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Public Works: Discounting the TTC

The TTC offers discounted fares for students and seniors. Is it time we gave low-income earners a break?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

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May 6, 1986. Real Madrid wins the 15th UEFA Cup. Robert Palmer and Whitney Houston are topping the charts with “Addicted to Love” and “Greatest Love of All,” respectively. And back here at home, a TTC meeting approves this motion [PDF]:

“3. Advise the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto that the Commission is willing to administer a Reduced Fare Program [that is, for low-income earners], if Metropolitan Council deems such a program appropriate and adequate funding can be found to overcome any revenue shortfall which would result to the Commission.”

Fast-forward 26 years. North Americans still don’t care about soccer, Palmer and Houston are headlining in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, and the metropolitan council and its mega-successor still haven’t deemed such a program appropriate or found adequate funding. In fact, it’s definitely the latter, since it’s unlikely that the terms “adequate funding” and “TTC” have ever been used in the same sentence except by hipsters ironically waiting for streetcars.

The idea was revived in 2010 and rejected as too costly, although the staff report on the idea did suggest slyly that the TTC would be happy to sell ticket-agent priced Metropasses to Social Services, who could resell them to their clients at any price they wanted.

Numerous other jurisdictions provide discounted transit fares for folks who might otherwise be afoot.

Calgary, for example, offers a slightly-less-than-half-price “Low-Income Monthly Transit Pass” to people with an income a certain amount lower than the federally-set low income cut-off (poverty to be confirmed through presentation of CRA Notice of Assessment). Calgary Transit recently extended the program to kids between the ages of seven and 18.

It’s estimated the Calgary program costs around $4 million annually. The kids’ discount is expected to add another $2 million.

Six million dollars is obviously a drop in the bucket in a city where the mayor uses the word “literature” without rolling his eyes and the streets are paved with oil-sands loot. The conventional wisdom seems to be that such a move wouldn’t be affordable here in the Rust Belt North.

However, discounted bus rides aren’t just an OCAP-placating, Sun-comment-troll-enraging freebie. There are social benefits.

Cheaper fares for the indigent won’t do much to ease gridlock, of course, since the target market is largely unwheeled. But a 2010 report [PDF] found that cheaper transit allowed low-income earners to enjoy new luxuries, like leaving the house to see family, or to buy groceries.

And if your heart isn’t of the bleeding variety, consider that a discounted pass also permits people to get to school and work more readily, advancing their bright future as, yep, taxpayers.

The likely cost for a Toronto program hasn’t been calculated, but it’s worth noting that the Calgary price tag is based on the assumption that every individual getting a discounted pass would otherwise have paid full freight. More realistically, some proportion would have relied on friends, stayed home, or jumped a turnstile instead of shelling out an additional $50 a month, meaning the real cost is probably less.

Various kinds of discounted fare programs are already in place across the country, from Victoria, to Regina, to Hamilton. Even Waterloo, Halton, and York regions have them.

And in Toronto we already have cheap fares for seniors and students, who could well be retired captains of industry or basement software tycoons respectively, for all we know. But they have larger, more organized lobby groups than the just plain poor.

The TTC remains famously cash-strapped, of course, so prudence is warranted. A pilot program with a cap on the number of participants (as is currently underway in York Region) would be a good way to start.

Surely we can scrounge a few bucks for a test drive without busting the bank?

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