Time-based transfers are key to public transit’s success

For a city undergoing rapid income polarization, where the middle class is being squeezed out of the urban space, moving to time-based transfers by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will go a long way in improving accessibility and mobility for the urban disenfranchised in Toronto.

TTC’s decision to consider switching to time-based transfers is likely to improve transit use in Toronto. While TTC’s own estimates suggest a loss in revenue from such a change, it will though improve the welfare of those who are struggling to survive under the high cost of living in Toronto. At the same time it will also help improve public transit use in Toronto because of improved connectivity and ‘fare integration’ resulting from such change.

A well-designed and well-managed transit system is expected to deliver an efficient and environmentally sustainable transit service while it also provides mobility alternatives to those who cannot afford to travel by the private automobile. TTC has, over the years, served the needs of the society well by offering mostly efficient and relatively less polluting mobility. It could however improve on delivering service to the urban poor by changing the transfer policy from ‘continuous trip’ to ‘time-based transfer.’ This will address the mobility needs of low-income commuters who are captive transit riders and can use a more convenient and integrated service that costs a little less. At the same time, such a move will improve the use of transit infrastructure in off-peak periods, thus lowering the overall transit delivery costs when normalized by the number of commuters carried by the transit system.

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TTC’s transfer policy permits only ‘continuous trips’ in one direction and restricts the user from travelling in the reverse direction. Therefore, those who could have paid only once to travel a short distance on public transit to run an errand and return to the origin are currently required to purchase another fare. A time-based transfer will permit unlimited travel within a specified time of entering the transit system. Such a change will prevent low-income commuters from paying twice for the complete trip chain. This will also facilitate dropping children off to schools and returning home with one fare. Just imagine how many peak period school trips by automobile could be reduced by this change in transfer policy.

Some would argue that the TTC cannot afford to adopt a policy that lowers its revenue. TTC has estimated a $20 million loss in revenue from a time-based transfer that remains valid for 120 minutes after entering the transit system. This is a small price to pay to improve accessibility in a city where income-based segregation is reaching alarming levels. Recall the University of Toronto study that labelled Toronto the Divided City because of the shrinking space for the urban middle class. A time-based transfer will help the low-income commuters undertake more trips at a lower cost.

Those commuters who use monthly or other passes do enjoy unlimited travel privileges on the transit system. Extending similar privileges to others with a 120-minutes restriction will bring those who pay more per ride (non-pass commuters) closer to pass holders who pay less per ride.

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The loss in revenue can be addressed in the future when TTC will implement the PRESTO fare card system. This will permit more flexibility in creative fare structures. For instance, TTC can impose similar restrictions for all using PRESTO card (that should replace monthly and other passes) by permitting unlimited travel within 120 minutes of entering the system. Any subsequent travel after 120 minutes would cost another fare. This will make fare structures fairer and more equitable while raising additional revenue to compensate for the estimated loss.

Such a shift in transfer policy is likely to increase transit usage during off-peak periods because trips involving errands are usually undertaken during off-peak periods. This will result in higher ridership during periods of excess capacity, which in turn will lower overall per commuter operating cost of the transit system.

Earlier research has shown that integrated fare structures have delivered higher transit ridership. The move to time-based transfer is likely to have the same effect as one would expect from the introduction of integrated fare systems that permit greater connectivity and flexibility on transit use. The integrated tariff between rail and bus networks in Vienna was associated with a significant increase in transit ridership during 1988 and 2001. Similarly, the introduction of a smart card in Paris in 1975, which enabled free transfers among various transit operators, reversed the decline in transit ridership.

Transfers are an inexpensive way of improving network planning and performance while the inconvenience of moving from one vehicle or mode to another is borne by the commuter. This is why the authors of a South Korea study wrote: Transfers “reduce operational costs and support efficient route planning in exchange for passengers’ inconvenience.” This inconvenience can be reduced if the transfer facilitates trip-making. “Making transfers less burdensome must be a critical consideration in public transit,” wrote the authors.

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TTC, it appears, is trying to do just that: making transfers less burdensome. It should be commended to consider commuter friendly policies that are likely to improve accessibility and equity in Toronto, and are likely to result in greater transit use in off-peak periods.

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