Toronto-area transit a ‘fragmented mess’ — why fare zones could be the answer
As the Greater Toronto Area undergoes a historic, multi-billion-dollar transit expansion as part of a transportation revolution pitched by the Ford government, advocates say efforts to integrate existing systems, including fare costs for customers, are lagging behind.
Despite all levels of government throwing money at massive subway projects, documents obtained by Global News suggest the existing system is holding back transit in the country’s biggest city.
The documents – prepared by officials inside the Ford government – admit to existing costs and complications of riding transit in and around Toronto.
They say that an uncoordinated system of extra fares costs transit riders around $38 million per year. People also waste more than 300,000 hours per year waiting for connecting buses at the edge of the city, the province’s own documents say.
“The pandemic and recent investments in new capital projects mean this is the time for real regional change to optimize the investments being made by all levels of government by supporting service integration initiatives and removing unnecessary barriers,” a key message prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Transport in 2022 acknowledges.
The document is part of a series of internal memos about fare and service integration obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request.
An estimated $28.5 billion in public money will be poured into the Eglinton West Extension from Toronto to Mississauga, the Scarborough Subway Extension, the Yonge North Subway Extension into Markham and the Ontario Line, cutting through the heart of Toronto.
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The documents suggest a slow, bureaucracy-laden push to make transit services across the GTA work better together. And, while progress has been made, some are demanding radical change.
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In its current form, the Toronto area and other cities within commuting distance are a patchwork of separate local agencies. Each sets its own schedules and fares. GO Transit, the provincially managed intercity commuter service, is also part of the mix.
The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is by far the largest, moving almost two million people per day.
Some of these services compete, and others are integrated.
A passenger switching from the TTC to a Mississauga bus, for example, will pay an additional fare. Someone getting onto a York Region service from a Brampton bus, however, will ride for free.
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Some say the haphazard approach is confusing, expensive and in danger of driving people away from using transit.
“Toronto today is just a fragmented mess,” Toronto Region Board of Trade president Jan Da Silva told Global News.
“Our essential workers — nurses, paramedics, teachers — can’t afford to live in the city, so they’re having to transit in from other parts and (at) every municipal border, they’re having to pay a new fare.”
Da Silva’s organization has released reports exploring how the system could be changed so that, instead of paying to enter a new city and cross a municipal border, people could pay fares based on distance or zones. The report says zone systems are common across major European cities like London.
“Fare integration doesn’t take years like building a new subway line,” a recent report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade argued. “It can be done in a matter of months, once we make the decision to do it.”
Provincial government documents agree.
“Fragmented transit fare structures, transfers at municipal borders, and double fares for short trips that cross municipal borders can make some transit trips less convenient and more expensive (particularly across the Toronto border),” a February 2022 internal provincial note said.
It lays out that 150,000 trips of five kilometres or less are made across Toronto’s municipal borders every day. “These short trips often cost two fares and require transfers,” the provincial briefing admits.
According to the document, that makes people 30 per cent less likely to take transit for these trips. The failures of the current system account for missed ridership of 18 million per year, the note says.
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As Ontario’s new subway projects come online, that missed ridership value is likely to increase.
The Yonge Line extension will raise the number of people going between Toronto and York Region transit, while the Eglinton West extension is likely to funnel riders into Toronto from Mississauga and vice versa.
During the pandemic, then-associate minister of transportation Kinga Surma (now in charge of infrastructure), set out to integrate transit fares and services. She convened a working group, with the goal of integrating fares across the Greater Toronto Area.
“We recognize there’s an opportunity now to work with our partners to ensure transit is safe, sustainable and affordable, both during COVID-19 and as we begin to recover,” she said in March 2021.
Internal documents, however, show progress has been slow and goals appear limited.
Local autonomy a key issue, docs say
Between October 2021 and February 2022, the provincial government polled GTA transit agencies and local governments to decide on three options for integration that could be explored.
The documents released to Global News discussing the consultation were heavily redacted, including the removal of an entire section titled “outcomes.” The text that was released suggests concerns from local GTA transit services may torpedo meaningful fare integration.
One part of the document cites concerns about introducing a new system of zones. It said local transit agencies had issues with the potential loss of existing agreements, such as those between Brampton and Mississauga or Brampton and York Region. There were also fears that existing cities would be divided into multiple fare areas.
The idea of charging fares based on distance also appears to have been shot down.
Local transit agencies told the province they feared the system would be difficult for customers to understand and could increase fares for those travelling within one city — for example from Etobicoke to Scarborough.
The list of problems was summed up by one line in the document: “Transit agencies indicated that they should retain autonomy to set fares under any option.”
Da Silva said that the board hoped provincial funding could unlock the problem by making local agencies whole.
“The challenge they would have had historically is unless they get subsidized, it’s very difficult for them to tie into a regionally integrated fare structure,” she said.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade released a report during the pandemic that pitched a structure of zones that encompassed the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area, along with communities such as Kitchener and Waterloo.
The system would cost around $150 million per year, the board of trade said.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s associate minister of transportation Stan Cho pointed to existing GTA-905 fare integration agreements and changes to GO Transit fares as examples of success.
Riders still pay two fares when they transfer from a GO bus or train onto the TTC.
“Our government is improving the transit experience for riders through greater fare and service integration across the GTHA,” the spokesperson said.
Local agencies could be interested in broader integration, but losing money is still a key problem.
Geoff Marinoff, the director of Mississauga’s MiWay transit system, said he was open to full fare integration with the TTC but that Queen’s Park would have to cough up to cover losses.
“Erasing the 416-905 double fare I think is an important step, but I just can’t see it being financially viable unless we get some assistance from the province,” he said, citing a figure of $12 to $15 million to compensate MiWay alone.
Marinoff said 21 per cent of Mississauga riders come from Toronto.
“It’s real money,” he told Global News. “In other words, we’re collecting it today… that’s what we use to help pay for the service.”
A limited integration
Provincial documents suggest that the province is working on a much more limited form of integration than TRBOT pitched. It may be looking at some route changes, rather than a massive integrated map of zones.
A three-stage pilot is being planned for Toronto and its neighbours to test limited integration, according to the documents. Instead of creating a new payment system or eliminating double fares, the plan will see better service integration on routes that currently double up between the TTC and its suburban counterparts.
Nine routes from Mississauga, three from Brampton, 10 from York Region and two in Durham will be involved.
Minor changes to the City of Toronto Act, which forbade non-TTC services from picking up and dropping off passengers within the city’s borders, are part of the pilot.
The historic “closed-door” policy means that when GTA-905 services enter Toronto, they can drop passengers off, but they cannot pick new Toronto riders up. Similarly, on the way out of Toronto, they can pick up passengers heading out into cities like Mississauga, but they cannot drop people off within the 416.
The pilot will see that policy slowly reversed until, in stage three, 24 GTA-905 routes will be allowed to pick up and drop off passengers in Toronto. Local TTC schedules will eventually be adjusted to reduce overlap and redeployed to other areas.
Despite significant pushback from the TTC union, which provincial documents say is concerned that adding GTA-905 routes in Toronto could lead to TTC job cuts, the province appears to be moving ahead with the program.
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While the move has been welcomed, it is a far cry from the vision the Toronto Region Board of Trade is pushing.
“For decades riders have voiced their frustrations with the burden of paying double fares when crossing municipal boundaries,” its recent March report said.
The pilot will not eliminate double fares between Toronto and the GTA-905, according to the documents.
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A spokesperson for the province could not say if or when that change would come.
“We look forward to municipal service providers bringing forward a plan for review, with a commitment to ensure there are no job losses, service reductions or privatization of the system,” the spokesperson said.
TTC boss and Ford government claim progress
While documents suggest that serious fare integration remains an unachievable goal, both Rick Leary, CEO of the TTC, and the Ministry of Transport say progress is being made.
Speaking in February at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, Leary admitted the current system did not work for riders. “It was probably suited in the ’50s, but it’s certainly not suitable for today,” he said during a fireside chat.
He said his aim was to make sure the “whole system is integrated,” but stopped short of providing details.
As the provincial documents indicate, Leary said that his plan was to begin by integrating how services run — and then deal with the costly proposition of fare integration.
“We know that integration is a very expensive proposition,” he said. “Service integration: that can be done if we all want it to be done.”
The province agreed that progress was being made, pointing out legislative changes it approved to allow for the pilot to take place.
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