Board of Trade Proposes Regional Transit Fare Integration

The Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) is continuing its campaign to improve public transportation by urging that provincial and municipal governments and their transit agencies integrate transit fares across the Greater Toronto Region.

In a recent report by Jonathan English, Director of Policy (Transportation) at TRBOT, with support from Uday Schultz, a student at Harvard University, the board says that the region has long suffered from a fragmented transit system and the recent upheaval to transit’s traditional revenue structure has presented a unique opportunity for reforming it—the “upheaval” that the report refers to is the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in fewer riders aboard transit vehicles.

According to the report, Erasing The Invisible Line, Integrating Toronto Region’s Transit Networks, the current system hinders access to employment and services for thousands of residents, particularly those on the outer edges of the City of Toronto. It says that punitive double fares and poorly co-ordinated routes hamper them from crossing municipal boundaries by transit. The lack of integration between GO Transit, the TTC, and other local transit services means many people endure much longer rides, use GO’s infrastructure less efficiently, and unnecessarily crowd local trains, buses, and streetcars.

After studying global best practices, TRBOT says it aims to resolve these problems without completely reorganizing the region’s transit systems. Its proposal respects municipal autonomy and makes sure that riders are not worse-off than they are today, while making transit more equitable and easier to use.

Photo of TTC streetcarTTC streetcar in downtown Toronto. Image: Toronto Region Board of Trade

One way to achieve the aims of integration, while addressing the need for local accountability, the report suggests, is to develop a “transit federation”. That’s a co-operative body, in which independent transit agencies collaborate on key areas such as fare policy, scheduling, public information, and distributing revenues. Operations, employee relations, and other policy areas would remain entirely under local control. The Toronto Region Transit Federation would include municipal agencies and GO Transit, but could also accommodate others—including new mobility operators.

This proposal for integration, the report claims, is “as simple as possible, ensuring that nobody pays a higher fare than they do today”, eliminating unreasonable double fares when riders transfer between agencies, while keeping overall revenue loss as low as possible. It estimates the overall cost at roughly $165 million per year, which it says is very affordable in the context of overall Toronto Region transit spending.

English explains, “The transit federation and integrated fare structure are a package of reforms that are both transformational and achievable on a very short time scale.”

Map showing travel options between northeast Scarborough and Union StationCurrent options for travel between Steeles Avenue East / Markham Road and Union Station. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

The report cites the example of someone travelling from the area of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue to downtown Toronto paying a fare of just $3.25 for a journey of about 15 kilometres. That same commuter, meanwhile, could pay as much as $7.13 for a shorter, four-kilometre trip northward to Thornhill. The reason is the ‘invisible line’–the boundary between the City of Toronto and York Region at Steeles Avenue. English writes, “The uncoordinated regional transit system also means that many municipal agencies’ routes stop abruptly at the municipal border, forcing inconvenient transfers on riders and making transit less competitive. Important steps toward integration have been made in recent years, and this report proposes a final leap to achieve seamless regional transit.”

Adopting a single fare for the entire region is not practical, TRBOT says, as this would result either in unacceptable financial cost to governments or unacceptably high fares for short trips. It therefore bases its simple, easy-to-understand zone fare system on existing municipal boundaries.

Its proposal, however, is different from traditional zone fare models because, with this system, every fare enables passengers to travel in at least two zones. This means that nobody travelling a short distance over a boundary faces an increase in fares, as would be the case if the base fare allowed travel only in a single zone. It also divides the City of Toronto into two zones, so that everyone aboard TTC vehicles would pay no more than what they pay today.

Under this system, each municipality will form at least one zone. The board’s report also proposes splitting the largest municipalities, including Toronto, into two zones. This avoids losing excessive revenue by making sure that riders on long trips, like commuting between Markham or Oakville to Union Station, pay a fare similar to today’s fare. The major beneficiaries are the disproportionately low-income riders making short, cross-boundary trips between Toronto’s outer suburbs and the inner areas of Peel, York and Durham regions. Instead of paying a punitive double fare, they pay a two-zone fare similar to what they would pay to ride a similar distance in the opposite direction to downtown Toronto. The other important beneficiaries are passengers who ride local transit to get on GO Transit, rather than driving to stations and filling up the park-and-ride lots.

Map of proposed fare zonesTRBOT’s fare-zone proposal. Fares are for illustration and are not final. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

The zone design improves access to important destinations. For example, the boundaries between Zones A and B (or between Central and Outer Toronto) is at the Humber River, Eglinton Avenue, and Victoria Park Avenue. The Crosstown LRT line is, therefore, in Zone B, so that riders travelling from outside Toronto may use it without paying an extra Zone A fare. Pearson Airport is located in both Zones B and C to facilitate access to that important airport regional employment centre. The system incorporates the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the Innovation Corridor–including Guelph and Waterloo Region. But, the report says, the scheme “can easily be extended beyond to incorporate other areas, such as Barrie and Niagara.”

Critically, the fare system includes all modes of transit operating within each zone, including TTC, GO Transit, UP Express, and other municipal transit agencies.

Riders could transfer seamlessly from one mode to another, taking their local bus to the GO train, riding the train downtown, and then boarding a streetcar to their final destination. They could finally take the most efficient route to and from their destination without worrying about whether it will involve multiple agencies—and fares.

Including the Metrolinx agencies, GO and UPX, in the proposal is another key advantage of TRBOT’s plan. The region’s current fare system isolates GO Transit from the TTC network, “leading to massive underuse of expensive infrastructure.” GO’s rail corridors, especially after the upcoming expansion, can potentially serve effectively as new rapid-transit lines throughout Toronto. Realizing that potential will be impossible as long as bus passengers have to pay both a TTC fare and GO fare to ride. Most riders will then stick to the TTC, even if it is much slower and more crowded.

To illustrate, the report describes a “real-world” situation of commuters travelling from Markham Road and Steeles Avenue East to downtown Toronto. Most riders would travel aboard a bus along the TTC’s 53 Steeles East route, then connect at Finch Station to connect with the Line 1 subway to head downtown. According to the report, as many as 5,500 people make that journey every weekday. The bus passes Milliken GO Station on its way toward the subway. Only 50 people exit the bus daily to connect with GO’s train service there.

The reason most people continue to the subway is clear. While the all-TTC trip costs just $3.25, it requires 92 minutes to complete. With a transfer to GO at Milliken, the journey lasts only 52 minutes, but costs more than three times as much: $10.87.

Better service and full fare integration could lead to the GO corridors operating as the backbone of the transit system in 905-area municipalities. Just as for the subway in Toronto, riders could use buses for “last mile” access to rail stations and for other intra-neighbourhood trips.

Photo of MiWay busA MiWay bus near Mississauga’s City Centre. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

The Ontario government has long explored approaches to co-ordinate GO and local transit agencies. The province subsidizes “co-fares” between GO and other transit agencies, so that riders pay a discounted transfer rate. English writes, “It is, however, still not the free, seamless transfer between bus and subway that has made the TTC so successful. Charging between $0.80 and $1.00 to riders who do the right thing and take transit to the station, while dedicating acres of valuable developable land around stations to free parking, sends the wrong message.”

According to the report, other aspects of the transit system could also benefit from better co-ordination. Today, each transit agency maintains its own separate maps, schedules, and way-finding systems. This can confuse riders when they are travelling on vehicles from an unfamiliar system. Transit agencies only partly work together to coordinate schedules. Often, when one agency changes its schedules without much notice, others must quickly adjust theirs to maintain timed connections. Sometimes that isn’t possible due to short timelines.

The report claims that a transit federation would make sure that every transit agency changes schedules at the same time and that they design schedules to make transferring between vehicles from different agencies as easy for riders as possible.

Bus routes also don’t always connect seamlessly between agencies. Some routes end abruptly at a boundary, forcing riders to get off and switch to another bus to continue along the same street. In several places, local-agency buses along certain routes operate to a terminal in Toronto, but they cannot pick up or drop off passengers as they pass through the city.

A key role of the transit federation, the report explains, would be “to assign revenues to each agency either based on their ridership counts, or on a more precise determination of each individual trip.” It continues, “the flexibility of the transit federation and of this fare system’s design could even allow municipalities to collaborate bilaterally to determine the cross-boundary fares between their jurisdictions.”

Photo of GO busGO Transit bus leaves Union Station GO Bus Terminal. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

And, how much would such a plan cost in the region? According to the report, “Implementing the proposed Toronto Region fare reform will involve some fare adjustments that would reduce certain aspects of transit agency revenues. The largest elements of ridership, however, would not be affected. The TTC would see no change in revenue from the 93% of its riders who ride exclusively on that system. Likewise, there would be comparatively modest adjustments in fares for the over ninety percent of GO rail riders who commute from places like Oakville or Georgetown to Union Station.”

Costs include:

  • Eliminating co-fares between GO Transit and municipal transit systems: $11 million.
  • Reducing fares on short cross-boundary trips between TTC and other municipal systems: $34 million.
  • Transferring between GO Transit and the TTC without extra fare cost: $45 milion.
  • Reducing GO Transit fares: $75 million.

The total cost would be $165 million.

However, as the report points out: “While $165 million per year is a considerable sum, it is small when valuing the regional social and economic benefits of the plan, and within the context of existing spending on transit. Transforming and integrating the region’s transit system will radically improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of daily riders, and is both affordable and essential. The provincial contribution to Metrolinx was $590 million in 2019-20, up from $478 million in 2018-19. In 2019, the TTC received an operating subsidy of $661 million, up from $577 million in 2018.

The report explains, “Most importantly, these projected costs do not take into account the tremendous growth in ridership and therefore revenue that can be anticipated with these reforms… The increased utilization of transit services… will meaningfully improve the revenue performance of [local] agencies. The projected cost of the federation must also consider the opportunity for cost saving realized by the expected growth in ridership, rationalization and consolidation of services and schedules, and minimizing operating costs of fare payment collection infrastructure.”

Who would be responsible for implementing these proposals? In an e-mail, English wrote, “We think that the precise details of the implementation process need to be left up to the governments involved, but the Transit Federation is intended to be a cooperative process, which all participants choose to join.”

In November, 2018 TRBOT proposed ‘Superlinx’ a regional transit agency that would replace Metrolinx and all local agencies in the area. In February, 2019 the board revised its proposal to allow local transit agencies to maintain their autonomy, while collaborating with Superlinx on regional issues.

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