Historicist: Test Drive a Metropass
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Historicist: Test Drive a Metropass

After years of study by the TTC, Torontonians were finally able to purchase a transit pass in 1980, even if it cost more than Montreal's.

Source: the Toronto Sun, April 6, 1980.

During an April Fools’ Day TTC meeting in 1980, Metro Toronto Chairman Paul Godfrey became the first person to purchase a Metropass. Like the first batch of actual users, Godfrey had a two-part pass: a laminated photo ID card (passholder number 000001) and a portion replaced monthly. Perhaps sensing the spirit of the day, he asked those in the room, “Does this mean I have to turn my chauffeur in?”

While Godfrey’s chauffeur didn’t apply for unemployment insurance, the Metropass enabled some of its early users to reduce their driving time. Buyers were also relieved to no longer fumble for cash fares, tickets, or tokens. Early user feedback proved positive, with many users wondering why the TTC hadn’t implemented a pass sooner.

Source: A Study of Monthly Passes (Toronto: Toronto Transit Commission, 1978).

The answer is easy—change takes a long time at the TTC. As the commission’s August 1978 report A Study of Monthly Passes noted, “Many transit operators have implemented passes without any study whatsoever. It would be irresponsible for the TTC to do so, because of the amounts of money involved. What is appropriate for other cities may not be appropriate for Toronto.” Throughout the late 1970s, the TTC studied the feasibility of a user pass in relation to increased ridership, infrastructure costs, and potential revenue losses. A survey conducted in 1976, which likely used more scientific methods of questioning about public transit than employed by our current mayor, showed that the public was receptive to using passes.

A test project conducted at Sherbourne Station sold passes to 107 riders that were good only for the month of April 1978. The test data showed that these pass users increased their number of trips by 15 to 20 per cent. The resulting report outlined pros (public demand, increased annual trips, user convenience) and cons (disruptions to the system, start-up costs, revenue losses, lack of trackable ridership info) if a pass was implemented. For a time, the TTC contemplated selling passes solely through employers as was the practice in Boston and Chicago. In the end, a pilot project approved by Metro Council in January 1980 approved a $26 pass for public sale that would go into use as of May 1, 1980. Estimates suggested that the $1.9 million implementation cost would generate 3.5 million more trips per year.

Hundreds of people lined up to have their pictures taken and ID numbers issued at eight subway stations when Metropasses went on sale on April 7. Feedback gathered by the Star from those waiting by the Commerce Court entrance to King Station was positive, even if the photos they paid $1.50 each for weren’t masterpieces. “I know I’ll get my money’s worth for sure,” said stockbroker trainee Ron Omell, “but I’m afraid this isn’t a very good picture of me. It’s a little fuzzy.” Don Mills resident Ken Dowling thought the Metropass was “the greatest invention since sliced bread and the toaster…Right now I’m paying about $72 a month for transportation. That’s a lot of bread.” Michael Carter of Donlands Avenue, who was part of a strike against an unnamed employer, appreciated the potential savings that would allow him to “go down and picket every day.”

Left: meet the first Metropass user. The Toronto Sun, May 2, 1980. Right: advertisement, the Toronto Sun, November 2, 1980.

Savings attracted the first rider to use a Metropass on May 1, who estimated he previously spent $40 per month on transit. Seventeen-year-old U of T student Tim Moseley told the Sun that he had nothing better to do at that hour. “After all,” the tabloid noted, “he’s paid for all the rides he can get this May.” Moseley set another Metropass milestone that fall when he won a TTC-sponsored contest for U of T undergrads to see who could take the most trips within a 24-hour period. Up against 25 fellow students, Moseley flipped his pass 212 times on October 24. While most of his rides were taken downtown, Moseley also travelled to the north and west ends “just for a change of scenery.” His motivation for entering the contest? “I did it for the prize,” he told the Star, which consisted of a trophy and free Metropasses for a year. Moseley admitted that changing vehicles approximately every four-and-a-half minutes “was no fun.”

Also not fun to some was the $26 Metropass fee. Based on the TTC fare structure of the time, one had to use the pass 52 times before receiving “free” trips. Never mind that the complaints rarely factored in rising gas prices, parking fees and increasing road traffic—the Metropass cost $10 more than its recently introduced equivalent in Montreal! A major reason for the cost difference was provincial government subsidies, which were higher in Quebec. In Toronto, 68 percent of operating costs derived from the fare box. As a Globe and Mail editorial noted, “Metro Toronto and Ontario bend over backwards to improve roads for motorists, yet they are determined to pay no more than 32 per cent between them toward the operating costs of an urban transit system. Their priorities are indefensible.”

Few direct gripes about the cost or other Metropass issues were sent to the TTC. According to a report presented to the TTC commissioners in December 1980, of 25 complaints received between April and November 1980, 10 were cost-related while the remainder concerned availability, purchasing lineups, and the inability to use the passes at automatic entrances due to a lack of investment in card-reading turnstiles. The report also showed that both the ridership increase and revenue loss was larger than expected. Nearly 114,000 ID cards were sold during the Metropass’s first eight months, while 3,000 more monthly portions were used in November than had been budgeted for. The report recommended that the pilot project be extended another year.

Throughout the second half of 1980, the TTC ran a testimonial campaign for the Metropass. Excerpted from advertisements that appeared in the November 2, 1980 edition of the Toronto Sun.

People quickly forgot the Metropass was technically still in its testing phase. Sales continued to rise throughout 1981 despite a $3.75 per month price increase. Revenue losses were lower than projected ($1.5 million as opposed to $3 million). According to the report The Metropass Experiment, issued in December 1981, the typical Metropass buyer lived in East York, Toronto or the City of York. They were commuters “who used the TTC for more than just work-related trips. Most do not have the opportunity to increase their peak period use of the system and so the pass encourages increased off-peak travel for entertainment, shopping and other purposes.”

The report recommended that the Metropass become permanent, that turnstiles with magnetic card readers be tested, and that reduced-rate passes for students and seniors be investigated. It also suggested that “a pass, similar to Metropass, may eventually be developed for use on both the TTC and regional and inter-regional systems operating into Metro Toronto.”

Thirty years later, we’re still working the kinks out of that suggestion.

Additional material from A Study of Monthly Passes (Toronto: Toronto Transit Commission, 1978), The Metropass Experiment (Toronto: Toronto Transit Commission, 1981), Metropass: Results to Date (Toronto: Toronto Transit Commission, 1980), and the following newspapers: the January 21, 1981 edition of the Globe and Mail; the November 21, 1978, March 11, 1980, April 2, 1980, April 8, 1980, May 2, 1980, and October 30, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 1, 1980 edition of the Toronto Sun.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.