Transportation experts from France and Canada shared their insights in planning regional transit systems, integrating fares, and developing new governance models for transit during an October 18th event hosted by Ryerson University’s City Building Institute and the French Consulate.

Visiting Toronto to participate in the event were:

  • Pierre Messulam, a deputy director of SNCF (the French national railway organization) for the Île-de-France region, which includes the city of Paris;
  • Marie-Hélène Massot, a university professor at the Ecole d’urbanisme de Paris; and

  • Daniel Bergeron, the vice-president of strategic information and metropolitan affairs at the Agence Metropolitaine de Transport (AMT) in the Montreal urban region.

During the event, audience members learned that the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and France's Île-de-France are surprisingly similar. Both regions have experienced rapid population growth over the past two decades. Both have faced congested transit into and out of downtown, and unco-ordinated transit in outlying areas. Both are also the economic engines of their countries.

Two transit agencies serve the Paris-centred region. In the City of Paris and its inner suburbs, the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) governs all transport within and extending from the city, including 14 subway lines. The SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, the state-owned rail company whose network covers all of France) governs most transport from the area around the city and into the city core.

Messulam told the audience that the 12,000 square kilometre (4,600 square mile) Île-de-France is home to 12 million people and hosts 47 million tourists annually. To get these people around, the SNCF provides regional express rail services (similar to our GO Transit trains) to 3.2 million daily passengers. It employs 13,000 workers to operate 6,200 trains on 14 lines to 382 stations every day. Although the region is just two per cent of the total area of France, it commands ten per cent of the resources of the entire national rail network. Forty per cent of the SNCF's trains serve the region, resulting in 70 percent of the total passengers boarding the national railway network.

Transit statistics for the Paris-centred region, image, Pierre Messulam, SNCF

At SNCF, Messulam said, the customer rules. The organization tries to maximize the passenger experience, designing stations with wide stairways and platforms, and many access points into stations and trains. And, the SNCF is encouraging businesses to locate inside stations so that stations are safer because people—either retail customers or transit passengers—are always in the stations.

He urges Metrolinx and local transit agencies to "Be curious [about] what happens before and after journeys". Study how passengers access stations. Then, by helping develop better pedestrain access, or bike lanes, improving car parking, bus connections and information about other transportation systems.

"Apps" on SmartPhones are a "mixed blessing" for transit agencies, Messulam said. On the one hand, the devices are great in that passengers can get information about delays or disruptions from multiple sources quickly. On the other hand, social media can often provide riders with incorrect information or suggest alternate routes more quickly than the agency can provide the alternate service. And, with SmartPhones, Messulam said, customers' behaviour is more volatile, with many passengers choosing detours around delays unpredictably.

At the same time, digitization has vastly improved the internal operations of the agency. "Big data changes our way to design mass transit: for example, sophisticated operations models help [the agency] test scenarios and choose designs very accurately before starting to study proposals with more detail," he explained. ​"Technology also helped SNCF increase its service capacity by developing better timetables," he added.

How does the SNCF finance transit service in the Île-de-France? The Government of France has imposed a one-to two-percent surtax on all payrolls to pay for rail services, meaning all employees have to contribute to fund the services. In addition, employers in the Paris area pay for half of their employees' payroll tax. Value-added taxes on sales of real estate also support transit. Finally, taxes on gasoline sales and hotel rooms in the region also contribute to the transportation budget.

Fare zones and monthly pass costs in the Paris region since 2011, image, Marie-Hélène Massot

Professor Massot built on Messulam's presentation by describing how fares work in the region. The SNCF established a zone-based fare system in 1975, when it introduced a monthly pass. This system improved on the distance-based fare system that previously was in place. By 2011, the system reduced its eight zones to just five to encourage more residents to use public transit. As Paris land values soared, low-income people migrated to the suburbs. To address this disparity, the organization decided to impose a flat-rate cost of 70 euros (roughly $100) for a monthly pass. However the full rate applies only to the central zone. Those who travel the furthest – theoretically, those with the lowest incomes – pay a slight discount.

This is the lowest cost for a monthly pass in Europe. Massot pointed out that the cost for a similar pass in London is 415 euros ($596); in Berlin, it's 191 ($274) and in Barcelona, $150 ($215).

Paris has one of the least expensive monthly transit passes in Europe, image, Marie-Hélène Massot

Users support just 28 percent of the costs for the regional network. (Note that in Toronto, TTC passengers contribute about 73 percent of the costs through fares.) The rest of the revenue comes from payroll taxes (48 percent), local municipalities (21 per cent) and other sources, such as rent from retailers in stations pay.

In the Paris region, passengers pay just 28 per cent of the cost of transit, image, Marie-Hélène Massot

Eliminating fare zones costs the system about 421 million euros ($624 million) annually and also means the system is always going to run in a deficit.

But, the goal of the system is primarily to make transit as easy to use as the private cars. By making transit more attractive, the region hopes it can successfully reduce congestion in the core and throughout the suburbs. And, cheaper fares do generally attract more users. As Messulam pointed out, the higher the transit fares, the lower the number of passengers.

Bergeron, from the Agence Metropolitaine de Transport (AMT)—a regional transit authority similar to Metrolinx in the Montreal area—spoke about issues of governance in his home region.

He's a member of a transition committee reorganizing the governance of public transportation in the Greater Montreal area. The government of Quebec is driving this change, which comes into effect in 2017.

The 4,000-square-kilometre (1,544-square-mile) area contains 83 municipalities and 4.1 million inhabitants. Fifteen transit agencies currently serve this area.

The current transit situation in the Montreal region, image, Danel Bergeron, AMT

He explained that the success of the plan depends on local politicians and transit operators putting aside local issues in favour of regional ones. The plan also recommends a clear separation of roles and responsibilities for the political, strategic and operational levels of the transit organizations.

The AMT and the local transit operators reviewed the public transit fare structure in the Greater Montreal Area by identifying possible improvements to the current fare system or completely making over of the current fare system for passengers.

Although the transition team is still considering options for integrating fares, it has determined a clear governance structure. At the top is the Montreal Urban Community board, with 28 elected representatives from throughout the area. This is the group that makes policy decisions and approves long-term plans.

In the middle of the organization is the regional transit authority, consisting of 10 independent experts and five elected officials. This body sets fares, plans and contracts out transit services to the region's residents.

Finally, the lowest, but, perhaps most important, rung of the organization ladder are transit operators. The reorganization will remove transit agencies from the control of local governments and instead, treat them as contractors. Three large transit agencies—serving the Cities of Montreal and Laval and a cluster of municipalities on the south shore of the St. Lawrence—would continue to operate as major contractors to the regional network. A new agency, the RTM (Réseau de transport métropolitain) would replace the ATM and all the other local transit services.

This chart indicates the proposed governance model for the Montreal region, image, Daniel Bergeron, AMT

After presentations by the three visitors, Metrolinx officials joined the visiting experts in a discussion panel.

Anne Golden, chair of the Ryerson City-Building Institute and a member of the Metrolinx board, moderated the conversation.

Leslie Woo, Metrolinx's chief planning officer observed that the GTHA and the other two city-regions offered a stark contrast in how to govern public transit. In Paris, she said, "the process is highly politicized". In the GTHA, "we tried to depoliticize it". Montreal, she said is "in the middle", trying to find a role for the political and the operational.

Woo described how the Metrolinx board of directors formerly consisted only of elected officials; today its members are all citizens with transit expertise.

Both models have their advantages, she said. When the board was only elected officials, its members had to negotiate among themselves in public to balance local and regional interests to come up with a consensus. "A non-elected board," she said, "can deliver services more efficiently, without as much posing for the media."