This article is shared with the blog Transit Futures.

Regional fare integration is the critical reform that would transform Toronto from a transit city to a transit region. Despite the opportunity presented by the introduction of the Presto fare card, it has been at most a subject of minor discussion, overshadowed by debates over capital spending priorities. For the region as a whole, however, it is far more important than any individual subway or light rail project.

Presto Card ReaderPresto Card Reader, image by Raysonho

My earlier post about the effect of feeder buses attempted to disabuse readers of the notion that density is the only determinant of transit system success. Yet even simply considering population density, it is clear that there is no fundamental reason for transit ridership on one side of Steeles (or the Etobicoke Creek, or the Rouge) to be vastly lower than in virtually identical neighbourhoods on the other. The lower demand is a result of poorer service provision and an unattractive fare structure. The Steeles bus in Toronto runs better than every 10 minutes until after midnight, while the 2 Milliken bus a handful of blocks away in Markham runs about every forty minutes for most of the day and stops entirely before midnight. Equally important is the fare: while a rider can travel from northeast Scarborough to Long Branch for the price of a token, twice that fare is required for a trip of a few kilometres from Denison down to Sheppard, for example. There is no rational public policy argument for why some trips should cost multiples of other longer trips simply because they traverse an invisible jurisdictional boundary.  

Fare integration offers even more transformative potential when it is applied to regional rail. The earlier post on density has demonstrated how vital convenient and free transfers are to building a high-quality transit network. A high-frequency service on the current GO corridors, like the CityRail proposal, can only succeed when passengers can transfer freely to connecting bus, subway, and LRT lines, like they do from the subway to TTC buses today. It's far more important than any physical infrastructure project for the success of CityRail. The benefits would be immense, greatly increasing ridership on the GO corridors to mitigate for the inevitable reduction in fares for some passengers. It would also reduce the need for parking at GO stations. Perhaps most importantly, it would bring rapid transit to countless areas even within the City of Toronto that currently have none. Weston residents know that their community is one of the most challenging in Toronto to reach by transit. A ride on the 89 bus from Weston can take three-quarters of an hour in rush hour just to get to the subway at Bloor. Yet this bus is crowded, while comparatively few people ride the GO train a block away that could whisk them to Bloor in a few minutes, and all the way downtown in less than twenty. Why? The insistence on providing service only for 9-to-5 commuters to downtown is certainly an important factor. But even if trains ran every ten minutes, all day, few people would choose to ride them if it would mean paying for a $4.50 GO Train ticket on top of their TTC fare. Fare integration would bring rapid transit to an array of neighbourhoods just like Weston, without the need to spend billions on tunnels and other mega-projects.  

Suburban Toronto subway stations are well-used because of the large number of people transferring from connecting buses. If fares for buses connecting to the new York Region subway extensions are not fully integrated and passengers are forced to pay a transfer fare or even a double fare, they will be far less useful than they would otherwise be. Toronto would be ignoring the most valuable lesson that makes its existing system so successful.

How could fare integration be implemented? In North America we are accustomed to the idea that different agencies and municipalities should operate as independent fiefs with virtually no provision for connection between them, but such an approach would be seen as downright bizarre in much of the world. In Germany, for example, “traffic unions” administer fares and schedules so that transfers are seamless between modes, and riders would never know that they are actually riding vehicles operated by a variety of different agencies and even private companies. Equally importantly, they allocate revenues fairly to the participating agencies. This approach might work better in Toronto than a mega-merger of all GTA transit agencies, and Metrolinx could be an excellent body to administer such a union.  

An integrated fare system could not, of course, simply extend the flat TTC fare to the entire GTA; some kind of zone fare would be required. While it is certainly a matter for more detailed study, there are a few basic approaches that are worthy of consideration. The first option would be for large concentric zones. In Berlin, for example, the metropolitan area is divided into three zones: zone A is the inner city, zone B is the remainder of the city proper, and zone C is the outlying suburbs and rural areas. Normal tickets are always for two zones, so that crossing a zone boundary does not result in a sudden fare increase and any rider can travel within two adjacent zones for the base fare. This approach has the benefit of simplicity and means relatively little change for most riders. For example, an area roughly approximating the old City of Toronto could be zone A, the remainder of the City of Toronto could be zone B, while the 905 suburbs could comprise zone C. A basic AB ticket would be just like an existing TTC fare, permitting a rider to cover the entire City of Toronto. The BC ticket, however, would be revolutionary for the inner suburbs. A person living in Thornhill and working at Yonge and Sheppard would no longer be penalized with a double fare, and would pay a similar fare to what someone travelling the same distance within the City of Toronto would pay.  

London Fare Zone MapLondon Fare Zone Map

While the aforementioned approach has the benefit of simplicity, it does not necessarily provide the fairest system. Covering the entire 905 with one zone is not necessarily practical; a more radial approach might be required. Using modern smart card technology like Presto, it is even possible to implement true fare-by-distance so that a rider’s fare very closely correlates with the distance he or she has travelled. This produces a far more equitable fare system, though it would be more challenging for riders to plan how much he or she will have to spend for an occasional trip. While trips from Scarborough to Downtown, for example, might see an increase in price, trips from a person’s Scarborough home to Scarborough Town Centre could become dramatically cheaper, balancing out the effect for most riders. A major reason for the significant drop in ridership on downtown’s east-west streetcar routes over the past two decades has been the unreasonably high fares charged for a short trip. With lower fares for short distances, many downtowners would likely return to transit.   

There is no question that there would be some cost, at least initially, to implement these proposals. The fare collected from passengers crossing municipal boundaries would be lower, though the dramatic increase in ridership produced by a fairer system would likely mitigate most of the revenue loss, especially over the longer term. For GO Transit, the change would be more fundamental. It would need to entirely transform its mentality from one of a commuter parking shuttle to a true rapid transit system. In the short term, revenue per passenger would drop, but that’s why this kind of reform would best be combined with a plan like Cityrail that would be simultaneously redesign the network into a rapid transit system that would be able to accommodate the inevitable influx of new riders.  

Toronto has been unfavourably described as “Vienna surrounded by Phoenix.” The reason the GTA has developed this way is that the high-quality transit service operated by the TTC, especially the subway, was restricted to the old Metro Toronto. Once the suburbs of the city crossed into the 905, transit service was limited to comparatively infrequent buses and GO Transit’s parking-lot-to-downtown commuter shuttle. A region can’t be expected to have transit-oriented development when it doesn’t provide high-quality transit. But rectifying the fare imbalance with the 905 and transforming the GO system into true rapid transit that is as seamlessly connected with buses and subways as TTC buses are to the subway today would go a long way to upgrading Toronto from Transit City to Transit Region. 

Ultimately, the type of zone fare system is far less important than the fare integration itself. A transit system which removes artificial jurisdictional boundaries from its fare structure, charges riders purely on the distance they travel, and allows riders to choose the transit option that gets them to their destination most quickly and reliably would lead to an explosion in ridership in the GTA that would place the region at the forefront of global transit metropolises.

Jonathan English is a Ph.D. student of Urban Planning at Columbia University.