The TTC Fare Increase: How Technological Backwardness Begets Operational Stupidity

Toronto transit riders are facing a fare increase at year-end and, because tokens are undated, the TTC has reduced their availability, thereby generating long queues and consternation on the part of riders.

By way of personal disclosure, I should say that I’ve seen this scenario played out often enough to know what was coming, so when I saw the first mention in the newspaper of possible fare increases I began hoarding. And last Sunday afternoon, despite the sign on the ticket booths indicating token sales were limited to five to a customer, a helpful agent was willing to sell me ten. I now have a cache of 23 tokens, which should be sufficient for my infrequent TTC trips over the next six weeks.

Recalling the TTC’s own slogan, is there a better way? Let me suggest two.

The first would be for the TTC simply not to restrict the sale of tokens, accept that there will be some loss of revenue due to hoarding, and recognize that it is the inevitable cost of maintaining good customer relations. That is what Canada Post does by selling perpetual (P) stamps valid at any time, rather than requiring customers to buy additional stamps every time rates go up.

A second solution would be to adopt better, more flexible pricing technology. Twenty-five years ago – that’s right, twenty-five years ago – I was in Hong Kong and saw how their subway system used what were called Common Stored Value Tickets. You bought a ticket for a certain value, and on every trip the automated card readers would deduct the price of that trip, until the ticket was used up. If the TTC had such a system today, fare changes would be easily implemented by increasing the amount deducted from the card on the day the new fares come into effect.

From a broader public policy perspective, I don’t think ever-increasing transit fares are the way to go. The better way would be to increase transit ridership and decrease automobile traffic in the core. The best way to do that, as has been demonstrated in London and Stockholm, is through an area pricing scheme, where road tolls are used to fund improvements in the public transit system. At the limit, I’d even support making transit free to riders, and fund it entirely through road tolls.

Highway 407 was an early foray into leading edge road tolling, so the technology exists right in our own backyard.

Let’s see if next year’s mayoral candidates are far-seeing enough to embrace these ideas. The one least likely to do so is the unimaginative stuffed shirt John Tory, who in the 2003 mayoral campaign even went so far as to set up a website attacking David Miller’s willingness to contemplate road tolls. Maybe next time will be different.

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