The Siren Song of Regional Fare Integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TTC Board Meeting November 16, 2020

The TTC Board met on Monday, November 16.

This meeting saw the return of Chair Jaye Robinson, albeit in a supporting role. She has been on medical leave for several months, but her treatments are almost complete and she plans to return fully to her position in December.

Items of interest on the agenda included:

The Financial update refers to new vehicle programs but there were additional details that I requested from the TTC.

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TTC Ponders New Fare Options

At its recent meeting, the TTC Board approved a report launching reviews of fare policy and technology. These will run on an overlapped timetable beginning in fall 2020 with a goal of reporting to the Board in October 2021. The topics are linked in that policy choices can be held hostage by technology options. Nowhere is that clearer than in the TTC’s experience with Presto:

  • The range of options and capabilities specified by the TTC was constrained, in part, by the policy and financial framework in which Toronto operates, especially the avoidance of proposals that would increase costs.
  • The provider, Metrolinx and its partner Accenture, failed to deliver to the requirement knowing that the iron fist of Queen’s Park and threats to subsidy funding would overrule any complaints about functional problems. Metrolinx is on record now as refusing to meet all of the contracted requirements for the simple reason that they will not invest more development funding in a system that they hope to replace.
  • Any modifications to Presto functionality are treated as billable change orders, even if the TTC could argue that the “change” is a contracted feature. Metrolinx enforces its billings by withholding fare revenue from the TTC.

This poisonous relationship colours any discussion of the future of fare structures, levels, technology and subsidies not just in Toronto but across the GTHA.

A further problem, and this is common to studies of the future of TTC service design, is the pre-emption of options by the catch-all “we can’t afford it” line that pushes aside consideration of options that require more than small adjustments within existing funding.

Years ago, in the Miller-era Ridership Growth Strategy of 2003, the starting point was not “what can we afford”, but “what can we do, and how much would it cost”. This left the policy decisions where they belonged in the political realm where the TTC Board, Council and the public could balance investment in better transit with costs and expected benefits. Options were not swept off of the table by management second guessing the politicians, or, worse, protecting politicians from options they might not want to know about.

With fare policy, there is an added layer of the rivalry with Metrolinx and its role as a regional agency. If Metrolinx were actually doing its job, there would be little need for a TTC study because Metrolinx would look at fare and technology policy:

  • including the needs of local transit, not just commuter service, and how this will grow into a wider network;
  • without prejudice for the preservation of its existing technology investment in Presto nor its existing partnership with a service provider;
  • without attempting a zero-sum “solution” where no new money is committed, especially by Queen’s Park; and
  • without the doctrinaire belief that the private sector will magically pay for everything, and by implication that change can only happen with private funding.

We have been around this bush before with a previous TTC Fare Policy Study in 2015 that was itself hobbled by Presto limitations, the then co-existence of legacy fare media and policies, and utter paranoia about changing fare structures. Toronto could have had a two hour transfer years sooner but for political foot-dragging and the assumption that the revenue loss would severely damage the TTC (and by extension the City). Eventually the Mayor needed some good news beyond free rides for kiddies, and the two-hour transfer became a reality.

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TTC Repeats Penalty-Free Offer for Monthly Pass Cancellation

The TTC is repeating its offer, first made in mid-March, for monthly pass subscribers on Presto to cancel their subscriptions without penalty. This must be done by April 22 when the automatic renewals for May will kick in.

A still-outstanding question is whether the TTC will offer partial refunds for the March passes which most riders were unable to use after many businesses and other activities were curtailed or closed. According to TTC spokesperson Stuart Green, this matter has not been decided yet.

TTC Changes Fare Collection, Trims Service – But What of the Future?

Updated March 28, 2020: The TTC has changed its policy for Wheel-Trans and now only accepts payment by Presto. See the March 27 update for Wheel-Trans.

The TTC implemented several changes to its fare policies and service in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Their focus is on protection of workers and passengers by physical distancing and eliminating most interaction between them.

Fares & Fare Collection

All bus passengers will board and leave via the rear door except for riders who require the access ramp at the front door. Operators will keep their protective barriers closed, and the fare boxes will not be available.

On buses except for Wheel-Trans, the TTC will not accept cash, tokens or tickets and will not issue paper transfers. Only Presto will be accepted. Streetcar and subway riders can use fare machines.

The TTC asks that riders pay with Presto “where available”, but it is unclear whether riders without cards will ride free. The Star’s Ben Spurr quotes TTC spokesperson Stuart Green:

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said riders who don’t have Presto will be asked to pay when they arrive at their destination if they’re headed to a subway station.

He declined to answer directly when asked whether riders who don’t have Presto and don’t pay will face a fine from transit officers, but said the “focus of fare inspectors right now is on customer service and education.”

Updated March 24 at 2:12 pm: An exchange on Twitter:

But how does one board a bus if cash is not being accepted?

@TTCHelps: You can just walk on. No one will stop you. We’d like you to pay your cash fare at a connecting station or streetcar if possible.

A well-known problem with Presto is that places where riders can obtain one and load money are much thinner on the ground that the old TTC ticket agent network, particularly in the suburbs where bus transportation dominates.

The deadline for cancelling the auto-renew on monthly or 12 month passes on Presto has been extended to 11:59 pm, Friday, March 27. The TTC will waive cancellation fees, although Presto might still issue an automated warning email.

Service Changes

Because weekday ridership has dropped by over 70 per cent, the TTC is reviewing its resource requirements. The following routes no longer operate, and their vehicles will be reallocated where needed.

  • All 900-series express bus routes, except for the 900 Airport, 903 Kennedy-Scarborough Town Centre, and 927 Highway 27.
  • All 140-series Downtown express routes.
  • The 176 Mimico GO bus and 508 Lake Shore streetcars.

The 503 Kingston Road route had been cut back to a shuttle between Queen & Kingston Road and Bingham Loop at Victoria Park. The extra service it provides on Queen and King Streets is not needed. An obvious future change would be to run the evening/weekend configuration of the 22A Coxwell Bus during all hours. This sort of tweak will no doubt be repeated in other parts of the system.

Regular service will continue every 10 minutes or better on most of the affected routes, for now.

Vehicle arrival predictions will be out of whack until the online schedules are updated to match the revised services.

A full list of changes is on the TTC’s website.

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TTC Board Meeting: February 25, 2020

The TTC Board meets on February 25 to discuss several reports and proposals. Among items on the agenda are:

I will add to this article following the Board meeting with additional information from the discussions.

Notable by its absence from the CEO’s Report is any information on route crowding or improved metrics for service quality.

Trials of electric buses are in early days, and Toronto is a long way from seeing an entirely zero-emission fleet. My column this week in NOW Toronto present some of the history of evolving bus technology.

Commissioner Brad Bradford has a Notice of Motion which seeks to link spending on improved transit service to potential funding for new vehicles. While the recently improved City Building Fund provides more money for transit vehicles, this covers only one third of their cost and none of any future increase in operations. Bradford’s motion requests:

The TTC Board request that the TTC Chief Executive Officer, when engaging in negotiations with the provincial and federal governments for funding for the TTC’s vehicle procurement priorities, tie funding requests to the implementation of the TTC’s 5-Year Service Plan and service levels as prescribed by the strategy.

There are two problems with this stance.

First, if the TTC and Council choose not to actually fund the added service, this would imply that the capital funding should not come from other governments. I doubt that is Bradford’s intent, but the real issue is that there is no Council commitment to fund better TTC service. Other factors such as the jump in operating budgets to fund new lines such as Eglinton Crosstown and increased fare subsidies could crowd out spending on service.

Second, the scale of service increases proposed in the Service Plan is quite modest, and it really should be revisited. Sadly, the TTC chose not to include more aggressive options for expansion in the Plan even if only on an aspirational basis. Back in 2003, the strength of David Miller’s Ridership Growth Strategy was that it addressed what Toronto could do for modest increases in spending, but this approach has never been repeated.

Bradford also has a Notice of Motion that seeks to consolidate updates on two reports so that both sides of the revenue protection and enforcement issue can be seen by the Board together.

  • Auditor General’s Report – Review of Toronto Transit Commission’s Revenue Operations
  • Ombudsman Toronto Enquiry Report Review of the TTC’s Investigation of a February 18, 2018 Incident Involving Transit Fare Inspectors

Further discussion of fare issues and Presto are likely at the meeting.

The Child Pass Problem (Updated)

Updated February 15, 2020 at 10:00 am:

Additional information from the TTC has been added to clarify some issues raised here including:

  • How the number of child card taps relates to the number of rides.
  • Which “average fare” is the one used in loss calculations for fare evasion.
  • The discrepancy between full year child card losses and associated citations as compared to the fare evasion study conducted late in 2019.
  • The difference between evasion rates calculated from tap data on Presto machines as opposed to from in-person observations, and the time periods covered by each.

Changes are flagged in the body of this article for readers who have been here before.

Introduction

The TTC’s Audit and Risk Management Committee met on February 11 to discuss three reports of which two dealt in detail with the problems of fare evasion and revenue loss.

Documents related to this are:

Among many areas covered by these reports was the problem of misuse of Presto cards set up for free travel by children by riders who were anything but.

Although this was flagged as a problem when the reports were published in advance of the meeting, the scale and potential revenue loss only came out in the staff presentation to the committee. To complicate the debate, there were two separate and different estimates of the scale of this problem.

The range of fare evasion losses with Child Presto cards ranges widely depending on how one does the calculation. The root of the problem is that there were only 10 million Child Presto taps in 2019.

In one version, a the TTC concludes that 89 per cent of child card taps are not by children. However, the small total number of taps limits the size of the potential revenue loss to about $12 million, well below the total projected losses of $70 million.

In the other version, the TTC claims that one third of all fare evasion is due to Child Presto abuse, but there were not enough child taps in 2019 to account for this level. It is possible that the level of abuse has been growing strongly and was much larger in late 2019 (when the study yielding the “one third” figure took place) than for the year overall.

Updated February 15, 2020:

The TTC confirmed that there are two separate calculations for Child Presto losses that cover two time periods and methodologies.

  • The estimate of $12.4 million loss was based on estimating the number of rides that do not fit with a typical usage pattern one would expect for children, and it is calculated from all-year card usage and the system average fare of $2.25.
  • Statistics for provincial offenses in court showed that about 13% of cases related to Child Presto abuse. This was based on the full year 2019.
  • The 33.7% overall evasion rate for Child Presto use is based on a study in the final months of 2019. This implies a strong growth in the fraudulent use of Child Presto cards.

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Fare Evasion on the TTC

This week’s article for NOW Toronto: Fare evasion storm diverts attention from TTC’s real problems

There are two reports on the TTC’s Audit & Risk Management Committee agenda for Tuesday, February 11 dealing with fare evasion and revenue controls:

These reports contain far more information, and cover more ground than I could fit into the NOW piece, and more details are likely to come out when TTC management presents their reports at the committee meeting.

I will update this article following the meeting.

We’re Not Getting Our Ten Cents’ Worth

My latest for NOW on the subject of the pending fare increase and budget.

TTC’s 10-cent fare hike doesn’t buy much transit

On the subject of just how much new service we will see in 2020, when and where, I repeatedly asked the TTC for this information, and am still waiting as of 8:30 am January 20.

There is a related issue with the TTC’s claims of widespread service improvements in 2019. I will explore this in a future article here.

Toronto Budget 2020: More Transit Money, But How Will It Be Used?

The City of Toronto launched its 2020 budget process on January 10, 2020 with a presentation by senior management and a short question-and-answer session with some members of Toronto Council. At this point, the material was quite high level, including some management puffery, but the real meat of the budget lies in the departmental and agency Budget Notes to be discussed at meetings on January 15-17. The TTC budget will be discussed on January 17.

Useful links:

Major Issues

Much has been made of the City Building Fund and its rising property tax levy to finance substantial growth in the TTC and Housing capital budgets. The changes to the TTC’s ten year capital plan between its original launch in December 2019 and the version presented in the January 2020 Budget Note are detailed later in this article. Within those changes are two major categories:

  • It was only one year ago, that TTC management proposed, and the Board approved, a significant change in the timing of Line 2 Bloor-Danforth renewal pushing out the installation of Automatic Train Control, construction of a new yard and purchase of a new fleet by a decade. The new Capital Plan shifts this work back into the 2020s and better aligns with the timing of the Scarborough Subway Extension. It also removes a reliance on older technology whose longevity was uncertain, notably the signal system.
  • The original Capital Plan included no money for new vehicles beyond purchases now in progress. There is a new item for “Vehicles”, but this is not subdivided by mode. Significant spending is budgeted for 2022 and beyond. Expanding any of the fleets also triggers a need for garage/carhouse facilities and there is a substantial increase in the planned spending on facilities.

On the Operating budget, the changes are much more modest because the additional revenue mainly keeps up with inflationary pressures, but does not go beyond for an aggressive expansion of service.

The TTC plans to hire 88 more operators and has budgeted more service hours, but the purpose of this is described differently depending on which part of the budget report and presentation one reads/hears. In December 2019, the Operating Budget and its presentation talked of relieving overcrowding that placed some routes beyond the Service Standards. However, the same addition to the Service Budget is used to handle other factors and the list makes no mention of reduced crowding.

I await clarification from the TTC on this important issue – does the TTC plan to reduce crowding or not? Will they burn up new service hours mainly to pad schedules for better service “resiliency”, or will they actually add service on overcrowded routes?

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