Updated August 26, 2021 at 3:00 pm: The TTC has advised that the planned implementation of the 128 Stanley Greene bus has been deferred, contrary to information in the CEO’s Report. See the discussion under the 2021 Service Plan heading for more information.
Although there is no TTC Board meeting in August, the monthly CEO’s Report provides an update on TTC operations. Here are some points of interest and clarifications from the TTC on questions I sent about the report.
This article looks at ridership trends, the 2021 Service Plan status, service reliability and vehicle reliability.
Ridership, Revenue and Crowding
As Toronto reopens, ridership has started to grow, and as of the start of July had surpassed the level of early April when the stay-at-home order choked off the last attempted restart. The system as a whole reached 35 per cent of pre-covid levels. Buses still have the most boardings (44 per cent of pre-covid), but growth is stronger on the subway and streetcar networks in recent weeks. The TTC expects that this trend will continue through the summer and fall as in-person participation in school, office and other activities picks up.
Fare revenue is running well below historical levels thanks to the low ridership, and is also below the budgeted level because a stronger recovery was forecast in late 2020 when the budget projections were struck. The shortfall is part of the overall budgetary gap that the City faces in 2021 with pandemic-related costs.
As ridership picks up, so will bus crowding although the effect varies by route, location and time-of-day. The TTC does not break out this information in detail, but the data below show a clear trend into early July. An important consideration here is that the TTC’s recovery plan allows for greater crowding once the overall level of ridership crests 50 percent of historic values.
There simply are not enough buses and streetcars to accommodate twice the current riding level (i.e. a return to about 70 per cent overall) at current crowding levels. That said, the TTC’s fleet is substantially larger than its day-to-day requirement including provision for service and maintenance spares. There is room for growth in the total service operated provided that a way is found to pay for it. This will be an important issue going into the 2022 budget discussions.
In the chart below it is important to remember that these are all-day, all-system numbers. Many trips that are counter-peak, or offpeak, or on routes that tend not to accumulate large numbers of riders, are included in the total. A figure of 7 percent may not look like much, but the value is diluted by counting many trips that would never be crowded anyhow.
The issue, which the TTC does not report, is the proportion of trips on busy routes and times that are crowded. This results in a disconnect between rider complaints and reported average crowding levels. A basic aspect of transit is that when loads are not even, more people are riding on crowded buses than those that are nearly empty. The perceived level of crowding will always be higher than the average, but riders cannot board an “average” bus trip especially if that trip occurs on a route or at a time when they do not travel. Such is the inherent problem of reporting average values.
It is impossible to browse the news online or in print without seeing an article about transit ridership. Will people ever go back to work in office buildings? Has work-from-home destroyed transit demand? What is the future of cities in general and our town, Toronto?
I am not going to attempt to peer into that crystal ball as there are too many possible futures. However, I want to throw out a few ideas that should be part of any debate or prognostication.
The transit market is not a monolith, not in Toronto and certainly not from city to city, system to system. There are different markets each with its own demand patterns and riders, and recovery of these markets will not all happen at the same time.
The TTC has a particularly broad reach in that, in “before days”, there was strong demand not just for downtown commuter trips, but around the suburbs. Many types of jobs do not have the work-from-home option. They are keeping us fed, alive, and supplied with an unending delivery of goods we once picked up from a local store.
Moreover, many trips are not “work” trips but are for other purposes.
School trips for all ages are an important market, and these are often overlooked as part of transit demand.
People make trips for shopping and other personal errands on the TTC, especially if they do not have a car (or if the only one in the family is being used by someone else).
Finally, there are leisure trips, broadly speaking, for outings to sports events, theatre, movies, an afternoon on the beach or a walk through the cherry blossoms.
Office commuting will resume when employers and employees feel safe gathering together. Yes some prefer working at home, at least some of the time, but others are just as happy to escape to the alternate universe of their work space and colleagues. There were already moves to reduce the space per office worker and design more for “hotelling” to make better use of expensive space, but there is still a demand for office space, at least in the core area. The creation of new space may halt or slow for a time, but “downtown” still has its allure.
We have already seen that workers in critical industries and in many settings where there is no online alternative are straining the transit service despite claims that crowding is rare.
School traffic is not going to disappear either, but it will return under different circumstances and at a different pace. Much depends on when it is really safe to resume gatherings on that level, based on actual health science, not on political pressure to reopen at whatever cost.
The last to return will be the leisure trips because here has to be something “there” to generate the traffic.
This affects the TTC in a different way from GO Transit which is almost entirely dependent on one market: downtown commuters. GO’s future is tied to these riders much more than is the TTC’s largely because it is the only market they pursued for most of their existence. They are highly dependent on parking lots and personal cars for “last mile” feeder service.
GO has tried to market itself for off peak traffic and group travel, but that demand is trivial. It is viewed as a loss-leader to get potential new customers onto GO who would try weekday service after they use it on the weekend. Of course, someone bringing their family in for a ball game might not actually work downtown, and GO has little service to other destinations.
GO’s daily ridership dropped much further than the TTC’s and it remains in single-digit percentages of its former level with some trains carrying loads that would fit on a bus.
The TTC is different as its stats show. Ridership (equivalent to fares paid, or “linked trips” in planning parlance) are at 25-30% of former levels across the system, with higher values in some areas. The budget plans for a growth to about 50% by fall 2021, but whether this is achieved depends a lot on the perceived success of the vaccination campaign and a big drop in future infection rates. In the first quarter of 2021, the TTC expected to see the first glimpse of a recovery but, thanks to political bungling, we got a third wave of infections and another “lockdown”.
That hoped-for growth starting in September may turn out to be wishful thinking, and that does not bode well for a transit system that cannot be kept on financial life support forever. The 2022 budget assumes a fairly healthy growth in demand, although not back all the way to pre-pandemic levels.
“Boardings” or “unlinked trips” count each leg of a journey separately. Any transfer between vehicles (except on the subway) counts as a new boarding. While all modes suffered a downturn through the fall and winter, the bus network did best of the three showing its relative importance to riders who continue to be on the TTC.
Crowding complaints come overwhelmingly on the bus routes, in part because there are so many more of them. The bus fleet has automatic passenger counters that can report real stats, but these are not yet widely available on the streetcar fleet.
In the near future, the TTC will provide a crowding level feed to two apps: Rocketman and Transit App. This will allow riders to see how crowded approaching buses are, although it will of course do nothing to prevent a bus, once boarded, from filling up later. This information, however, will make an interesting adjunct to real time and historical tracking analysis because it will allow crowding and service reliability to be compared.
The TTC’s analysis above fails to show the real situation riders face because it lumps every bus trip on every route all day together. Many routes are never crowded. Routes with chronic bunching might only be crowded on the “gap” bus. Routes with highly directional demand will have a lot of lightly-loaded counterpeak trips. Having “only” 5% of trips show up as “crowded” will understate the degree of the problems when and where they actually exist.
Moreover, there are more riders on a crowded bus than on an empty one, and so the “average” experience will be that more people to see crowding. A good analogy might be that someone trying to board the subway southbound at Bloor in the AM peak as opposed to eastbound at Broadview at the same time will have a very different experience of subway crowding. The same is true for bus routes.
With route level crowding stats, the TTC should be able to provide “hot spot” reports rather than simply averaging the entire system.
Clearly they are doing some of this already because service plans for coming months, including the May schedule changes, will reduce service on some less-loaded routes to be redeployed on other busy routes.
An important improvement would be to include the hot spots/hot time list in the Daily Customer Service Report so that riders can compare their experience with what the TTC thinks happened. The next challenge is to make the service run reliably, a frequent topic on this blog.
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.
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.
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”,
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?
Updated January 29, 2021: The reference to Metrolinx fare integration studies has been updated to include a link to their late 2017 Draft Business Case and to my commentary on it.
The TTC has a study underway to look at future fare options that will lead, in about a year’s time, to a Five Year Fare Policy and Ten Year Outlook.
The study includes a questionnaire seeking feedback about what people would like to see in a new fare system. Curious fellow that I am, I took the study to see what questions might be posed, and whether there was any inherent bias in the options offered.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the list of things I might prioritize as a new way to spend fare revenue.
What is mind-boggling is the presence of four topics that are clearly part of the capital, not the operating budget, and which are never funded from the farebox:
Accessibility: New elevators, etc.
Critical repairs: All items shown in the list above are capital repairs.
Extending routes or building new ones: With the exception of bus routes where there is little infrastructure, these are substantial, multi-year commitments of capital often with subsidies from other governments.
Of particular note here is that the dollar value of each type of work is not shown, and so a respondent has no way to know what the effect on fares would be if these items were charged to fare revenue.
For example, in the 2020 Budget year, before the pandemic slashed ridership and revenues, the anticipated farebox take was $1.25 billion. This is less than the total capital spending, some of which is not yet funded, in each year for the coming decade. A big rise in fares would be required to make a substantial contribution to capital.
To put this in context, a five per cent fare increase (taking the adult Presto fare from $3.20 to $3.36 with proportionate increases in other fares) would generate about $62.5 million per year (with no allowance for lost ridership due to the higher cost).
The City’s property tax bill for 2021 includes a 1.5 per cent increase for John Tory’s City Building Fund, and this tax will increase at an additional 1.5 per cent each year to 2025. The new revenue it will generate in 2021 is estimated at about $50 million. This fund is intended to underwrite over $7 billion worth of the City’s share of various transit and housing projects. Most if not all of the projected funding is already allocated.
Is the TTC considering fare increases that would help fund the Capital Budget, and if so, how much do they hope to raise? What type of projects might be funded out of this new revenue stream?
Even more critically, what operational improvements such as better service would not be funded because fare revenue was paying for things like new signal systems and vehicles?
Two other topics also beg the question of just what riders are expected to pay for out of the farebox:
Fare and Service Integration (Regional)
These are noble goals, but they should be funded from general revenues as City and Provincial priorities, not by taxing riders with a fare increase.
Many riders complain today that service in parts of the network is crowded and unreliable, but the TTC claims to be operating service at close to historic levels. Moreover, the classic TTC claim is that service levels are bounded by the size of the fleet. Both of these are not entirely true.
Because the traditional peak periods have yet to return on most routes, service operates at lower than historic levels.
The total scheduled peak vehicles (see table below) is well below the size of the fleet.
In the case of the streetcars, this is partly due to construction projects and to major vehicle overhauls that take advantage of reduced vehicle needs during 2021.
In the case of the buses, the requirements include the replacement of streetcars on some routes, but these vehicles will become available as construction projects wind down later in 2021. Even allowing for this, the fleet is substantially bigger than would be needed for industry-standard maintenance allowances.
The bus fleet now numbers over 2,000 vehicles, and there are 204 streetcars. Buses required to substitute for streetcars are:
501 Queen: 46
504 King: 19
505 Dundas: 8 (*)
506 Carlton: 22 (*)
(*) Of the 30 buses on Dundas and Carlton, 12 of them also serve as trippers on bus routes.
The primary constraint on running more service is the provision of staff and the associated budget (or subsidy) to run more of the buses more of the time. There is some headroom for more “peak” period service, and outside of those few hours a day, there is much capacity for better service if only Toronto had the will to fund it. If new money is found anywhere for transit, that is where it should go. “Service” is what riders pay for.
Notable by its absence from the survey is any mention of a new fare system based on the distance travelled. Various proposals have floated from quarters such as Metrolinx and the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
Although Metrolinx has not shown its hand publicly, they are still set on imposing a distance-based model on the GTHA to entrench their view of how fares should be calculated. This fits nicely with the prevailing political wisdom of “user pay”, but it utterly ignores other policy goals for transit and the long-standing fare structures in local transit systems.
In the Metrolinx view, rapid transit lines are considered as “premium” services and should attract a higher fare just as GO trains do today. Short trips would pay a flat rate, but at roughly 10km, fares would increase proportionate to distance travelled. The two-hour transfer would almost certainly disappear. Such a scheme would make long trips within Toronto more expensive, and reinstate the penalty on a series of short-hop trips or “trip chaining”. The goal? Subsidize cross-border trips to and from the 905 regions.
Metrolinx presented three schemes back in early 2016, and prepared to launch public consultation, but that was short-lived. I wrote about this situation at the time:
A big problem in Metrolinx fare proposals was their hope for a “zero sum” solution where new revenues (from riders lured to transit by cheaper fares, and higher fares charged to some existing riders) would offset losses (from cheaper rides for some existing riders, and lost ridership from fare increases on some trips).
[Added January 29, 2021] By late 2017, Metrolinx published a Draft Business Case for fare integration exploring various alternative fare structures, and I reviewed this in The Bogus Case for Fare Integration. In this report, Metrolinx at least acknowledges that there are two options: one is the zero sum arrangement of 2016, and the other requires “investment” (read “subsidy”) to offset new, lower fares for those who are penalized by the existing arrangement.
In due course, work on this appeared to stop, but it has not been forgotten.
The Board of Trade’s scheme uses a zonal system that is designed to allow trips inside Toronto, as well as short trips across the 416/905 boundary, to be taken for one fare, while longer trips (e.g. inner 905 to central Toronto) would pay more, although less than today’s completely separate fare on each side of the boundary. In this scheme too the two-hour transfer would probably disappear.
The fundamental problem here is that none of this is discussed in the TTC’s fare study. One of the most important questions riders might be asked is not even in the survey, nor is there any discussion of what various potential new fare schemes would do to riders’ day-to-day costs.
The TTC risks conducting a grand study without discussing a critical effect of “regional integration”. The problem is compounded by muddying the question of fares with potential support for capital projects and policy options that should not be funded from day-to-day operating revenue.
Does the TTC Board, and behind them the City of Toronto, have a hidden agenda to stiff riders for the cost of system and fare policy improvements? Or is this simply a case where nobody is paying attention?
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.
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.
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.
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.