Throughout this fare integration series, we have looked at the various options that Metrolinx is proposing, one of which is fare by zone. One of the issues that we touched on briefly in the fare zone article was the issue of fare zone size.

As a quick summary, the issue surrounding fare zone size is that if zones are too large they create what are called 'distortions' around the boundaries. However, if the zones are too small, the resulting fare system is too complex to be easily understood. 'Distortion' occurs when riders who live a short distance on one side of the boundary will walk across to the other side of the boundary and access the transit service there, just to avoid paying the extra charge associated with travelling an extra zone. However, the general rule is that the smaller the fare zones, the smaller the per zone fare increase will be, and the less distortion there will be around boundaries.

So what actually is the 'Goldilocks' size for fare zones? They have to be not too large as to create a large amount of distortion around its boundaries, but not too small as to make the system too difficult to figure out. Let's take a look at a few options.

Fare Zone Map featuring larger zonesFare Zone Map featuring larger zones, image produced using Google MyMaps

The first is this map, in which the fare zones are set to correspond more or less to the existing municipal boundaries, with some internal divisions. In this option, we propose that the base fare would cover travel across two zones. With the fare zone boundaries more or less corresponding to existing municipal boundaries—and by extension the service boundaries of the various transit providers—transit operations in each zone would be the exclusive purview of one provider (excluding GO). This option represents one of the more modest alterations from the status quo while still implementing a fare zone system.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is that larger municipalities such as Toronto and Mississauga are divided into multiple fare zones. Because of their substantial geographic size, maintaining a single fare zone over their entire area would largely defeat the purpose of implementing a fare zone system in the first place.

However, Toronto, York Region, and Durham Region are the only three areas which are divided into more than two zones. Municipalities like Mississauga, Brampton, and Burlington, which currently operate their transit systems at the lower tier levels (unlike York and Durham which are both run at the upper tier or regional level), are covered by no more than two fare zones, meaning that local travel between any two points within that municipality is covered under the base fare. This means that travel on any of those systems, or in systems covered by just a single fare zone, like Milton, essentially remains the same as today.

For Toronto, the city is divided along the east-west axis by Highway 401, and on the north-south axes by the former borders between Toronto and Etobicoke (the Humber River), and Toronto and Scarborough (Victoria Park). Under this option, a resident of Rexdale would be able to travel to anywhere in Etobicoke or Central Toronto, or, for example, to the employment area at Consumers Rd & Sheppard Ave East, on a base fare. It is only trips from Etobicoke to Scarborough (or vice versa) that would be charged more than the base fare, trips that today are some of the longest trips you can take on the TTC.

Where this represents just about the largest zones that make zone fare reasonable, as we mentioned, the zones could represent much smaller areas with smaller incremental fare increases per zone traveled. For the smaller zone option we offer this map, where we have created most fare zones approximately 6 km by 6 km in size. 

Fare Zone Map featuring smaller zonesFare Zone Map featuring smaller zones, image produced using Google MyMaps

Largely based on the Barcelona model presented in the fare zone article, it uses a series of concentric zone rings divided into sub-zones. It also largely ignores municipal boundaries, as in many cases the municipal boundaries are not evenly spaced. This type of system would likely not be possible under the current co-fare setup, given that municipal boundaries are such an important factor. However, if the fare integration negotiations include more flexible co-fare arrangements, such a fare system may be possible.

Like with the large fare zone example above, the base fare would cover two zones. However, unlike with the example above, the base fare and the per zone cost of each zone would be significantly lower, leading to smaller steps for each increase. For example, a trip from Port Credit to Union in the first model would pass though three fare zones, whereas in the second model it would pass through four. The graphic below illustrates this concept. 

Large vs small per zone fare increasesLarge vs small per zone fare increases, image courtesy of Metrolinx

This model represents a more drastic change compared to the status quo, but it more closely links the cost of the trip to the distance travelled. However, if the zones were any smaller, it would be quite likely that the number of zones on the map would make it very difficult to decipher for the average transit user.

If Metrolinx does end up selecting a fare zone model as part of its fare integration initiative, the size of the zones will depend very heavily on the willingness of local transit agencies to accept fare zones not tied directly to their service areas, and how complicated of a fare zone system they think riders are willing to accept.

Now it's your turn to get involved. What do you think is the "Goldilocks Zone" when it comes to the right size for fare zones? Join the conversation in our forum thread on fare integration, or in the comments section below.