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.


  1. You make two very valid points.

    First, when tokens and flat fares were introduced, to satisfy the old Metropolitan Toronto’s suburban constituents, they at least had the virtue of administrative simplicity. The technology to use electronic fare systems, be they stored value cards, or single fare tickets geared to distance, which can be machine-read, is now standard across almost every modern rapid transit system and is at least as efficient as the current token based, flat fare system.

    The second point relates to subsidizing transit. Having lower fares and an effective rapid transit system will increase ridership and take cars off the road, with the related social benefits. However, the TTC is by and large a surface system. A comprehensive network of RT lines, surface and above ground, is needed to make it more effective. As you suggest, transit expansion coupled with road pricing is needed. I wonder though, whether a provincial or municipal government would be willing to take ,in Humphreyesque parlance, such a courageous step.

  2. The transit system in Hong Kong is very impressive indeed. However, the population density and number of transit users in HK differ greatly compared to Toronto.

    I remember reading a study conducted by the TTC, which examined automatic fare collection (AFC) systems around the world. It is a bit outdated now (Oct, 2000), but still very informative.


    Here is a summary of their findings:

    “The assessment has shown that the TTC?s existing fare system is both unique in the industry, and in many ways more effective than the fare systems used in other cities. By virtue of a combination of foresighted planning and facility design, political decision-making through the evolution of the former Metropolitan Toronto, and the unusual good fortune of being seemingly ?behind-the-times? with a notably low-tech fare collection system, the TTC is in the enviable position of having a fare
    collection system which, for the most part, works quite well. Visiting experts from Europe, Asia, and the United States have consistently remarked about the simplicity, efficiency, and speed of the TTC?s fare collection system, the unparalleled convenience of the TTC?s inter-modal integration and fare-paid subway stations, and the TTC?s low fraud and fare-evasion rates. Among those making these comments were the project managers for the AFC systems in London, England and Paris, France.”
    – Page 50

    Fast forward 9 years, the TTC published another report which recommends the commission “[a]pprove the adoption of the PRESTO fare collection system”. (“PRESTO is a Provincially led initiative to implement a common smartcard system across the GTA.”)

    “Review of Smartcards at the TTC and the PRESTO Smartcard System” (November, 2009)

    The implementation of the PRESTO system is very exciting and will be interesting to follow. It is a step in the right direction, but the current funding is insufficient for the technology to be fully implemented across the TTC system.

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