beyond the old City, although there was not much of a network there in 1954.

Map courtesy of Transit Toronto

By the early 1970s, the suburban zones had been collapsed so that Zone 1 was the old City (formerly the Central Zone) and Zone 2 was everything else within Metropolitan Toronto. Zones 3 and beyond were for a few outside-Metro services such as buses to Richmond Hill, Woodbridge and Port Credit, remnants of the former radial railways. Special tickets provided a cheaper cross-boundary fare than two individual adult tickets (33 cents vs 40 cents in the example below), but there was still a premium for that crossing.

With the TTC needing greater subsidies to operate into a much-expanded suburban area, politicians and riders were annoyed that they contributed to the TTC through their taxes, but paid a higher fare when crossing the boundary with the old City. The situation was further complicated by the subway’s growth beyond Zone 1 with its 1968 extensions pushing that zone further out, provided one did not transfer to a bus route. The physical layout of several stations once in Zone 2 reflects provision for fare lines that no longer exist.

Zone 2 vanished on January 1, 1973 and ever since, travel across the entire City of Toronto has been based on a single, flat fare with free transfers. Monthly passes were introduced in 1980. The two-hour transfer, in effect a limited-time pass, replaced the complex rules for transfer validity in 2018. This brought Toronto into line with transfer rules in many 905-region agencies.

The intent was to encourage multi-hop trip chaining, but an unlooked-for side effect was a fare increase on those riders whose trips actually take more than two hours. I will return to this later in the article.

For more details, please see Transit Toronto’s A History of Fares on the TTC.

Map courtesy of Transit Toronto

GO Transit, operated since 1967 by the province of Ontario, always used a zone-based fare structure that is nominally distance based, but which has many idiosyncrasies that built up over years as their network evolved. Co-fares are provided between GO and local systems in the 905, but their purpose is to lure riders onto transit rather than driving to GO’s extremely large inventory of parking. There is a point where building more parking simply is not a viable way to build demand. Moreover, parking addresses only one type of rider – the classic suburb-to-downtown commuter with their own vehicle.

Over the years, GO’s fare structure, although nominally distance-based, has been gerrymandered for various, changing goals including:

  • cheaper trips for long-haul riders,
  • cheaper trips for short-haul riders,
  • cheaper trips for “frequent flyers”,
  • free parking,
  • reduction of the cost to riders of transfers between GO and local transit, and
  • reduction of the cost to the public purse of supporting co-fares for transfers.

It is self-evident that these changes cannot address the same goals.

There are built-in assumptions to any fare structure, and similar issues, albeit with different solutions, can be found in many cities:

  • Is the transit system and any zones or distance-based fare organized around trips to and from a core area?
  • What is the granularity of zones or of distance increments, and are they a holdover from the complexity of fare calculations in the era before GPS and smart cards?
  • How long is one “trip” in time or space? When should a new fare be charged?
  • Are transfers free, or provided as a surcharge, or simply not available between some or all routes and modes in a network?
  • What is the relative cost of single fares and various discount levels?
  • Who is entitled to how great a discount?
  • Is the regional (usually rail) network truly integrated in the local fare structure, or is it separate?
  • Do fare calculations require some form of “tap off” to establish trip length?

The Effect of Technology

Available technology affects the choices any system can make in its fare structure, although as technology has evolved, the investment in what one already has can be a drag on further improvement. It is the familiar “the computer can’t do it” problem which really means that someone does not want to invest in the necessary changes.

The Presto system is a good example of this. It was originally developed for a very simple system where riders took fairly predictable trips, the permutations were manageable, and the technology was not strained to support the tariff. Of particular importance at the time was the fact that GO buses might operate beyond territory where they could get a network signal and therefore the fare system had to operate on its own between readers on buses and cards in riders’ hands. Any reconciliation of data happened separately when the bus came back into reach of the central system, possibly at the garage.

This required all of the logic for calculating fares to occur in real time between the cards and the readers. Basics such as knowledge of the fare structure and other data had to exist on every device in the network. That placed a physical limitation on what was possible, and this carried forward even into a new version of Presto with greater capacity, but many of the same limitations.

A particular omission was the ability to reconcile fares after-the-fact to apply loyalty discounts and other schemes, as well as bulk billing to a rider’s account. Those who are old enough will remember when long distance phone bills were a major consideration in who one might call and when. All toll calls were collected together and billed monthly, not paid for as the call progressed (except for pay phones). This type of billing simply did not exist for Presto and for early generation payment cards.

An account-based model separating fare calculations from individual trips is needed to accumulate charges and to extend payment methods to non-proprietary cards. This migration is still a work-in-progress for the industry, but it is where Metrolinx/Presto is headed in the next few years.

Their contract with Accenture as the service provider expires at the end of 2022, and a migration to a new account-based system would start in 2023.

Any new fare scheme that requires a change in technology and/or rider behaviour should be examined with care. The cost and complexity of moving between technologies is substantial, and riders will take time to adjust to a new regime. This is not something one does for a six month trial, but for a permanent change with substantial, widely-acknowledged benefits.

Discussions of new fare structures should aim at where the technology will be, not where it is today. We would not think of talking about old technologies such as paper tickets/transfers and manual systems to issue and inspect fares. Likewise, Presto’s current limitations should only be considered as things to be avoided and eliminated, not as constraints on how a new system might work. For example, all TTC concession fares – student, senior and fair pass – are the same because of Presto’s implementation. They could be different if only the technology supported it.

Finally, it is vital to differentiate between “Best in Class” and “Industry Standard” as terms referring to the technology platform for collecting fares and as a reference to the tariff used in any specific system. The best technology can be used to implement a badly designed tariff.

We can already see what is possible, in part, by looking at what other cities have done.

A Review of Options

What Does Fare-By-Distance Mean?

Distance-based fares, and their cousin zone fares, are often argued to be a “better” or “fairer” scheme for charging transit fares. Much of the argument depends on one’s frame of reference (i.e. the system one is used to) or to a perceived inequity that fare-by-distance would eliminate.

There are many ways to build a tariff based on distance or zones, and they can have very different effects on various rider groups.

The distance-based schemes proposed by Metrolinx had a few different methods, but none of the actual formulae one might use to calculate a fare were published, only a few sample comparisons purporting to be for typical trips. The Board of Trade proposal is zone-based, but even this is cobbled together to preserve as much of the existing flat fare structure as possible while eliminating some, but not all, cross-border premiums.

In theory, a distance-based fare could comprise the following components, although not all would necessarily apply to each trip. This, loosely speaking, is the Metrolinx model.

  • A fixed base fare
  • A “local service” distance based fare
  • A “rapid transit service” distance based fare
  • A “regional service” distance based fare

The Metrolinx scheme includes variants such as holding a component fixed until it goes beyond a threshold. For example, any trip less than 10 km might only charge the base fare with distance components kicking in above that line. An important wrinkle here is that Metrolinx looked at the average trip length and decided that this was the point where trips would start to cost more, particularly for “rapid transit”.

I have repeatedly tried to get details behind the formula used in Metrolinx’ fare model without success. This underpinning is essential to figuring out the effect of the proposal on any specific trip rather than the examples Metrolinx cherry picks.

In their 2017 proposal, “Rapid transit”, now considered part of the base system in the GTHA, would be a separate fare class. Metrolinx has not explained which specific service would fall into each class. There are further problems where the regional operator (Metrolinx) operates routes that are essentially local in character (or where there is no local agency providing an alternative), not to mention the role of Bus Rapid Transit.

Metrolinx actually claimed that BRT was not included in its study because there were no BRT lines at the time. This completely evaded the question of where they would fit when, as inevitably would occur, someone actually built one. Presumably all of that construction in York Region and Mississauga was not “BRT”.

A further problem lies in Metrolinx’ own regional tariff which charges a lower fare per kilometre for longer trips. This does not even fit with a “fixed base plus variable by-distance” formula. Fares on GO Transit have evolved over decades and in some cases are lower than they otherwise might be for political reasons. Reconciling the entire GO fare grid is fraught with potential side-effects for some riders.

Their most recent replies:

The model used in 2017 leveraged best practice at the time, including a peer review to provide validity. However, we have improved our modelling tools since that time. We are working with updated modelling to develop fare integration recommendations for government, utilizing more relevant service plans, newer data and improved fare scenario considerations. We continue to work with our transit agency partners to further a fare integration solution for the region and will share more information as it becomes available.

Email from Metrolinx Media Relations, February 3, 2021

Detail on the old modelling is not available. The 2017 report was only a preliminary business case and not the final recommendation.

After this report, Metrolinx changed approaches from a transformational structure change to incremental adjustments to the status quo, which was one of the other options in the report. We introduced the co-fare program with GO/UP and TTC in 2018 and lowered the GO base fare in 2019.

Historic fare data was used to calculate average fares for each service/mode combination:

• GO fares for 2011 were estimated starting with the full 2015 fares matrix then working backwards through the fares changes in 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012.

• Local transit fares for 2011 were obtained from the CUTA fact book (Canadian Transit Fact Book, 2011 Operating Data).

• A 905 MSP-GO co-fare of $0.60 was assumed.

We have since gone back to considering a transformational option and work is underway right now to improve our modelling approaches and develop structural concepts.

Email from Metrolinx Media Relations, February 4, 2021

From these comments, it is not clear whether Metrolinx, after backing off from its original proposal, is now steaming ahead with what it calls “transformative” change. The motivation may well be to get some of the new lines in Toronto reclassified into a higher tariff band, but we do not know yet.

It is absolutely essential that any scheme for distance or zone based fares be discussed with real numbers, not notional charts so that it is clear just how any new formula might work. This type of fare could actually make travel more expensive not just for long-haul GO riders, but for long-distance trips on local transit systems.

Sean Marshall has written about the problem of fare-by-distance inequities on GO Transit. See A review of GO Transit’s Fare Structure. Before Metrolinx tries to impose distance-based fares on local transit riders, they might start by correcting the inequities in their own tariff.

Fare Payments

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of paying for transit:

  • Cash: This option is disappearing almost everywhere except as a means of feeding money to fare machines which in turn dispense tickets or add value to a fare card.
  • Stored value: A fare card acts like a wallet, but it can hold various types of credits:
    • “money” with which a rider pays for trips on a pay-as-you-go basis,
    • “coupons” good for travel within specified times and areas (loosely the equivalent of tokens in days of yore),
    • passes conferring free riding within specified times and locations.
  • Open payment: A proprietary fare card is not required to use transit. This has two variants that should not be confused:
    • A credit card simply pays the standard adult fare but offers no discounts. This is a simplistic implementation for occasional users. It does not support or replace discount and loyalty schemes because these cards are “read only” to the transit system and cannot carry user profiles, wallets or trip-tracking data. Some systems have not progressed beyond using credit/debit cards as an alternative to full cash fares, or simply as a way to load value on a proprietary card at a fare machine.
    • A credit card (or some other device including smart phone apps) identifies a rider and links their trips to an account where usage accumulates for later reconciliation and billing. In time, the need for a proprietary card (except as an optional identifying mechanism less valuable than a credit card) disappears.

Automatic refills of money on fare cards and renewals of pass products are common features. It is self-evident than in an open payment scheme, a “refill” is a meaningless term because charges simply accumulate within each billing cycle.

Flat Fares vs Zones

Whether a city has a flat fare scheme or some type of zone structure, there are inevitably debates about fare equity – the effect on fares for various trips depending on trip length or the layout of zones.

One can argue for both flat and zoned fares, although much depends on the historical evolution in a city. In the pre-technology era of fare collection, flat fares were simple to understand and administer. Either you had a valid ticket/transfer, or you didn’t. No interaction with a driver or conductor to obtain a fare receipt more complex than a paper transfer was required.

Zones might be organized radially (as Toronto’s were in the 1950s) or in a grid pattern giving, loosely, a fare-by-distance effect. Problems can arise when travel patterns do not match the zone layout, or when the fare for various zone-to-zone trips is political calculation (e.g. to mimic an earlier fare structure, or to gerrymander where cheaper trips are available) rather than a “blind” formula that charges the same per zone with roughly equal-sized zones.

Variations on this theme include overlap zones, or treating adjacent zones as the “base” fare and only charging extra when a third zone is entered. Another option is for zone boundaries to vanish in off-peak periods.

Zones address claims that short trips are too expensive in a flat fare scheme, or that a large flat fare zone “gives away” too much to those who make long journeys. However, various forms of pass and time-based fares can offset some aspects of high short-trip fares without the complexity of drawing boundaries and calculating fares on that basis.

Time Based Fares and Transfers

There are at least three aspects to time based fares and transfers:

  • Is the fare the same all day, any day, or are there discounts for off-peak travel?
  • How long is one fare valid for?
  • How many transfers are allowed (free or charged at a minimal fee) before a new full fare is required?

Many systems offer cheaper fares for off-peak travel, although exactly what is meant by this varies from one place to another. If a fare system only involves a “tap on”, then there is no way to determine if a rider left during the discount window in effect when they began a journey. This is also related to how far one could travel on a system due to its size or the bounds of the discounted fare.

Various schemes allow for discount periods:

  • Fare media (passes, coupons) that are only valid at certain times.
  • Extension of the “free transfer” window so that a longer trip chain or round trip can be bought with one fare.
  • Consolidation or elimination of fare zones so that longer trips pay a lower fare during some periods.
  • Reduction of distance-based tariffs in the off-peak, or conversely a premium for peak travel.
  • Elimination of surcharges for use of premium services during discount periods such as allowing free or reduced-fare travel on the commuter rail system with a local transit pass.
  • Elimination or reduction of inter-agency transfer premiums.

It is important to note that this assortment of fare schemes affects single or pay-as-you-go fares differently from passes. For example, an “all you can eat” monthly pass holder gains no benefit from off-peak discounts unless an off-peak pass is available. Riders might decide to trade down because the full-fare pass was no longer worth the cost. This happened in Toronto when the two-hour transfer converted what had been multi-fare journeys to single-fare.

In some cases, there can be transfers that do not involve physically passing through a barrier, typically at rapid transit stations. Any proposal to differentiate between fares by mode must take into account the physical and behavioural changes required to capture transfers that now occur free with no need to validate one’s fare.

The length of time a fare is valid has been raised as an issue in Toronto where some one-way trips can take over two hours. This would be an even greater problem with a unified system where a trip could span agencies. This begs the question of whether a full new fare should be charged, or a lower “continuation” fare for a cluster of “taps” within a period longer than two hours.

Related problems include factors such as weather delays and the effects of transfers between infrequent services where wait time can eat substantially into the fare’s window of validity.

In a recent online forum about fare structures, the argument was raised that the two-hour fare is a downtown-centric scheme that benefits well-off riders in the core who have a closely-spaced network of frequent services. Yes, certainly they do benefit, although they could well make the argument that they should not pay a full fare to ride a few subway stops. True fare-by-distance would likely be very popular among riders whose trips were only ever a few kilometres.

However, the purpose of the two-hour transfer was to permit trip chaining in response to complaints that transit dependent riders could not link journeys such as shopping and other errands into one trip under the old transfer rules. Passholders did not face this problem, but for many riders a pass represented more trips than they would take in a month. Even if they could manage the large monthly outlay to pay their fares up front, they had to assume they would eventually recoup the benefit.

The issue is not with the two-hour transfer per se, but with the full extra fare that is charged if a rider goes “over time” just as riders who now pay a full fare to cross a zone boundary. Much of the discussion of “regional integration” makes almost a fetish of Steeles Avenue, but does not talk about the time-based portion of fares, nor of service quality and wait times.


As Torontonians know, passes were once quite simple. A piece of paper, later plastic with a magnetic stripe, that was valid for month. The Metropass was born in 1980 after Hamilton, Ontario introduced their own and the TTC’s “it won’t work here” opposition lost what little credibility it had. It lives on as an option in Presto. There are many options for configuring passes including:

  • Passes for specific intervals such as 1, 3, 7 or 30 days.
  • Loyalty rewards for subscribing over an extended period (e.g. the “Annual” Metropass formerly the “Monthly Discount Program”).
  • Passes for specific regions of a network.
  • Passes for unlimited travel, but with an upper limit on the number of trips.
  • Special passes for limited occasions such as airport trips or sporting events.

Once a “pass” becomes merely an electronic entry on a rider’s account, the options that might be available are limited only by the imagination of advocates and marketing staff. Even a physical pass can take many forms provided that the fare collection machinery can recognize variations as valid, or not, for the time and location.

An important distinction once passes cease to be physical is that even if a fare structure is not fully “integrated”, passes for different products can co-exist in one account such as one for local travel and another for the regional network.

A small step from that is the provision of lower cost joint system passes, or a change in the reach of a pass during certain periods. For example a pass might cover a more restricted set of services and zones during the peak, but provide wider choices in the off-peak.

The ability to “stack” passes in an account is important as is the availability of discounts for multiple passes.

That said, any fare that gives unlimited travel automatically lowers the cost of individual trips for frequent riders. If the cost of a pass is prohibitive for some riders, then the problem may lie in the pricing, or the other fare options available to them.

A fundamental decision about fare structures is a policy of reduced cost for frequent riders. With that as a starting point, some people will always have cheaper fares. If the goal of the transit system is to maximize use, that is an obvious tactic to attract and hold riders who will get more value for their fixed fare the more they ride. Occasional riders will pay more unless they are eligible for some other type of discount.

Fare Capping and Bonusing

As an alternative to passes for pay-as-you-go riders, a fare card or transit account can offer capping or bonuses to freqent riders. This avoid the need to buy a pass one might not require while giving the benefit to riders who achieve a threshold.

GO Transit “monthly passes” already work this way by capping the payment after the 35th trip, charging minimally for trips 36 to 40 within a month, and nothing thereafter. This capability exists in Presto today and was contemplated for Day Passes for the TTC, but never activated.

More generally, capping could be used to accumulate trips independent of the actual service provider and cap a weekly or monthly total. This is much more easily done if fares are reconciled after the fact with a monthly billing than on each leg of a journey.

Another option to reward usage is to pay a bonus once a rider has taken a certain number or value of trips within a given period. For example, spend $100 within a month and get a $10 credit on your account.

Concession Fares

In several cities, the concession fares are a percentage off of full fare, but this can vary in many ways.

  • The same percentage can be applied to all concession groups – seniors, students, low-income, disabled – or different levels can be applied to each.
  • The discount might only be applied to certain types of fare, not the entire range available. For example, day passes might not be offered on concession, but monthly passes would.
  • Even if a system has zones, these might not apply to concession fares effectively flattening the fare structure.
  • Some classes of rider could have free passage.
  • Children might ride free, but only if accompanied by a fare-paying adult. The definition of a “child” could be based on age or height, each of which brings its challenges.
  • Time of day restrictions could limit when the discount fare was available.
  • There could be more generous discounts for some modes, for example regional premium fare services, than for local routes, or concessions might not work the same way on each leg of inter-agency trips.
  • In some cases, notably for both K-12 and post-secondary students, the discount might be funded by the school board or college with varying prices depending on the institution.

There is no “right” level for discounts, and in some locations the level of discount is a matter of historical practice or technical limitations. For example, in Toronto, all concession fares (except children) are set at the same level because Presto only supports one tier. It does not have to be this way, and different discounts applied to various groups at earlier times in the TTC’s history. For example, in 1973, just after zones were eliminated, the fares for seniors, students and children were all different.

Some concession fares are tied to other social programs which have their own eligibility test thereby eliminating the need for the transit system to perform this test independently.

At one time, the TTC received a special subsidy to offset some of its concession fares, but gradually this was simply absorbed into the overall TTC budget. After much political and budget wrangling, Toronto began to implement the “Fair Pass” for low income riders, although this is not yet fully rolled out. The program is administered through and paid for by the City. There is some debate, putting it mildly, about whether the discount is sufficient to address these riders’ needs.

The pricing and eligibility for concession fares is very much a political decision, not one for transit management, although they are usually lumbered with the task of making a proposal that could well be tailored to a pre-determined level of funding. Free rides for children and the two-hour transfer are hstorical analogies. They were “too expensive” until, suddenly, they were not because the need for political action to “do something” took precedence.

Regional & Local Integration

Although regional and local tariffs can be separate, this is a political and technical decision, not an absolute need. For example, a trip using both a regional and local service might automatically receive a combined fare, or the “local” portion of the regional network might attract only a small premium for riders transferring to or from local services.

The biggest issue in consolidating fare structures is the question of revenue – how big is the pot, does the new tariff reduce or increase the total take, how is revenue divided, and how is the shortfall to any member agency made whole.

Where subsidies are already a substantial portion of total revenue, the proportionate effect on total revenue from fare changes will be smaller than if fares make up the lion’s share of an agency’s income.

Metrolinx’ original attempts at a consolidated tariff ran aground because they attempted a “zero sum” solution where the total revenue stayed the same, but individual fares went up and down as perceived annoyances and inequities were shaved off of the tariff. This effectively meant fare hikes for riders who gained no benefit beyond knowing that their sacrifice would enable others to ride at a lower fare. That is not very good marketing.

An alternate scheme allowed for external subsidies to rise by five percent of total revenue to create a pool from which the newly-reduced elements of the tariff would be funded. However, the mechanics and trade-offs underlying this scheme were not revealed, and whether the resulting tariff had its own built-in problems is unknown. It was simply claimed to make the greatest annoyances, notably the 416/905 boundary, go away.

There is more to regional integration than tinkering with the fare structure. Service levels are important because they affect both costs and the perceived value a rider gets for their fare. Who pays the extra cost for better service? This is just as important a question as who pays for fare subsidies.

Looking Elsewhere

The information in this section was culled from each system’s website and may not be 100% accurate, and reflects a condensed view of what is available. Some systems have an extensive menu of fares. The intent here is to give a sense of the options available in other cities and their pricing, not to provide a definitive fare guide. (If I have fouled up a description of the scheme somewhere, please let me know in the comments.)

Working through the fare structures for these cities, a common thread is the co-existence of bulk-purchase (passes, coupons) fares that cover multiple services and single trip fares. One can “fall down the rabbit hole” chasing all of the permutations of fares in some cities.

Although the single fares exist, there is a clear incentive to:

  • buy in bulk (especially as a tourist),
  • buy passes that flatten out the distinction between types of service (e.g. bus vs subway), and
  • to consolidate zone fares into unlimited riding within the bounds of a pass.

Note in particular:

  • Local service fares are commonly flat with a limited use of zones, while regional systems are fare-by-distance. The distinction between “local” and “regional” can be a factor of local history and system development, including separate agencies for each type of service, rather than a matter of planned policy.
  • Free travel for children in many cities requires that they be accompanied by an adult, and there is a limit on the number who can ride free.
  • Some premium fare or zone systems change in the off-peak to provide a greater reach of trips on basic fares.
  • Where the dollar symbol ($) is used, values are stated in local dollars (e.g. Canada, USA, Australia, Hong Kong).

The choices about fare levels and subsidies (how much of the true cost of a trip does the rider pay) are beyond the scope of this review. On systems with large subsidies, discounts can be more generous than on those where penny-pinching is the politically mandated approach.

New York

Fare Card FormatMigration from swipe card (Metrocard) to contactless card (OMNY) in progress. Riders have to plan to have a card that will work on the portions of the system they will use.
Subway/bus fare$2.75 (less for seniors and disabled)
Express bus$6.75
7 day Express Bus Plus pass for $62 includes the local system
Low Income Fares50% discount for low income riders
Transfer privilegesOne free transfer for PAYG riders
Passes7 days for $33, 1 month for $127, 7 day Express Bus Plus $62
ChildrenUp to 3 who are under 44″ and riding with an adult
StudentsStudent Metrocards are distributed by schools. They have a 3 ride/day cap and are valid from 5:30am to 8:30pm. Four trip cards are available for students who must transfer more than once in their journeys.
Special faresJFK Air-Train Monthly pass ($30) and 10-trip pass ($25, good for 6 months)
Commuter railZone-based fares
Monthly and weekly tickets available
10 trip tickets available for use to/from zone 1 (downtown) only. Peak tickets have no discount, off-peak discount is 15%.
Student discounts up to 1/3 are available, but only for K-12 schools, not colleges.
The seniors’ discount is not offered during the AM peak.


Fare Card FormatCharlie Card and Charlie Ticket (limited use). The reference is to Charlie on the MTA, a song about fictional character who set off for a ride on the MTA (as the Boston system was then called), but never returned. Due to a fare increase (which the song opposed) and a pay-as-you-leave fare system, he could never afford to get off the train.
Subway fare$2.40 ($1.10 reduced fare)
Note: The Green Line is a collection of streetcar routes operating in their own lanes or a private corridor (aka “LRT”). It is considered to be part of the subway system and fare zone. This also applies to an LRT extension of the Red Line (the Mattapan trolley), and the Silver Line buses.
Boston historically has had a higher fare on its “subway” services compared to its surface routes. The Green Line streetcar routes once had separate fares for their surface and subway portions, but these were eliminated as was the two-zone arrangement on the longest branch of the Green Line.
Bus fare$1.70 (0.85 reduced fare)
Express bus$6.75
7 day Express Bus Plus pass for $62 includes the local system
Reduced fares $2.10 to $2.60 depending on zone
Reduced faresReduced fares are available to low-income youth between 18 and 25 year old, to the disabled and to seniors.
Transfer privilegesOne free transfer within an hour of beginning trip. A transfer from a bus to subway/streetcar incurs the difference between the two fares.
Passes1 day $12.75, 7 days for $22.50, 1 month for $90 ($30 on reduced fare, bus and subway only)
Passes are valid on the subway and buses, as well as on the inner commuter rail zone.
ChildrenUp to 2 of age 11 or lower while riding with an adult.
K-12 studentsThere are two types of student pass, and these are issued by schools.
“M7” passes are preloaded and are valid on all local services and on commuter rail zones 1 and 2. For zones 3 and beyond, a student pays half fare. This pass is only valid during the school year, and students must load value onto it during summer months.
“S” passes are not preloaded, but they entitle the holders to the reduced fares.
College studentsSemester passes are offered by some colleges for sale to students. A 4-month pass costs $192 (bus only) or $320 (bus and subway) with higher prices for additional zones, and/or for a 5-month version.
The UPass program offers a deeper discount, and colleges are only billed based on actual usage, not for the frequent usage assumed for a semester pass.
Commuter railZones with fares ranging from $2.40 to $13.25 (reduced fare 10-ride ticket $11 to $65).
Unlimited transfers to subway or bus on a monthly pass.


Fare Card FormatSEPTA Key Card
Fare (any local service)$2.50 cash (surface routes only) or deducted from Key Card balance.
Reduced faresSeniors (state residents) ride free, and pay 50% of normal fare for out of state trips on the regional rail system (Deleware and New Jersey).
Riders with disabilities travel at 50% of normal fares.
Transfer privilegesFirst transfer is free, thereafter $1 taken from the Key Card wallet. They are only available to card holders, and there is a two-hour cap.
PassesWeekly ($25.50, max 56 rides), Monthly ($96, max 240 rides)
One day local travel pass ($9, max 8 rides) or including regional rail ($13)
Three day local travel pass ($18, max 24 rides)
ChildrenChildren under 12 ride free when accompanied by an adult.
K-12 studentsPasses are provided by schools who set the pricing.
College studentsPost-secondary students can use a UPass offered by their college. These are sold at a 10% discount over regular fares to the colleges and universities who must contribute at least an equal amount to reduce the cost to students to or below 80% of regular fares. Monthly and semester-based passes are available.
Commuter railThere is a separate Key Card for commuter rail travel, and fares vary by zone. Monthly passes cost from $105 to $204 depending on which of 4 zones they cover. The commuter rail pass also gives access to all local services (bus, subway, etc.).
On weekends, there is no zone restriction on travel.
There are “cross-country” passes for travel between non-downtown stations.
Weekly and monthly passes from the local system are valid on regional rail service on the weekend.


Fare Card FormatVentra card
Contactless PAYG fares with credit card or Ventra app. Credit card usage billed in $5 increments with after-the-fact reconciliation.
Subway fare$2.50 ($5 from O’Hare Airport)
Bus fare$2.25 ($2.50 cash with no transfer)
Reduced fares$1.25
Seniors and disabled ride free (Illinois residents in a benefit program), otherwise at reduced fares
Transfer privileges$0.25 up to two transfers within two hours
PassesFor 1 day ($10), 3 days ($20), 7 days ($28) and 30 days ($105)
ChildrenUnder 7 years old free with a fare-paying customer, 7-11 ride at reduced fare.
K-12 students$0.75 up to age 20 from 5:30 am to 8:30 pm schools days with a permit
College studentsThe CTA provides a UPass, but the arrangements vary between institutions. This also affects pricing.
Commuter railThe regional Metra system has 12 zones with single adult fares ranging from $4 to $11. Ten-trip passes are sold at a 5% discount. Monthly passes are priced at 29 fares.
Reduced fare riders have a 50% discount on single fares and ten-trip passes, or a 40% discount on monthly passes.

San Francisco MUNI and BART

Fare Card FormatClipper card and MUNI Mobile
Bus and streetcar fare$3 cash, $2.50 with a Clipper card
Cable car fare$8 (Note that it is not currently operational)
Reduced faresMost concession fares are 50% off full fares. Low-income groups travel free.
Transfer privileges90 minute period for transfers at no cost
PassesMonthly adult including cable car ($81) or cable car plus BART stations inside the City ($98).
1 day ($13), 3 day ($31) and 7 day ($41) passes are available
ChildrenUnder age 4, children ride free.
College studentsVaries by institution as part of student fees.
Commuter rail (BART)BART uses the Clipper card.
All fares are based on mileage. There are no time-based fares or passes.
The discount structure is similar to MUNI’s local service.
Other local agenciesNote that San Francisco itself is quite small, about 25% larger than the former City of Toronto. Cities outside of this area are served by other transit operators. Some use flat fares and others are distance-based. There are some inter-agency transfers, but this is not uniform.

Los Angeles and Metrolink

Fare Card FormatTAP card valid on 25 agencies across Los Angeles County
Bus, LRT, subway$1.75
Reduced faresSeniors and disabled riders save up to 80% (off peak fare discount). Day passes are $2.50. 30 day passes are $20.
Transfer privileges2 hours unlimited transfers while travelling in the same direction.
Passes1 day ($7), 7 day ($25) and 30 day ($100) passes available. ($122 for Zone 1 extra services)
Children2 children under 5 free with an accompanying fare-paying adult
K-12 students$1 single fare, $24 30 day pass
College studentsDiscount varies. A UPass is available at some institutions. Monthly pass $43.
Commuter railDistance-based fares
Contactless mobile app
Single trip and round trip tickets are available including day-of-trip paper tickets from vending machines.
$10 unlimited system travel fare on weekends
5 day Flex: An experimental mobile app fare for 5 trips within 30 days aimed at work-from-home occasional commuters
7 day pass: Unlimited riding between station pairs
Monthly pass: Priced at about 36% off single fares based on 44 trips
Some passes allow travel of equivalent distance on other lines with some restrictions. Reciprocity between lines is affected by location.
Free transfers to connecting buses and trains.


Fare Card FormatOPUS is a contactless smart card used by transit companies throughout the Montreal area. It can hold any fare type except the group fare. Migration to credit card and app support is in progress.
L’occasionnelle: non-rechargeable smart card for limited usage fares up to 3 day passes.
Fare$3.50 single fare for bus or subway. $6.50 for a two-trip ticket. $29.50 for 10 trips.
Unlimited evening ticket $5.50, weekend ticket $14.25 (no discounts).
Reduced faresFares are discounted about one third for seniors and children age 6 to 17.
Transfer privilegesFree transfers are allowed for two hours, but a trip cannot enter the subway system more than once, or have a stop-over and continue on the same bus route.
Passes1 day ($10), 3 day ($20) (no discounts)
Weekly ($27.25), monthly ($88.50) (reduced fares available)
Four month passes ($208) are available only to reduced fare groups. This is only slightly cheaper than the equivalent monthly pass price ($53/month).
ChildrenA group fare is available for one adult and up to ten children ($17.50) age 6-13.
It is valid for two hours after validation.
College studentsStudents 18 and over can use the reduced fare monthly pass
Airport fareA $10 ticket allows travel on the airport shuttle and the bus/subway network for 24 hours.
Regular and reduced fare passes from 1 day to 4 month also are valid on the shuttle.
Regional faresMunicipalities outside of Montreal operate their own systems, but use OPUS as their smart card. Passes exist in both a local and metropolitan form (multi-agency travel).
Regional consolidationA recent proposal would collapse the separate fare zones for municipalities into four zones. Regardless of the mode of transport, including regional trains, the fare would be the same for travel between two points. This has provoked some negative reaction due to its effect on fares for trips across zone boundaries.


Fare Card FormatCompass smart card, wristband and wearables.
Buses accept cash fare.
FaresBuses charge a one zone fare regardless of whether they cross zone boundaries. SkyTrain and SeaBus fares depend on the number of zones crossed.
Compass tickets can be purchased in zone-based increments (see below).
Cash and contactless payments cost from $3 to $5.75 depending on the number of zones.
Stored value PAYG fares are about 20% lower than full fare.
Fare zonesThere are three fare zones in Vancouver. Zone 1 contains the City of Vancouver and was the territory of local transit before the suburban expansions much a Toronto’s old zone 1 matched the former City of Toronto. Zone 2 includes North and West Vancovuer, as well as Richmond. Zone 3 contains all municipalities to the east.
Travel after 6:30 pm weekdays and all day on weekends charges a one zone fare.
Transfer privilegesUp to 90 minutes except for the West Coast Express which allows 120 minutes.
Bus fares paid in cash can get a paper transfer, but this is only valid for transfer to other bus routes.
Riders travelling on both the WCE and the local network pay fares for both, but their WCE fare is reduced by the value of the local fare effectively providing a free transfer.
PassesDay passes can be loaded onto a Compass card, or bought as a single use ticket for $10.50.
Monthly passes cost from $98 to $177 depending on the zones covered.
Concession faresConcession fares are available with a Compass card that has a different colour (orange) from the standard (green) card. They are available to seniors, youth 14 to 18 (with photo id), children 5 to 13, and the disabled.
These are discounted about 1/3 compared to full cash fare.
A three-zone monthly pass is available for $56.
ChildrenUp to four children under 5 ride free with a fare-paying adult.
Airport faresA $5 surcharge applies to tickets purchased for travel beyond Sea Island where the airport is located. It also applies to PAYG trips leaving Sea Island using Compass stored value or various payment apps.
Travel between Sea Island stations is free.
The surcharge does not apply to monthly pass holders, nor to Compass tickets and passes that are not purchased on Sea Island.
Commuter railThe West Coast Express operates on a tap-on/off basis. For PAYG trips, it deducts a full fare on entry with a credit applied on exit based on the zones travelled.
Monthly WCE passes are available at both full and concession rates.
Holders of local transit passes pay an additional fare to use WCE.

London, UK

London has a large complex system of surface (bus and tram), underground (subway) and regional rail services with a range of fare options to match. Fares are based on concentric zones for the underground and regional rail system, but are flat on surface routes. Daily capping effectively converts the fare to a day pass for multiple trips. There is no free transfer between surface and underground services.

Fare Card FormatOyster smart card
Contactless card and mobile app
Some fares can exist either as a paper ticket or as a credit on an Oyster account.
Stored contentMoney and passes
Reconciliation of fares is handled by back-end processing so that zone-based fares can be charged to users of contactless cards (e.g. credit cards).
Subway fareVaries by number of zones, time of day and day of week.
Bus & tram fareThe PAYG “Hopper” fare is £1.50 and allows one hour of unlimited travel. There is a £4.50 daily cap.
Reduced faresDiscounts for various types of riders (seniors, children, students) are available. They vary by type of service and fare up to 50% off.
Transfer privilegesNo transfers between surface and underground/rail systems.
On the underground, special Oyster tap-out stations are used to indicate that a journey is continuing so that the next tap-in is counted as a continuation of the same trip.
PassesPasses under the name “Travelcard” are available for various time periods: weekly, monthly, 3-month, 6-month, annual with increasing discounts for longer periods. For example, a 7-day Travelcard costs less than three one-day passes, and a monthly card costs about 11 one-day passes.
They provide unlimited travel on all modes within the zones covered (with some exceptions). Riding outside the area of a card is handled on a PAYG basis.
Passes valid only for the surface bus and tram network are available.
Children and studentsFree passage or 50% off depending on where one lives (inside or outside London) and whether one has an Oyster photo card.
Commuter railThe rail network is integrated with the “local” fare tariff where both types of service are available. It is not a premium fare service, but like the underground charges separately from the bus and tram network unless one has a Travelcard covering both networks.


Fare Card FormatNavigo travel card
RATP smartphone app
FareA single ticket valid within the Île-de-France for metro (subway), bus, tram and regional trains (RER) is €1.90. These can be bought in books of 10 for €16.90. (Reduced fare €8.45)
Outside of the central zone, tickets are available at variable prices depending on distance.
Transfer privilegesTwo hour transfer privileges on the metro, 90 minutes on bus and tram routes.
PassesA day pass Mobilis is available in two to five zone increments priced from €7.50 to €17.80.
Weekly Navigo passes are priced at €22.80 for a zone 1-5 pass, monthly €75.20.
Annual passes (billed monthly) allow travel in all zones for €827.20/year, or between two selected zones for prices ranging from €717.20 to €754.60.
The two-zone passes allow all-zone travel on weekend and holidays. Otherwise a top-up fare is required.
ChildrenUnder 4, children travel free provided that they do not occupy a seat.
From 4 to 10, children travel at a 50% discount.
StudentsUp to age 26. An annual pass is available for €350.
A one-day weekend pass is available starting at €4.10 (price depends on zones covered).
Commuter railThe regional and local systems are considered as one under the zone fare structure.


Fare Card FormatTickets
Smartphone BVG Ticket App.
Zone structureThere are three concentric zones A, B and C. Fares are sold for adjacent zones such as AB, or for all three as an ABC fare. Fares are valid on all services within Berlin.
FareSingle ticket AB: €3.00, BC €3.50, ABC €3.80
Short trip ticket: €2.00: Up to three S-bahn or underground stops or 6 stations on trams or buses with no transfers.
4-trip tickets are also available.
Reduced faresApproximately 1/3 off the single ticket. Applies to children over 6 and dogs travelling with riders whose fare does not already include them (varies by fare type).
Transfer privileges2 hours travelling in the same direction with stopovers allowed.
PassesA 24 hour ticket is approximately three times the single fare.
A weekly ticket is about 12 times the single fare.
Monthly tickets are priced at about 28 single fares.
On subscription, monthly tickets are priced at about 250 fares/year if paid monthly, or at about 240 fares/year if paid annually.
A “10 o’clock” monthly pass is priced at about 21 fares. It is valid off-peak only starting from 10 am on weekdays.
“City Tour” cards valid for up to 6 days are available for tourists.
ChildrenUnder 6 free with an adult. Varying numbers of children can ride free with an adult depending on the type of fare they are using.
K-12 studentsAll Berlin students ride free of charge with a pass that is ordered online, plus student ID.
Other students, trainees, apprenticesSpecial fares are available to various classes of student.
SeniorsA senior’s monthly pass is available for €624 (paid in monthly installments) or €608 (paid annually). It provides unlimited travel.
BicyclesThere is a separate fare of €2.10 (single ticket; other forms available at a discount) for bicycles, and carriage is subject to space availability. Wheelchair users and buggies have priority for space. Bikes are not permitted on buses.


Fare Card FormatMyKi card stores money and passes. It exists as a physical card and as a phone app.
FaresThere are three city zones to cover suburban services, and a free tram zone downtown. A few tram routes go into an overlap zone 1/2, and tram fares automatically cover this so that the tram network is a flat fare.
The Zone 1/2 fare is $4.50. Zone 2 only is $3.
There is a daily fare cap of two single fares.
There is an experimental 30% off-peak discount from February 1 to April 30, 2021. Riders must touch off between 9:30 am and 4 pm, or touch on after 7 pm weekdays. This applies both within Melbourne and to regional services.
Touch-off is not required for riding within zone 1+2 because the full fare was paid on entry. For trips outside zone 1, touch-off is required to charge the appropriate fare.
Bus fareBus fares depend on tap on, tap off to determine which zone(s) a trip covers. These are mainly suburban services.
Reduced faresTravel passes valid for 1, 7 or 30 days are issued by authorized organizations and charities to their clients.
Transfer privilegesA fare is valid for two hours from the start of a journey.
PassesPasses are available for varying numbers of days and fare zones.
A 7-day zone 1/2 pass is $45, the equivalent of 10 single fares.
A pass from 28 to 365 days costs $5.40 times the number of days. The 325 day price applies to periods up to 365 days giving a discount for an annual pass.
Concession faresThere are many groups with varying rules (e.g. students, seniors, disability).
50% off full fare. Free on weekends for some.
Regional faresThere are 14 metropolitan zones. Because the city and network are radial in layout, most fares are stated relative to zone 1 (downtown). There are “intertown” fares for travel between zones outside of this area, but they are still based on travel along a corridor.
Early bird free travel for trips on metropolitan trains that touch off before 7:15 am.

Hong Kong

Fare Card FormatOctopus smart card (first introduced in 1997)
MTR Mobile supports smart phone ticketing using QR codes displayed on the screen (this feature was introduced on January 23, 2021).
Fare structureThe entire system is fare-by-distance and there are very large tables showing all of the “point A to point B” fare values.
On the LRT, fares are based on zones for ticket users, and on the stop count for Octopus users.
Concession faresOnly available on an Octopus card or with QR codes. Children and the elderly pay a lower fare. Student fares are also available for most services.
Transfer privilegesA fare is valid for two hours. Free transfers are allowed between specific bus, LRT and MTR at specific locations within an allowed time. If the service transferred to is at a higher rate, the difference is charged when changing. This is available to Octobus users only.
PassesDay and monthly passes are available.
A “City Saver” pass is valid for 40 journeys within 40 days and is priced for frequent medium-to-long distance commuters.
Monthly Pass Extra provides unlimited rides between designated stations plus a 25% discount on fares to stations beyond that limit.
Bonus faresFrequent riders get a 10% bonus.


The table below covers only the basic fares in a complex system with multiple companies providing service.

Fare Card FormatPASMO fare card can hold various forms of fares and “cash”. They avoid the need to determine which fare one needs in advance because the correct value will be deducted when leaving a station.
Basic faresThe system is distance-based, although passes avoid this complexity.
Ticket “coupons” are available for discounts on frequent journeys in 5 distance ranges.
Single tickets range from ¥170 to ¥320. The lowest fare is for trips from 1-6km, the longest for 28-40/km. The cost/km is lower for longer distances.
Coupons are sold in 11-packs for travel at any time.
Off peak coupons are sold in 12-packs priced at 10 times the single fare.
Subway fareThere is a supplementary fare to transfer from the subway to lines operated by other companies.
At some locations, transfers between lines require swiping out from the first line through a special turnstile to indicate that you plan to transfer as opposed to leaving the subway. A maximum of 30 minutes is allowed to make the transfer connection.
PassesAdult 24/48/72-hour subway ticket for visitors are priced at ¥800/1200/1500.
A 1 day open ticket includes the subway, but there are various combos include tram and bus services. The basic cost is ¥600, but other services can be included at extra cost.
Greater Tokyo Pass for 3 days at ¥7200 covers subway, tram and bus routes.
Children50% off for children age 6 to 11. Up to two toddlers ride free with an adult. Infants ride free.
Airport faresAn airport/downtown/metro ticket combines 1 or 2 way travel by rail or bus and includes a subway pass for 24/48/72 hours.

13 thoughts on “A Review of Fare Structures

  1. Love this summary of fare structures; especially excited to see the cities I live(d) in, Hong Kong and Tokyo, featured. Tokyo’s commuter passes are somewhat unique in that while you purchase them for point-to-point (e.g. for me, it is Kawasaki to Yotsuya), at point of purchase you can also select the corridor to take (e.g. Kawasaki-Tokyo-Yotsuya vs Kawasaki-Shinagawa-Shinjuku-Yotsuya). These obviously come with different costs BUT the pass enables you to get on or off anywhere along this corridor as part of your commuting pass at no extra charge. I know that TTC monthly passes are network wide, but I think it’s forgivable for Japanese railways to do a point-to-point corridor pass rather than a regular network wide pass just by virtue of how much more expansive their network is.


  2. Not to say you missed anything important, because this is quite specific, but one peculiarity about the Montreal monthly passes is in the metro extensions to Laval and Longeuil. It’s not possible to enter the metro at stations in Longeuil and Laval with a base STM monthly pass. Instead, you have to buy a TRAM 3 pass, which is gives access to all bus, metro and commuter rail service within zone 3 and costs notably more. I believe this is supposed to recoup operating costs from off island residents who did not want to pay for it through their taxes.

    It’s kinda analogous to the subway extensions into the 905 region. Who is going to pay for the operating expenses and what would be the blowback to an extra fare for those regions if operating subsidies aren’t provided?

    Steve: Yes, there were a lot of that sort of thing in the various fare systems as I looked at them. My main interest was to explain the types of options used rather than following every tentacle of each city’s system.


  3. Tokyo (and actually most of the major cities in Japan) also has a similar issue to the GTA, in the cost of short trips across boundaries. Except instead of buses crossing municipal boundaries, it’s trains crossing company boundaries. For example, the Tokyu Toyoko Line and the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line are connected at Shibuya, and there are through trains. If we ride 2 stops each way from Shibuya, we have:

    Shibuya to Naka-Meguro (Tokyu), ¥126, 2.2 km, ¥57.3/km
    Shibuya to Kita-Sando (Tokyo Metro), ¥168, 2.2 km, ¥76.4/km

    If we want to go from the Tokyu stop before Shibuya to the Tokyo Metro stop after, though, it’s:

    Daikan-Yama to Meiji-Jingumae, ¥274, 2.5 km, ¥109.6/km

    But what’s really bizarre is going all the way from Naka-Meguro to Kita-Sando is actually cheaper than Daikan-Yama to Meiji-Jingumae: only ¥242, or ¥55/km. A commuter pass for that trip is more expensive, though: ¥10,990/month vs ¥10,640.

    You also have the oddity of the train or subway actually often being cheaper than the bus, because most bus fares in Tokyo are a flat ¥210-230, depending on operating company. And no transfer discounts, even between buses operated by the same company. So that same trip from Naka-Meguro to Kita-Sando by bus would cost ¥430 (¥220 for the Tokyu bus from Naka-Meguro to Shibuya plus ¥210 for the Toei bus from Shibuya to Kita-Sando).

    For a lot of Japanese workers, it’s all irrelevant, though, at least as far as commuting goes. Most jobs, even many part-time ones, give a commuting allowance on top of the regular pay, which can be ¥100,000 (the maximum the company can write off as a business expense), or even more. (They’ll only pay the actual commuting expense.) It’s not uncommon to even commute by Shinkansen. For example, in 2014, Takasaki Station (in Gunma Prefecture, 105 km from Tokyo station) was selling 5,700 commuter passes to Tokyo a month. If we assume they were all going to Tokyo station, that’s a 50 minute trip by Shinkansen (relatively slow for the Shinkansen, because it’s limited to 130 km/h through Tokyo and Saitama City for noise abatement reasons), and an unreserved seat costs ¥4,490. A commuter pass gives a substantial discount, though, with a 3-month pass (they don’t do 6-month passes for the Shinkansen) working out to ¥98,423/month, meaning you’re slightly ahead after only 11 days (breakeven in 21.9 trips). So while a part-timer at 7-Eleven probably couldn’t get it covered, most “professionals” likely could.

    Some cities even offer subsidies to new residents if their employer won’t cover the full cost of their commute, such as Saku (74 minutes, 164.4 km, by Shinkansen to Tokyo station) offering up to ¥25,000/month. A 3-month pass from Saku-Daira to Tokyo is ¥385,550, so if the company paid ¥100,000/month, and the city kicked in ¥25,000/month, that would only leave ¥3,517/month for the employee, which isn’t a bad deal… Of course, they’d still have to get from home to the Shinkansen station, which is near the northern edge of the city. If they were down at the south end, but still right next to the station on the local line, that would add another 36 minutes, and ¥5,580/month, or ¥6-10,000/month for parking if they drove to the station.

    Steve: Something I noticed as a common theme, especially in cities/regions with complex fare structures, is the number of workarounds to simplify things by providing multi-zone passes and other schemes to make that complexity disappear. It’s hard to understand why, other than institutional lethargy, these fare systems have not been simplified years ago. Related to this is the question of what proportion of riders actually pay the “full” tariff as opposed to one of the many discount schemes.

    Thanks for the detailed update with local knowledge of the Tokyo systems.


  4. A couple things I wanted to add:

    In New York, there’s now a discounted CityTicket weekend fare that allows you to travel within the 5 boroughs by commuter rail for $4.50. Unfortunately, it’s not very well publicized and you have to know to buy the right ticket when you’re using a ticket machine to get the discount.

    The free transfers you mentioned for Hong Kong only apply to the handful of feeder bus routes and the LRT system (not to be confused with the Hong Kong Tramways) that are run by the MTR, both inherited from the KCR merger. While you can still use Octopus cards on bus routes run by the other 5 bus companies (along with the Tramway, Peak Tram, Ferries and some minibuses), there is no fare integration, and often there are bus routes that run parallel and compete directly with subway routes, but with much lower fares.

    Steve: I will update the info in the article. Thanks.


  5. 1) We moved to North Etobicoke in 1959 and a friend came to see us from Scarborough. There was no way to cross the city without going from zone 3 or 4 in to the core and back out again. (see 1954 map above).

    2) Challenge: Can you explain the fare system to someone from out of town? I never know if I have Toronto’s system correct when I go in.

    3) In London, if you had a travelcard, it was possible to buy a railway ticket from “boundary zone 6” to your destination. Restriction was that the train had to stop near to the boundary (not good on the Flying Scotsman). (not sure how current this info is).


  6. Though I realise that having no fares at all would probably create a demand that could not be met, there is clearly a fairly high cost to collect fares and ensure that (most) customers pay them. Do you have figures on what percentage of fare revenue is required to actually ‘manage’ charging fares of ANY kind?

    Steve: When the TTC was being forced into using Presto, the handling fee was set to match the then-current TTC cost estimated at about 3.5%. The cost to operate Presto is higher because of all that technology, and probably because of some overheads built into the whole process to produce a profit both for Metrolinx and Accenture. As you no doubt know, Presto would like to push their fee to 10% and have been upping their charges to participating agencies as their original contracts expire.

    I am reminded of how Toronto overpaid for the SRT cars to hide a deficit at the UTDC.


  7. The Netherlands has the OV-chipkaart, a national fare card, used for almost all public transit services in the country regardless of operator, including buses (local and inter-city), trams, metros and non-international trains. All fares are by distance (fixed boarding charge + a charge by distance), and one must check in and out for each service or vehicle used. Stopovers have to be very short to avoid a second fixed boarding charge. A minimum card balance is required before boarding: 4 euros for local transit and 16 euros for trains. The card itself costs 7.50 euros and expires after 4 years.

    I liked the OV-chipkaart because I didn’t have to buy a separate ticket for each operator or service used. I find Presto convenient for travel within the GTA and Ottawa. I wished Presto would cover more transit systems in Ontario beyond the GTA, but this seems not to be happening.


  8. The TTC was supposed to have stopped accepting tokens and senior/youth tickets about a year ago, but these are still accepted. And fare collectors are posted at each subway station in order to monitor payment by legacy fares and to verify paper transfers. What is the plan to eliminate legacy fares? Is the TTC waiting for Metrolinx to implement additional Presto features such as perhaps vending machines on board buses and streetcars to sell Presto tickets?

    Steve: All changes are on hold while they sort out their fare strategy and see where Metrolinx is going. Also, Covid-19 put the work of shifting various agencies who hand out fare media over to Presto tickets on hold.


  9. What do you suggest then? I honestly did like the TRBOT proposal.

    Steve: To quote myself from the article:

    This article will not propose a new scheme. That would imply I somehow have access to stone tablets with the One True Word on the subject, and that I am already wedded to one scheme in spite of the plethora of ways one might calculate and charge fares. There are many variables and issues such as the level of subsidy available, the scope of a unified system, and the goals transit is supposed to achieve.

    We cannot simply propose a new scheme without debating these underlying issues, and anyone who avoids the policy debate is leaving out the most important, foundational part of a study.

    The TRBOT scheme’s primary flaw is that it tries too hard to get rid of certain fare boundaries while preserving most of the existing structure within Toronto, and applying to all services including GO for “regional integration”. The tariff has the feeling of something cobbled together to make the numbers come out right rather than being grounded in some fundamental principles.

    A fundamental part of any fare restructuring will be the recognition that it cannot happen without more public subsidy. This applies not just to fares but to service as an integral part of “regional integration” is that there is actually some service outside of Toronto with which to “integrate”. The whole scheme of making GO some sort of regional rapid transit line fails on the basic fact that there is no mechanism to get riders to and from stations in most locations, let alone move them around the region. Moreover, regional travel isn’t just on the GO corridors.

    Tinkering with the fares is only half a plan, and barely that. The bigger challenge is to have service that people want to and can use. Getting rid of a few pesky fare boundaries around Toronto is child’s play.


  10. Thanks for the detailed description of the capabilities of different systems, and how they are used.

    In addition to the Compass card, Vancouver also accepts contactless payment. When I was there a few years ago, I considered the options of paying the upfront cost of a card to get lower fare prices, vs the convenience of contactless. For the amount of transit use I was expecting during that trip the Compass card was not worth it. Tapping with a credit card was really easy, and served my needs.

    In summer 2019 I travelled to Ireland, and ended up buying a Leap card for travel in and around Dublin. For the time I was there (10 days) I was doing 2 or more trips per day, so the upfront cost of the card was worth it. They do have a visitor version that gives unlimited travel at a flat rate for 1, 3 or 7 days. Since contactless isn’t an option, this gives people who are only going to be in the area for a short time easy access to transit.

    Transit systems really need to think about occasional users like tourists, and how to get them aboard. Contactless seems to be relatively straightforward way of doing that.


  11. The difference between how we view transit vs roads as communal infrastructure is striking. The general population seems to have no problem with “free” unlimited use of roads without tolls, instead pay for them indirectly based on taxes, which have their own fairness based on income structure. My utopian fare structure would be no fare, and corresponding tax increases to cover the cost. I know this has no chance in happening, but as a driver and transit user, I can’t help thinking about how I get to use the roads for “free”.

    I think it’s important to point out what works well about our current system, especially compared to other regions’. The TTC’s integration is one of the best things about our system, both physical and fare. Anything that would break that up, such as different fares for subway vs bus, would be a step backwards.

    What does our system handle poorly? Outdated boundaries. Steeles Ave is the canonical example, but the same goes for the Mississauga/Toronto boundary and Mississauga/Brampton. The GTA is a mostly contiguous urban area. What are now political lines on a paper create fare penalization zones. The Board of Trade article does a good job recognizing this, but like Steve I am critical of their solution. To me, if the problem is zones, then the solution should be fewer zones, not more.

    Where do zones/boundaries still matter? Where they exist physically. Milton, Stoufville, Barrie, etc. are not directly adjacent to the GTA. To put it one way, there’s no sidewalk you can take from Toronto to Milton. These natural borders effectively limit local transit riders from crossing fare boundaries.

    This dovetails into regional transit. As far as I know this is only GO, and I’ll call it “Traditional GO”. Regional transit is basically distance/zone based everywhere and of course this makes sense due to dramatic differences in distances travelled. We can debate free parking, cars off the road, and subsidies. Traditional GO can tweak its regional fares to suit those policy priorities with relative ease. I don’t think this is the issue.

    The issue is what Metrolinx is trying to turn GO into, and it’s significantly different from Traditional GO. To me it’s a weird hybrid of semi local, regional, and commuter rail (I’m ignoring GO buses for simplicity). Exurban trips are a lot different than intra-urban trips. Metrolinx has doubled down on Exurban GO parking, but they are also pushing hard for urban transit interchanges for GO. The target riders are fundamentally different, and they need a different fare structure.

    Let me illustrate. The base fare is $3.70, more than the TTC but it’s a premium service, so as a base fare I’m happy with that. It quickly becomes broken though. Union to Kennedy is $3.70, but Union to Agincourt is $6.48. That’s a ridiculously steep increase given it’s just 1 more stop and the equivalent of 3 Line 1 subway stops, all within the City of Toronto. It should be more like an extra $0.25. The second problem is the double fare. If I take the 1 stop Agincourt->Kennedy and then a few stops on Line 2, it’s $6.90. Only comparatively rich people are going to pay that and most of them would rather drive. The pilot GO/TTC fare pilot program that Doug Ford killed helped, but it would still be $5.40. A big part of GO Expansion is trips like these, and it isn’t going to work with those fares.

    Here is what I propose: For all trips originating within the GTA, free transfer from one agency to another, one time, e.g. Viva to TTC, but not Viva to TTC to Zume. This includes GO, so free transfer from GO within the GTA to TTC (or other agency), but if you have to take say YRT to GO to TTC, then you need to pay that TTC fare. Additionally, the extra distance charge from the base GO fare should be mostly linear, unlike it is now. Finally, no free transfers from trips outside the GTA, like a Barrie rider. My justification is that the TTC was never an option for that Barrie rider. The GTA should be part of a specific tax pool to fund all GTA transit, and Barrie/Kitchener etc. are not part of that.

    My system here has created potentially very long trips times for a single fare, but here is why I think that is fair. The people who take those very long trips are not likely to be wealthy, and they deserve to be subsidized, and I don’t think they account for a large amount of ridership.


  12. Couple of points about London.

    Anyone with a credit/debit card has “contactless payment” capability – basically anyone with a bank account can pay for their journey without needing to “top up” a smartcard/visit a ticket machine. I’m not sure of the “market penetration” of contactless bank cards in Canada.

    Regardless of Oyster/contactless payment – the daily/weekly price caps are the same amount as the Travelcard “passes” – negating the need to purchase them directly. Low income residents are no longer required to have the large amount of cash for a pass, given that their Oyster/contactless card will “cap” at the relevant amount.

    TfL’s work with CUBIC on open payment means they’re licensing the technology to other cities like Sydney, Boston and New York – underneath the different names (Opal, Charlie, OMNY etc) – it’s all CUBIC/TfL technology… It’s a nice little earner, apparently – having easily recouped the £15m investment.

    Steve: Contactless bank cards have been common in Canada for quite some time. The problem in Toronto has always been that Presto is a stored fare card, and the whole system is oriented to charging at time of use, not via a back end account-based system. Once you break the link between the card as a “wallet” and the actual collection of fares, then anything that can talk to an NFC-capable device can be used to charge one’s fare account. Presto plans to move to an account-based system, but all it can do with a credit card today is to charge a single adult fare.

    I know that Cubic has been lobbying in Toronto, but there is a small army of vendors hoping to sell their systems. What is not clear is whether the choice will be based on technological competence or on political connections.


  13. Assuming that Line 5 opens in September 2022, would that be the deadline for the TTC to discontinue tokens, senior/youth tickets, paper transfers and staffed fareboxes? I am assuming that the new Line 5 stations and surface stops would support only Presto.

    Steve: This would make sense, but I’m still waiting to see the details of the TTC’s settlement with Presto and whether that technology will actually allow for complete elimination of legacy fare modes.


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