The TTC Used to Have Fare Zones—and They May be Coming Back
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The TTC Used to Have Fare Zones—and They May be Coming Back

The TTC has had a tumultuous history with fare zones over the years. Now, Metrolinx might bring them back.

While attention remains on the one-stop Scarborough subway extension, and John Tory continues to sing SmartTrack’s praises, there’s another important transit decision coming, one that could affect every single transit user in Toronto and beyond. Among the many transit proposals underway, Metrolinx, the regional transit authority, is currently studying how passengers will pay to use transit. Metrolinx staff and consultants will come back to the Metrolinx board in the fall with specific findings and recommendations.

Metrolinx is considering three basic fare schemes for the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA):

  • Modify the existing system by reducing or eliminating transfer penalties between the TTC and suburban transit systems, such as York Region Transit. Also implement a reduced TTC fare for transfers to and from GO Transit, like the “co-fares” offered in the 905 suburbs.
  • Create a new zone-based system. In this new system of zone boundaries across the GTHA, fares would be based on how many zone boundaries are crossed. York Region Transit has three zone boundaries where an additional fare is charged for crossing it.
  • Create a new hybrid system. While bus and streetcar routes would continue to operate on flat fares, rapid transit lines would operate on a fare-by-distance system similar to what GO Transit already uses.

There are several reasons why a fare integration study is necessary. If GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail (or SmartTrack, if you prefer) network is going to be useful, it will need to offer fare integration with the TTC. As it stands right now, the combined GO-TTC fare can be cost prohibitive, especially for shorter trips. It is also not particularly fair that short trips across Steeles Avenue, for example, require both a TTC and a YRT fare—$7.25 cash each way—when long trips within the city of Toronto require only a single $3.25 cash fare. Addressing these fare boundaries will help encourage more suburbanites to take transit.

But there also some reasons to be very cautious of Metrolinx’s study. Metrolinx operates GO Transit, the regional commuter rail and bus network, and the current GO Transit fare structure has some major problems. For one thing, it’s not quiet a “fare-by-distance” system, as GO charges very expensive fares for short trips. There are also discrepancies in fares charged for travelling similar distances.

Furthermore, implementing a fare-by-distance scheme for the TTC subway and light-rail lines ignores the history of the subway system: the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways were built to replace overcrowded streetcar lines and are an essential part of the local transit grid, unlike GO Transit.

There is also the matter of social equity. Most of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas are located in suburban locations far from high-employment areas such as downtown Toronto and Pearson Airport. A fare-by-distance scheme would affect these areas the most.

The fare scheme that Metrolinx decides upon is supposed to be revenue neutral, meaning that any potential fare reductions will have to be made up elsewhere without additional subsidies. The TTC’s cost recovery ratio is more than 70 per cent, while suburban systems like YRT, Brampton Transit, and MiWay get back less than half their operating costs from the fare box. So don’t expect many fares to come down as a result of Metrolinx’s recommendations, whatever they might be.

There are yet no specifics yet as to what a new fare-by-distance system might look like, or how much passengers will have to pay. But the idea of fare-by-distance for local trips is not an entirely new idea.

Until 1973, the TTC operated at least two separate fare zones within the current boundaries of the City of Toronto. Zone 1 covered the old City of Toronto, as well as parts of York, East York, and a few corners of North York, such as Sunnybrook Hospital, and encompassed the entire streetcar network, apart from the Long Branch line in Etobicoke. Zone 2 covered the rest of Metro Toronto. (Prior to 1962, there were multiple suburban fare zones within Metro Toronto, these were merged into a single Zone 2 that year.) Customers going from Zone 1 to Zone 2 or vice versa paid a second fare either at a transfer point, at a suburban subway station, or where the bus crossed the boundary. The subway, which was extended to Scarborough and Etobicoke in 1968, was deemed to be part of Zone 1. Outside of Metro Toronto, the TTC operated buses to Port Credit, Malton, Woodbridge, Maple, and Richmond Hill; these routes had additional fare boundaries (zones 3 through 5) as well. During the time that the TTC had zone fares, it was able, more or less, to “break even”—fare revenue covered its operating expenses.

TTC Zones with fares
TTC fare zones prior to abolition in 1973.

The TTC one-zone cash fare between 1968 and 1972 was 20 cents, or six tickets for a dollar. Passengers from Zone 2 headed downtown had to pay 40 cents cash. Adjusting for inflation, a one-zone cash fare in 1972 would cost $1.19 in 2016; the two zone fare $2.37.

Metropolitan Toronto, which was responsible for the TTC, abolished the fare zones within Metro as of January 1, 1973. Public transit was increasingly seen as a social service, rather than a public utility, like hydro, which was expected to pay its own way. And by the 1970s, suburban politicians had control of Metro Council; they sought to eliminate the double fare paid by many of their constituents. The base fare was set at 30 cents cash or four tickets for $1. Many commuters got a fare break, while passengers travelling within one zone faced a 50 per cent fare hike. From then on, the TTC required an operating subsidy, and ever more dependent on fare hikes as operating costs increased and government subsidies declined in the 1990s and 2000s.

Critics of fare zones in Toronto today say it would target the wrong crowd: those who live further from the city are live on lower incomes, and would have to shell out more to get downtown for work, as they cross more zones throughout their commute. In 2014, the Toronto Star called distance-based fare a “no-go” for the TTC. But John Tory says he supports fare zones.

Metrolinx is expected to make more detailed recommendations by fall 2016.