Challenging Congestion: Free Ride

NRU Publishing looks at Consumer Policy Institute’s report on the Downtown Relief Line.

This article by Edward LaRusic originally appeared on NRU Publishing’s website. You can read the article and subscribe to NRU’s newsletter here.

A consumer advocacy group says that rather than building a subway relief line the TTC could save more than $1.2-billion dollars by offering free rides at off-peak hours.

Consumer Policy Institute executive director, economist and author of the report, Toronto’s Suburban Relief Line, Brady Yauch, told NRU that the justification for the proposed relief line is meant to solve a very temporal problem.

“What we have is a high demand [on the Yonge subway line] for a very short period of time. Outside of the morning commute, and to a lesser extent the afternoon commute, the subway is underused or not used to its full capacity.”

“[The institute] looked at, ‘what if you changed prices and shifted that demand a little bit?’ And ‘is doing that discount actually cheaper than building a [new] subway?’ We argue that it’s significantly so.”

Yauch suggests that a discounted or free fare on off -peak hours would encourage a small percentage of riders to shift their commuting schedule.

“There’s probably one to one-and-a-half per cent of riders to those people riding between eight and nine [in the morning] that you can incentivize to take transit outside of that peak hour.”

Coupled with planned signal upgrades to the Yonge subway line, Yauch argues a fare discount could help manage demand for decades and the loss in fares would be cheaper than the cost of building and operating a new subway line. His preferred method would be to offer the discount to people moving into the downtown core in off -peak hours, which he says could be implemented through a system like Presto.

Yauch notes in his report that off -peak discounts to manage peak demand have been offered on many transit systems around the world, and have worked in cities such as Melbourne, Australia, Denver, Colorado and Trenton, New Jersey.

“A lot of transit agencies around the world [offer off -peak fare discounts]. It’s not normal for the TTC to have a system that doesn’t do that.”

His report concludes that an aggressive plan to shift congestion by offering free rides in two off -peak hours of the day would save the TTC “more than $1.2-billion over the next 17 years.”

Arup transportation consulting and associate principal Hilary Holden agrees with Yauch. She has been an advocate for offering free rides on the TTC before 7:00 a.m. since 2012.

“We need things we can do in the short term, things that we can do that don’t need infrastructure, that don’t need a lot of changes,” Holden said.

Unlike Yauch, who recommends a very targeted discount, Holden said her idea would to open up the entire TTC system for free rides before 7:00 a.m.  Then it wouldn’t require any added infrastructure and it would be equitable.

“Free before [7:00 a.m.] is a no-brainer because you don’t need to do anything but open the turnstiles and publicize it.”

Convincing the TTC to offer discounted or free fares will not be easy. TTC corporate communications executive director Brad Ross—who at the time of the interview had not read Yauch’s report—wasn’t convinced that offering free rides on off -peak hours would fly.

“Who’s going to pay for that?” he said. “You’d have a significant loss of revenue that would have to be made up somewhere. Governments would need to increase the subsidy to pay for that. We would argue that rather than having free fares, increase our subsidy so we can provide more transit.”

Additionally, Ross is not convinced that free rides would make a huge impact.

“Is saving three dollars enough of an incentive? We would argue that there would be more to attracting ridership than simply the fare and being free or not.”

He suggested that the crowding on the Yonge line is already a significant incentive to shifting one’s morning commute.

Ross added that—free fares or not—the downtown relief line will still be needed to handle congestion on the Yonge line.

“You can attract more people in the off -peak, but that doesn’t negate the necessity for a relief line.”

Holden says the biggest difficulty in implementing something like free transit before 7:00 a.m. is in getting people to look at the issue from a broader perspective than a balance sheet.

“It doesn’t cost any more to run the trains, to run the services [before 7:00 a.m.], you could just get more butts in their seats, in a far more efficient system.”

She adds that new riders who may get to their morning destination for free would have to pay to get back home in the evening, potentially dampening the fare box revenue losses.

Holden said that free transit before 7:00 a.m. would free up time, money and energy to look at the larger transit network.

She noted that the proposed relief line would generally replicate the existing Yonge transit line, rather than adding new routes to the network like the proposed LRTs will do.

“You might actually free enough space to take away the urgency of the downtown relief line so that you could then look at other solutions to provide that fatter “U” rather than the skinny “U” of the [current] subway system.”

Read CPI’s full report here. 

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