In parts 1 through 4 of this series on fare integration for transit riders in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), we first presented the options, and then analyzed the modified status quo before studying zone and hybrid models and how fare by distance works. In parts 5 and 6 we took a closer look at the challenges surrounding the implementation of fare zones, looking at the financial balancing act required and the issue of zone size.

In part 7 we take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the options when compared to each other, drawing on topics and examples presented in those earlier articles. If you're not completely familiar with the models that Metrolinx is proposing, we suggest reading through those articles first.

Each of the four fare models will be measured against four criteria:

  • Financial impact on the transit agencies
  • Financial impact on the user
  • Ease of understanding for the user
  • Ease of implementation for the transit agencies

Where an option ranks in terms of favourability will very much depend on how well it ranks in each of those four criteria. Financial impact on the transit agencies was covered in detail in the balancing act article, which outlined the math that transit agencies require from any fare integration model in order to keep their balance sheets more or less the same, so let's start with the second criteria, financial impact on the user.

Presto reader on a TTC busPresto reader on a TTC bus, image by Craig White

Financial Impact on the User

The modified status quo will have the least amount of change for users, as it would primarily affect those transferring between transit agencies, particularly those transferring to or from the TTC. By contrast, both zone fares and fare by distance have the potential to change the cost per trip for a wide variety of trip patterns, since they both introduce a cost based on the distance travelled. This would mean that longer distance trips would increase in cost compared to the status quo, and lower distance trips would decrease.

One of the most common arguments against a zone or fare by distance system is that it is unfair to ask residents of lower-income neighbourhoods, particularly in Scarborough and northern Etobicoke, to pay more to travel to and from Downtown Toronto. While this is partially true, this overly-simplistic analysis ignores a large portion of the equation. Since lower-income residents are less likely to own or have access to a car, transit is their primary method of getting around. These residents are known in the transit world as "captive riders" (others are referred to as "choice riders”).

While fare zones or fare by distance may add to the cost of long distance trips for these residents, the current fare system, particularly in the case of the TTC, is unfairly punitive to short distance trips. A resident who needs to take the bus for only a few stops to buy groceries must currently pay two full fares. Under a zone fare or fare by distance model, the amount they would pay for the short trip could be significantly less.

For many people, the added cost of the longer distance trips would be largely cancelled out by the smaller cost of the shorter distance trips. In many ways, this argument against zone fares or fare by distance is a lot like the argument in favour of daylight savings time; when you look at only one side of the equation it makes sense, but when you look at the entire equation it ends up being a wash.

This argument also makes the assumption that most captive riders from these areas are bound for downtown, when in reality these residents more likely to work in service sector jobs, which can be located anywhere in the city. A service sector worker from Scarborough is just as likely, if not more likely, to work at a Best Buy in Scarborough as they are to work at a Best Buy in Downtown Toronto.

2011 TTS Data Ward 12011 TTS Data for Ward 382011 TTS Data for Wards 1 & 38, images courtesy the Transportation Tomorrow Survey

Data from the Transportation Tomorrow Survey seems to corroborate this. The median local transit trip length for Rexdale (Ward 1 - Etobicoke North) is 10.2 km during peak hours (6-9 AM), but only 8.4 km outside of peak. To put that in perspective, if someone were travelling from King & Bay to Rexdale on their way home from their job downtown, 10.2 km would only get them to Lawrence West station, less than half of the distance required. This strongly suggests that there are a fairly significant number of shorter distance trips that are offsetting the relatively few long distance trips from that area. Also, the lower 24-hour distance total suggests that trips made in the off-peak hours are of shorter distances as well.

For Scarborough Centre (Ward 38), the peak hour median distance is 13.2 km, with a 24-hour median of 10.3 km. For a trip originating at Scarborough Centre station, 13.2 km would get you to about Woodbine station, about 60% of the way to downtown.

So while it is true that most fare zone or fare by distance models would result in higher fares for longer distance trips, for the captive riders most financially affected by this change, they would see a corresponding decrease in the cost of their shorter distance trips. Both sides of the equation need to be looked at before an option is deemed to be "unfair" for a certain group of people.

Ease of Understanding for the User

The third criteria, ease of understanding for the user, is more difficult to quantitatively assess. In general, any change from the status quo—in particular a change to something that is inherently more complex than the status quo—is bound to cause confusion with some people. It's no secret that fare zones or fare by distance are more complicated for the average transit user to figure out than a flat fare is. The introduction of the distance variable adds an extra layer of complexity to the question of "how much do I have to pay to ride?".

However, this confusion can be partially mitigated by implementing user interfaces, both static (system maps and other printed material) and dynamic (website, ticket machines, etc), that are easy to navigate and understand. For example, a ticket vending machine where the display screen is a system map of the GTHA, and all one has to do to figure out how much to pay is to tap on the destination zone and the fare calculation is done in the background, could be extremely useful for tourists and other occasional transit users. No confusing fare tables to navigate.

For frequent users, a "tap on" will charge you the maximum fare for the line you are on, and a "tap off" at the end will refund you the difference between the maximum fare and the distance actually travelled. Minimal extra effort is required on the part of the user, aside from having to tap off (which many GO Transit riders already have to do).

Beijing's fare payment machine, using a map-based user interfaceBeijing's fare payment machine, using a map-based user interface, image courtesy of Pinterest

Ease of Implementation for the Transit Agencies

The fourth criteria, ease of implementation for the transit agencies, will vary from agency to agency. With the TTC nearing the end of its rollout of Presto, the fare payment system will soon be fully implemented across the GTHA. With zone fares already implemented into the system as part of GO Transit, expanding that functionality to the rest of the transit agencies across the GTHA should largely be a matter of adjusting code.

However, as was mentioned in a previous article, the lack of rear door Presto readers on many buses across the GTHA makes the implementation of any system that requires tap off functionality for local transit more difficult. This reality makes selecting the hybrid model more palatable, as it institutes zone fares for regional and rapid transit, but maintains a flat fare for local transit. Selecting zone fares or fare by distance would require retrofitting hundreds of buses with rear door Presto readers, some less than a year after they were first outfitted with front door Presto readers.

For now, this marks the final article in the fare zone series, which has provided a pretty in-depth look at what Metrolinx is attempting to tackle. Metrolinx stated at their last board meeting that they intend to have a preferred fare structure by the end of this year, and to have a substantially complete business case by June. We will bring you the next instalment of this series as soon as Metrolinx releases an update, once again bringing this topic to the forefront.

If you would like to join the discussion on fare integration, you can do so in our forum thread, or in the comments field provided on this page.