Following our introductory article which outlined the four options that Metrolinx is considering for transit fare integration in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), and Part 2 of the series, which examined Option 1 in greater detail, Part 3 will take a more in-depth look at Options 2 and 3: Fare by Zone and Hybrid. While these two options sound different, as we'll discover they're actually very similar.

Fare integration options, with Options 2 & 3 highlighted, image courtesy of Metrolinx

For those who have not yet read Part 2, here is a quick summary of the three types of transit that Metrolinx is using in its evaluations:

  • Local transit is defined as being conventional buses or streetcars, with stop spacing generally less than 750 m, and a low average speed of between 10 and 20 km/h. 
  • Rapid transit is defined as being Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT), or Subway, with stop spacing every 500 m to 2 km, and a medium average speed of between 20 and 45 km/h. 
  • Regional transit is defined as being GO trains and highway coaches, with stop spacing greater than 2 km, and a high average speed in excess of 45 km/h.

Unlike the Modified Status Quo, the Zone and Hybrid options would represent a significant departure from the current fare systems for a lot of transit users across the GTHA. So what exactly is a fare zone system? A fare zone system is when a geographic area (a municipality or an entire region) is subdivided into multiple geographic sub-areas for the purpose of determining the cost of a trip based on the number of zones a passenger travels through. Simply put, the number of fare zones you pass through, which roughly corresponds to how far you're travelling on your trip, determines what your fare is for that trip.

Metro Vancouver fare zone map, image courtesy of Translink

One of the simplest applications of the fare zone model is Metro Vancouver. As you can see in the image above, the entire Lower Mainland is divided into 3 fare zones, which increase in number the further away you get from Downtown Vancouver.

Vancouver does have a geographic advantage when it comes to implementing this relatively simply fare structure though: most of the fare zone boundaries are bodies of water. These natural boundaries reduce the amount of 'distortion' that occurs around fare zone boundaries, which is where 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. In the Metro Vancouver situation above, such a scenario would likely occur on the border between Vancouver and Burnaby, or Burnaby and Coquitlam. However, someone who lives in Surrey is unlikely to walk across the Fraser River to New Westminster just to avoid the extra zone fare. The fare for one zone is $2.75, while 2 zones is $4.00 and 3 zones is $5.50.

So what happens when you would like to institute a zone fare system but don't have easily identifiable geographic features from which to form the zone boundaries? You use rapid transit lines themselves as fare boundaries, like in Berlin, Germany.

Map of Berlin's U-Bahn & S-Bahn network, showing fare zones, image courtesy BVG

The rapid transit system in the Metro Berlin area is comprised of two separate networks, the U-Bahn (Subway) network, and the S-Bahn (Regional Express Rail) network. As an aside, if you are interested in seeing what Metrolinx's GO RER plan could ultimately look like, Berlin's S-Bahn network is a great case study. The metro area is divided up into zones A, B, and C. As you can see, the boundary between Zone A and Zone B is not a geographic feature like a river or valley, but is rather the circular S-Bahn line known as the Ringbahn.

Berlin has three fare categories depending on the distance you travel and what zones you pass through. The first category is short trip ticket (€1.70), which allows travel through up to three U-Bahn or S-Bahn stations, or six bus or tram stops. The second category is a two-zone ticket (€2.80 within A and B or €3.10 within B and C), which allows for longer travel within one zone or two zones. The third category is three-zone ticket (€3.40), which allows travel between all three zones.

However, only having three fare zones does have a disadvantage. Because there are fewer fare zones to cover a longer distance trip, the increase in cost to travel from one to the next is usually a fairly significant amount. The most common way to address this issue is to increase the number of fare zones in the area, thereby reducing the cost increase associated with travelling between neighbouring zones. A prime example of this is London, England.

Map of London's Tube network, showing fare zones, image courtesy TfL

Harry Beck's 1931 Tube Map (and the various modifications since then) is the most iconic transit map in the world. The pioneering method of sacrificing absolute geographic accuracy in favour of increased legibility is used on nearly every rapid transit map in the world today. The current incarnation of the map does an excellent job of depicting the fare zones in the Greater London area as well. With alternating shadings of white and grey, the fare zones radiate out in a relatively circular pattern from Central London. London's fare system is slightly more complex, and it has varying fares for peak and off-peak travel, but the increase from one fare zone to the next is roughly £0.50, a smaller increase per zone than Vancouver or Berlin.

So while there is a smaller increase per fare zone, there is one downside than is plainly visible to anyone who looks at those 3 maps side-by-side: London's is a lot more complicated to figure out. It requires a fair amount of examination of the map to determine how many fare zones your trip will actually pass through, let alone how much your trip will cost. The use of fare cards with an ePurse simplifies the process somewhat, but for tourists who may not have a local transit card, doing the math on the total cost of the trip may be a frustrating experience.

So what could a fare zone structure look like for the GTHA? The simplest application would be similar to the Vancouver model, where each municipality is more or less its own fare zone. While this may result in some geographic inequalities (for example, Oakville is geographically much smaller than Mississauga), it would be the closest thing to the status quo while still implementing fare zones. Below is a map of all of the GTHA transit providers. In order for this type of system to work, places like Durham Region will like likely need to move towards the York Region model of multiple zones for the more rural areas of the region.

Current GTHA transit providers and potential future fare zone boundaries, image courtesy of Metrolinx

Another model could see several municipalities broken into more than one fare zone. For this, a good model to look at is Barcelona, shown below. Like the GTHA it radiates out in a semi-circle, as it is also located on a body of water (in this case, the Mediterranean Sea). However, rather than having each semi-circle be a single fare zone, Barcelona has broken up each semi-circle into multiple sub-zones. This prevents having trips that run into and out of the core running through multiple zones, while a trip of the same length running parallel to the core passing through only one fare zone. For example, a trip along the Yonge Line from Union to Finch may pass through 2 or 3 fare zones (depending on the size of the zones). The sub-zone model ensures that a trip along the Highway 7 Rapidway from Unionville GO to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, roughly the same distance, passes through two to three zones as well, and not just one, even though that trip would likely stay within the same fare zone 'ring'.

Barcelona's fare zone model, showing subdivided semi-circular fare zones, image courtesy of TMB

Another option, which would be a modified version of what is in use in Berlin, is to have the base fare for a trip cover two zones, not just one. This would remove some of the distortion around fare zone boundaries, as a short trip that happened to cross one boundary wouldn't be charged more than a short trip that didn't. However, it would eliminate much of the cost savings associated with a short trip compared to the status quo. This could be addressed with the 'short trip ticket' that Berlin also uses.

A final option would be to overlap fare zones slightly (by 500 m to 1 km, for example) so that a short trip that extended a small amount into a different fare zone wouldn't count as crossing into the next fare zone. You can see an example of this in the Vancouver model, where there is a small island between Richmond, Delta, and Surrey that is in both fare zones 2 and 3.

The analysis regarding what would be an optimal size and configuration for fare zones is part of what Metrolinx is looking at with their fare integration work, which is expected to be complete by the end of this year. 

Now what about the Hybrid model? In contrast to the Fare Zone model, which would apply fare zones to all modes of transit, the Hybrid model that Metrolinx is examining would feature fare zones for rapid and regional transit, but a flat fare for local transit (buses and streetcars). Both the Vancouver and London examples above are actually hybrid systems, as both feature flat fares for travel on local buses. For Vancouver, buses are equivalent to a one-zone fare, while in London they are a flat fare of £1.50.

Graph of the Hybrid Option, image courtesy of Metrolinx

The primary advantage to the Hybrid model over the Fare Zone model is that travel on local transit would need a tap on only. Most buses in the GTHA currently only have a Presto reader mounted at the front door of the bus, which makes requiring a tap off at the end of the trip problematic. Adding a back door Presto reader to nearly every bus in the GTHA would be a costly exercise. The other option would be to modify bus routes so that they only travel within one fare zone, which may be frustrating to passengers who depend on longer-range local bus routes to access rapid transit.

With a Hybrid model, the zone fare would only apply when/if a rider tapped into the rapid transit or regional transit systems. So while both models are based on the same principle, current technology implementation and service patterns make the Hybrid model more implementable at the present time.

The next article in the fare integration series will examine Option 4: Fare by Distance. 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.