How Presto Could Improve Transit Service and Ridership
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How Presto Could Improve Transit Service and Ridership

Turning commuters into all-purpose riders is the brass ring.

In its 2009 report on Toronto, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted approvingly that Toronto’s local and regional transit was bringing in the Presto system, which was to be fully implemented by 2011. (Cue raucous, bitter laughter.)

It appears there have been many stumbling blocks that have delayed the installation of fare gates and machines, and not every part is yet working as it should. Presto is supposed to be up and running throughout the system by the end of this calendar year. Fingers crossed.

Let’s face it: the implementation of Presto on the TTC borders on disastrous. But I don’t want to use this space to complain. I’d rather put the focus on the significant opportunity Presto presents to improve service and ridership.

A recent report from the New York foundation TransitCenter [PDF] offers a great way to think about ridership. It categorizes riders as occasional, commuter, and all-purpose.

In the study, all-purpose riders were about one-third of all riders, but responsible for 56 per cent of all trips. Commuters were only 14 per cent of all riders, but accounted for 32 per cent of all trips. Occasional riders were the majority of riders but only took 13 per cent of trips.

It varies from city to city, and TransitCenter found that the better transit service was, the more all-purpose riders there were as a share of all riders. In New York City, 59 per cent of riders are all-purpose riders.

It’s difficult to plan a system for occasional riders. Commuters are good for a system because they provide more predictable ridership and income.

All-purpose riders do even more: they make a system more efficient because they use the system outside peak hours, so vehicles don’t run empty and workers are put to good use for their whole shift.

To improve ridership, we want to think about moving people from one group to the next.

Commuters travelling to school or work are the most time-sensitive of riders. Moving occasional riders to commuters needs a system with speed and reliability, above all, and probably a little bit of flexibility of use, particularly for women riders, who are more likely to be running errands during their commutes.

Turning commuters into all-purpose riders is the brass ring. That’s a cultural shift. Transit becomes the default. If we care about a thriving urban economy, reducing pollution and carbon emissions, then this is our goal. How do we do that?

Photo by Lorraine from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Lorraine from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

To move commuters to all-purpose riders, there are two key things that must be done. One is big, a long-term ongoing project; the other is small and immediately doable.

We’ll start with the tough one: provide transit that goes to lots of places, not just to workplaces. Most public transit has been designed as commuter links, connecting home and workplace. You need a network that is a dense web (I like “web” rather than “grid,” because it doesn’t have to follow straight lines or meet at even intervals to be successful).

In some places in the TTC system, the web is very strong, but there are many weaknesses where it is difficult to get from “here” to “there” in a reasonable amount of time and without changing vehicles several times. We’re making progress, but we’re not going to get there overnight.

However, just having Presto should help improve travel times, because part of travel time is how long you wait to buy and pay your fare. The TTC needs a lot of improvement here.

One thing I have never been able to understand is why the TTC has booths with one window beside a narrow turnstile for both purchasing and paying fare, making the process take longer for everyone. Anyone with a ticket (all students and seniors) or a day pass, or anyone paying cash fare, has to wait behind people buying fare.

It’s pretty frustrating to listen to your train come and go while you’re waiting in line for no reason.

But also, buying tokens or a pass takes longer because the TTC chooses getting every possible nickel and dime over efficiency. Right now, seven tokens cost $20.30. Not $20, which would be a 10-second transaction, but $20.30, which requires somebody making and counting change. It’s a loss of commuters’ time for an extra four cents a ride.

Having a tap-and-go system should eliminate some of those delays, and that might help improve time-sensitive ridership.

But the second thing Presto will enable us to do is create a nuanced fare system. This has real potential to turn occasional riders into commuters, and commuters into all-purpose riders.

If you are a regular commuter, then you take transit eight to 10 times a week and consider that a sunk cost for travel, a set item in your budget. Every trip beyond that is a new cost, and thus, a choice.

What if every trip on top of eight or 10 in any week was half-fare, a kind of buy-one-get-one-free deal? Or what if, after 10 trips in any Monday-to-Sunday span, every trip that week was free?

Most cities have a fare structure that looks something like that.

We don’t have this in Toronto. Cash fare is $3.25. If you buy tokens, each ride will cost you $2.90, about 10 per cent savings off cash fare. (And for those unfamiliar, there’s no deal for buying in bulk. They’re $2.90, whether you buy seven or 70.) A monthly pass is $141.50. For your first 48 rides in a month, you’re better off with tokens. On ride number 49, you start to save money.

So if you are only an occasional rider, your best bet is to buy a pile of tokens—or maybe you don’t even bother to do that and just pay cash fare, because it’s not a big difference if it’s just the occasional ride. No surprise there.

But many commuters are better off with tokens, too. If you commute by TTC to and from work, even five days a week, four weeks a month, you take 40, maybe 44 rides. You might take it on weekends, but for many people, that’s hard to predict.

Or maybe you get sick and miss a few days of work or school. If, at the end of the month, you discover you didn’t take 49 rides, then you gave the TTC your money for nothing. Not a great feeling.

In other words, the current Metropass is a terrible deal that rewards only all-purpose riders and does nothing to incentivize occasional riders to become regular commuters, and nothing to encourage commuters to become all-purpose riders.

Presto will give us the capacity to do differently, without riders having to risk paying more than they should. We could structure it so that there are daily caps, weekly caps, and monthly caps. The more you use your Presto card, the less you pay per ride.

Can Presto do this? Presto already does this!

If you use Presto on the GO Train, you save about 11 per cent off cash fare. A trip from Oakville to Toronto costs $8.65, but $7.68 with Presto. Even better, after 35 rides, the cost drops to $1.04, and after 40 rides, it’s free!

If you use Presto on the Ottawa city transit system, you also save about 10 per cent off ticket fare ($3.65 cash, $3.30 tickets, $3 Presto). But a day pass ($8.50) saves you money as soon as you use it three times, and a monthly pass ($105.75) saves you money after just 32 rides.

I prefer automatic daily, weekly, and monthly caps to having to predict my ridership and pay up front for as much as a month. But if the savings kick in at a lower number of rides, it’s a much smaller risk and gives riders better value. At a minimum, TTC commuters ought to start saving after 35 rides, just like GO commuters.

Offering a good discount like that is a fair exchange for riders agreeing to lend GO Transit and the TTC their money for the month. When you buy a pass or load up a card, you are giving the system money for rides not yet taken, services not yet rendered. It’s valuable to transit systems: they get cash up front (good for cash flow), some income stability, and some information for predicting ridership.

So that’s a nice favour, and we ought to get something good in return. On the TTC, we don’t.

But Presto is an opportunity to change that immediately. We could lower the cost of transit for the TTC’s most loyal riders and reward those who make a choice not to take the car. If we use incentives at all time scales (day, week, month), we will make it worth it for people to move from occasional riders to commuters, and from commuters to all-purpose riders.

So c’mon, everyone. I’m looking at all of you: Metrolinx, TTC, city council. Do your bit. Show us a progressive fare schedule for Presto that demonstrates you are serious about a real cultural shift to public transit.