Consumer Policy Institute’s Executive Director, Brady Yauch, was quoted in this article by TVO on discounted transit fares.
Earlier this month the board of the Toronto Transit Commission approved upgrades to bus and streetcar service, including reversing the 2012 service cuts, allowing children under 12 to ride free, and all-door boarding on more streetcar routes. But the changes came with a cost: an increase in non-cash fares, including pushing the price of an adult Metropass to $141.50.
The fare increase has been criticized as another disincentive for riders, who already have to deal with crushing crowds during the morning rush in places such as the Bloor-Yonge subway interchange. The usual way of dealing with crowded transit systems is to simply build more transit, but some cities have had success with flexible fares.
It’s an idea that Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki proposed during the 2014 race: ease crowding during peak morning traffic by offering free or discounted fares for riders willing to travel earlier.
According to 2013 data provided by the TTC, combined ridership on the Yonge/University line triples at 8:30 a.m. The math is a bit less severe on the Bloor/Danforth line — ridership doubles in the same timeframe. Forty-six per cent of Ontario workers in 2014 told the Ontario Trillium Foundation they have some flexibility in their hours, which suggests the idea could work.
Regional transit agency Metrolinx says it’s an alternative they’ve considered.
“We currently do not have a plan to introduce peak/off-peak fares for GO customers,” says Metrolinx spokesperson Malon Edwards. “However, we are investigating this matter and other fare matters to better understand potential opportunities.”
A frequently cited example is Singapore, where seven per cent of riders shifted their schedules to take advantage of pre-7 a.m. discounts. (Some estimates say it’s even higher.) In Melbourne, where a similar policy was put in place, approximately 2 per cent of riders changed travel times. Despite the small shift in usage, the experiment was still judged a success: the lost fare revenue was far less than the cost of buying additional trains.
A Consumer Policy Institute paper last year endorsed time-based discounts for the TTC instead of building the proposed Downtown Relief Line, a U-shaped subway line intended to divert passengers away from the Bloor-Yonge interchange.
“Building a multi-billion dollar subway line to deal with crowding issues during just one to two hours a day is akin to killing a mosquito with a howitzer,” says Brady Yauch, Executive Director and Economist at the Consumer Policy Institute. “The TTC would be wiser to use prices in order to spread demand for the TTC during the morning commute.”
Toronto and Singapore are, however, very different cities.
“Given the density in Singapore, they realized automobile transport wasn’t going to work for them,” said Waterloo professor Jeffrey Casello. “They made driving into the downtown core purposefully expensive, and that caused people to use transit.”
Transit advocate Steve Munro says that targeting discounts for people travelling into the city wouldn’t fly at Toronto City Council where suburban councilors often believe downtown receives more than its fair share of services.
“No matter what we choose, some people will benefit, others won’t and some may even be worse off. Any decision should be made in an informed environment about all of the alternatives, including the implications for operating subsidies,” Munro says.
Another important factor is service quality, not just system efficiency.
“We’re really happy about the improvements in service and the free transit for children under 12, but we’re still not seeing a subsidy level as high as it was four years ago,” TTC Riders spokesperson Brenda Thompson says. “We’re really hoping all three levels of government realize that investing in public transit is good for cities.”