While Torontonians continue to debate what transit infrastructure to build where, there's an equally contentious exchange happening now between Metrolinx, the provincial agency in charge of coordinating transit infrastructure and policy in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA), and the nine local transit agencies in the region. The debate isn't over lines or transit technology types, but over the system under which fares are charged to passengers.

Right now, each of these local agencies and GO Transit have their own fare structures, which complicates and in many cases discourages travel across municipal boundaries. While the fare payment method has been harmonized through the introduction of Presto, the underlying calculation of how much a rider should pay is still severely fragmented. While there are co-fare arrangements between 905-area transit agencies and GO Transit (and between many of the 905-area agencies themselves), no such arrangements exist between them and the TTC. This leads to passengers paying two full fares when they transfer from a neighbouring municipality's transit system to the TTC, and vice versa.

Cross-border fares between the TTC and neighbouring transit systems, image courtesy the TTC & Metrolinx

The task of rectifying this situation has been left primarily to Metrolinx, who for the past several years has been in discussions with transit agencies across the GTHA on what an integrated fare system might look like. But this is far from an easy task. Each transit agency has fiscal constraints imposed upon them by their respective municipal governments, and they are trying to ensure any lost revenue as a result of any new system is compensated for. Then there is also the issue of the various agencies trying to protect their own turf, which is by no means a unique phenomenon when multiple parties are trying to find a common solution.

Until this week, Metrolinx's fare integration evaluation contained three options. Earlier this week however, they added a fourth. Let's take a quick look at the options, and see what they would mean for both transit users and transit agencies. Before we start, the main thing to keep in mind with all of these options is the relationships between mode (local, rapid, and regional transit), distance (short, medium, and long trips), and fare. The evaluation of each option essentially boils down to: "How much should someone have to pay for a trip on _X_ mode, going _Y_ distance?"

Option 0: Status Quo

Yes, this is technically an option, but it's not really a good one, which is why everyone involved is trying to move away from it. All local transit agencies have a flat fare model (with the exception of York Region), which means that regardless of trip length, the passenger is charged the same fare. Currently, GO Transit and York Region Transit are the only agencies in the GTHA that charge more for passengers going a longer distance.

Fare Integration Option 0: Status Quo, image courtesy of Metrolinx

Option 1: Modified Status Quo

Like the name suggests, Modified Status Quo is merely a series of minor changes to the existing system. These changes would include things like a consistent transfer policy between transit agencies, and a reduction in regional transit (i.e. GO) base fares to bring them more in line with municipal transit fares. While neither of these ideas are earth-shattering, they would represent a definite improvement over the current situation. Option 1B, added recently along with Option 4, would have the fare levels for rapid transit more closely reflect those of regional transit, as opposed to local transit. Option 1 is considered by many to be the bare minimum that should come out of the fare integration negotiation process.

Fare Integration Option 1: Modified Status Quo, image courtesy of Metrolinx

Option 2: Fare by Zone

Zone fares would be a fairly radical departure from what many local transit users are used to. The basic principle behind them is that the GTHA would be divided up into defined geographic areas of a certain size. Travel within one or two of these zones would be a certain price, while the price would increase by a set amount for every additional zone a passenger travels through along their trip. Many may not realize this, but GO Transit actually already operates on this system. However, with GO the zones are not publicly advertised and instead are buried into the calculation that every Presto and ticket machine makes when they process a transaction.

Fare Integration Option 2: Zones, image courtesy of Metrolinx

While fare zones may be a radical change for transit users, they would also be a radical change for transit agencies, as it would represent a significant departure from their current fare systems. The TTC did in fact have a zone fare system until 1973, when it was scrapped in favour of the current fare system. The old City of Toronto, parts of East York, York, and a tiny bit of North York were in Zone 1, while the remainder of what was then Metro Toronto was in Zone 2. Maybe not-so-coincidentally, while it used to frequently break even under the zone fare system, the TTC has not had a single year where it has come even close to breaking even on its operating expenses since fare zones were abolished. The TTC's current cost recovery ratio is over 70%, while for many 905-area transit agencies, it's less than 50%.

There is a certain amount of finesse that would be required in determining how the zones should be laid out. If the zones are too large, the fare increase for passing from one zone to another may be too high, and would discourage travel across that boundary. To see this in action, take a look at how many people who live just north of Steeles Ave walk across it, just to avoid paying a YRT fare and a TTC fare. However, larger zones are easier for the public to comprehend. If you make the zones too small, even if the fare increase for passing from one zone to another is significantly less, the resultant zone map may be very difficult for the average transit user to try and make sense of.

Chart showing varying zone sizes, image courtesy of Metrolinx

Option 3: Hybrid

The Hybrid option is in essence the Zone option, but with local transit being a flat fare instead. This would drastically simplify the implementation of such an option, as many local buses currently do not require a passenger to 'tap off' (tap their Presto card to end their trip) when exiting the bus. Many buses are not even equipped with Presto readers at back doors to even be able to implement such a requirement. Tapping off is already a requirement on GO Transit (since it is zone-based), unless you have a default trip set up on your card. The TTC's new fare gates, currently being installed at subway stations, have been designed with a feature where they could require a tap off to open the gate, though that feature has yet to be implemented.

Fare Integration Option 3: Hybrid, image courtesy of Metrolinx

Option 4: Fare by Distance

Fare by Distance is the model that was added to the list earlier this week, and will be formally introduced at the February 17th Metrolinx board meeting. It is a model that anyone who has taken the 407 ETR is familiar with, as it also features a base charge, with a per kilometre charge added on top.

There are many similarities between fare by distance and zone fares, but there are also some key differences. The similarity is that both systems charge a passenger more depending on the distance that he or she travels. The difference however is that while fare zone sizes can be arbitrary and their configuration can sometimes be difficult to understand, fare by distance can be reduced to a simple mathematical formula: Total Fare = Base Fare + Per KM fare x # of KMs travelled. It eliminates the distortions that can be found around fare zone boundaries (the earlier Steeles example), and can be implemented using a tap on-tap off system.

Summary of the various fare integration options, image courtesy of Metrolinx

In the coming days, Urban Toronto will feature a series of articles on fare integration, including more detail on and analysis of each of the options, and the impact each of these options would have on both transit users and transit agencies.

If you would like to join the discussion on fare integration, you can do so in our forum thread, or in the comments section below.