Friday, May 02, 2008

Metronauts: Continuing the conversation (Part 3)

Metronauts (powered by Transit Camp) was a whirlwind of good ideas, interesting conversations and networking with industry professionals and transit advocates. Here, the second in a series of posts, I will try to continue some of the conversations started on that interesting day. In this post, I'll be taking about fares.

Right out of the gate, let me just say that if the province was in search of providing investment in two sectors at once, then they should consider offering subsidized transit passes to students attending post-secondary institutions. It will make transit more accessible to students (as they can save their money for books and/or food), and it will make post-secondary education more accessible to students (in a physical sense).

Fares are a fact of life, and unless we have a spare $800 million around to replace the revenue the TTC alone receives every year from the farebox, we won't be seeing free transit. So, how can we change the fare system to encourage people to use transit trips that cross borders and run into the dreaded double-fare?

Using the Metrolinx format, there are three scenarios for how we can change the fare system.

All local transit agencies adopts the GTA fare card (Presto) and a 2-hour unlimited transfer scheme. On local transit, you tap when you get on, giving you two hours of unlimited transfers for the group of systems you started with (either 416 group or 905 group). Transferring to the other group deducts full fare, but you get a fresh two hours (your privileges in the starting group remain). On GO, you tap-on and tap-off and your fare is deducted based on how far you've gone. How much you pay to transfer between GO and local is set by the local agency.

I am a firm believer that the status quo is unacceptable, and while I understand that reducing the fare collected at the border will reduce the revenue collected and lead to higher subsidies, fostering ridership in car dependent suburbs is a goal that is well worth the cost. I believe that someone who lives a concession north of Steeles in Markham or Vaughan should have to walk twenty minutes to the fare boundary to avoid paying a full second fare.

Consider my own case. I tend to walk from Ryerson to Union Station to avoid paying TTC fare, and would gladly take the subway more often if I could use my GO pass to get a discounted fare like I can on Brampton Transit. My walk isn't so bad because I have access to the PATH system, but consider my friend Jessica. A resident of Halton Hills, she would take GO Transit and the TTC to work at Dundas and Ossington. It's a long walk from Bloor Station, and there is no indoor alternative. I commend Jessica for even taking transit, but I understand her reservations about paying a second fare to get to work because she isn't employed within walking distance of a GO station.

Based on these and countless other cases of people who would use more transit more often if fare integration exists, I believe that the trends scenario is a barrier to ridership.

Transferring between a 416 service and a 905 service deducts a single dollar from your fare card, but you get a fresh two hours of unlimited transfers. Alternatively, a transfer between 416 and 905 is free, but your original two hours continue. If you ride to or from a GO transit service, your local transit trip only costs 50 cents, but GO fare remains distance-based as it is seen as a premium service.

This option has promise, as it better encourages riders to use two or more services to reach their destinations. If the first variant is used, then a rider from York Region (for example) would pay full fare on YRT and then be able to transfer onto the TTC for a single dollar. This could reduce the strain on commuter parking lots at the outermost systems as it becomes more cost effective to take transit from the start. Ridership in the suburbs would rise dramatically, but revenue collected by the TTC would drop. However this would be mitigated by something I call the "Finch Effect" - the percentage of car uses who believe that if they have to drive to Finch to avoid paying a second fare, then they might as well drive the full way to their destination. Introducing fare integration would attract these people to transit. 

The second variant of this scheme would likely be more successful, as the overall costs to the rider are lower. It also matches the average travel pattern, as very few people take a trip longer than two hours without a significant stopover.

The incremental options are simple to implement, but are not without problems. Firstly, it is unlikely that halving the fares will double the ridership, resulting in higher subsidies needed to sustain the system. Secondly, incremental options do not bring GO into the fold. GO Transit is much more efficient at moving people across long distances than local transit is - even the city of Toronto admits this. But, there is a psychological roadblock to diverting riders from local transit onto GO. If there is a cheaper option that gets you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time in reasonable comfort, people will take it. Essentially, the TTC isn't bad enough to force people onto GO, notwithstanding the fact that not everyone is headed for the central business district and may need a connecting service to get them to their destination.

We can easily double or triple the capacity of the Yonge, Bloor and Danforth corridors by increasing frequency on the GO trains lines that parallel the subway, but unless we harmonize the TTC and the GO fare system, we won't be using the existing infrastructure to its full potential.

Full fare-by-distance is used for both GO and local transit. You tap-on when you board and tap-off when you alight, and your fare is deducted based on the distance you travelled, no matter which combination of routes and service you used to make your trip.

On could argue that we already have fare-by-distance on local transit in the GTA. One could also argue that our system is the most user-friendly implementation of fare-by-distance. However, the model we use is a blunt instrument compared to the fine tools used by most cities in Europe and Asia. If we seek to integrate GO and local transit effectively, and we seek to increase the number of riders who use suburban systems to get to the city of Toronto, we'll need to adopt a system which ties very different fare systems together. There are several different models we could implement.

The Vancouver Model
One option is the Vancouver model, which is a three zone system. A single zone trip costs $2.50, a two-zone trip $3.75 and a three-zone trip $5.00. These zones are fairly broad in size, representing the City of Vancouver proper, the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs. In the evening and on weekends, the system operates as a single zone, with all trips priced at $2.50 regardless of distance travelled. Vancouver also has a commuter rail line which uses a more finely tuned fare-by-distance model, but train riders can use their pass as a three-zone ticket while it is still valid. Applied to Toronto, this would give GO riders the privilege of transferring onto local transit at not additional cost. It solves the problem of commuter who do not use GO because they do not work within walking distance of the GO station, but the problem of the TTC competing with GO still exists. A commuter from Long Branch has a choice between a $2.75 ride on the TTC or a $4.00 ride on GO. While some people will choose GO, most people in that situation would choose to tough it out on the 501.

The Classic Model
The classic interpretation of fare-by-distance consists of a rider tapping their fare card when they enter the system and tapping their fare card again when they leave the system. The system evaluates how far you travelled and charges you accordingly. Zone-based fares work nicely in cities where the activity is centralized (Ottawa is a great example), as everyone would know how many zones to cross in order to get to the central employment area. However, the spiderweb-like travel patters of commuters in the GTA means that zones would have to be based on the grid. In lieu of a massive fare matrix on the wall, computers would have to be installed at stations so that passengers without mobile internet access can calculate the projected costs of a trip. Charging fares by kilometre distance suffers from the fact that the average person, myself included, cannot judge distances accurately enough to predict how much we will pay with confidence. Fare-by-time would be easy to understand, project costs, and would encourage more people to use faster GO services - but, how do we account for service delays?

Regardless of the option we select, two things must occur. Firstly, we have to have a declining payment scale. Essentially, a trip that is twice as long as another must cost less than twice as much - the longer you travel, the less you pay per unit. Failure to do this will discourage long distance trips, and place us right back where we started. Secondly, we must ensure that fare-by-distance isn't used as an excuse to significantly raise fares. If a trip from one end of your city to the other doubles in price under any fare-by-distance model, then this change will be a political non-starter. Since all cities are not the same size, it means that all fare zones won't be the same size.

The London Model
The London model, aside from its ring-shaped zones, is one final fare-by-distance model worth considering. In London, most rail-based services (Underground, Overground, Heathrow trains, Docklands Light Railway and National Rail trains) are viewed as premium transit and are operated with a fare-by-distance plan. Buses and trams, which cater to local and feeder trips operate on a flat fare system. The Oyster Card, London's fare card sorts out the various combinations of services you used and charges you the cheapest fare it can find for your travels. Applied in Toronto, this would mean that all trips on the subway, on GO trains and GO buses would be charged based on the distance travelled. Buses, streetcars, and locally-oriented BRT and LRT lines would use a flat fare system. Your fare on premium transit would allow you to transfer to local transit for free, and a local transit fare could be used for credit to get onto a premium service. This solves the problem of people crossing the current fare boundary by bus, but might result in lower subway ridership as the demand for a cheaper alternative grows. Also, how will we define what is a premium service? Under the London Model, the proposed Eglinton-Crosstown line would fit in both categories.

I started writing this post on April 21st, and for a very long time, had no idea which direction I wanted to take it in. I suppose I have come to the conclusion that there is no single fare-by-distance model that will work in Toronto, and a home-build solution will likely be required. However, I can lay out some priorities that must be taken into account:
  • If we want to move people off the overcrowded TTC and onto GO, we have to blend the fare system or people will stick it out on the cheaper option.
  • If we want to transform GO into a regional rail system with trains running every 10 minutes stopping every 5 km (the REX concept), then we have to understand that this will transform GO into a subway-style line that people will use for local trips. We need to ask ourselves if local trips should equal local fare, or if premium service should equal premium fare.
  • Charging a second full fare at a zone boundary is a roadblock to ridership and should be reduced so that a longer trip cost less per unit. This will encourage long distance riders to make trips that cross borders.
  • Passengers are used to the flat-fare system, and asking someone to pay significant more for what used to be a flat-rate trip will not fly. Letting someone pay significantly less for short distance trips will fly, but may anger long distance riders as not everyone can afford to/wants to live where they work.
I think this may be the longest post I've ever written, and it may be the post which took me the longest time to finish without completely abandoning it. Either way, its an issue which needs to be looked at by all levels of government to insure that transit pricing is fair, equitable and generates the revenue we need to minimize the subsidy burden governments face at budget time.

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At 5/04/2008 2:23 a.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend lives in Whitby and is working this summer at Yonge and Eglinton. He takes the GO train and the subway. Fortunately his parents drive him to the GO station so he doesn't take DRT, which would add another cost to his trip. But given that it's cheaper for him to get a Metropass than to pay cash on the subway even though he lives far from the 416, the current system penalizes people like him (suburban residents who take GO trains to Union then use the subway to points north) and perhaps impedes development outside the downtown core.

I suggest that fares be moved to time-based. You tap in the barrier when you enter the system (either a station turnstile or a reader on a bus) and when you leave the system you tap again. A linear equation is calculated as a function as time spent in the system.

For this to occur, all the services must be moved into one fare collection zone similar to how the TTC buses and subways integrate. At Union this would require a tunnel between the GO and TTC terminals. Most GO stations should do this fairly easily, and GO buses could easily drive into subway terminal platforms. The subway bus terminals (e.g. at Finch during rush hour) should be have LED signs to display where the bus stops, to allow more buses to use them.

If there are service delays, then riders can scan their card onto the reader and delay their card by 30 minutes.

We will somehow need to solve the issue of Metropasses. People should be allowed to get passes valid for just the 416 (or 416 and York, or 416 and Mississauga, or whatever). This way a zone system would still exist.


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