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Fare hikes not the answer

December 5th, 2015 · No Comments

Policy favours car ownership over public transit

By Terri Chu

To say that another Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) fare hike is disappointing is a mild understatement. When the Yonge line opened in 1954 with its first 12 stations, fares cost 15¢ ($1.34 in today’s dollars). The recent fare hike puts the increase at about 2.5 times above and beyond inflationary rates.

At the time the subway opened, the TTC operated under a complicated zone-based system. Suburban commuters paid a higher fare, as longer routes cost more to operate. As urban sprawl started to infect Toronto through the 1960s, suburban dwellers found more and more clout in City of Toronto politics and the “unfair” zone structure was abolished in favour of a flat fare of 30¢ in 1973 ($1.58 in today’s dollars).

This really solidified the entitlement that everyone should subsidize the cost of urban sprawl.

Transit systems depend on a large number of passengers going a relatively short distance in order to make effective revenues.

Relatively few passengers going a long way into the suburbs are a money-losing proposition.

When the new fare structure came into place, it was an acknowledgement that suburbs approved of, and wanted, government-subsidized transit to the suburbs. The TTC was no longer able to operate expensive lines to low density areas at a loss without a government subsidy.

During the recession of the 1990s, ballooning deficits made transit subsidies unpopular and, by 1996, the provincial government slashed subsidies to the TTC causing decreased service at increased prices, which dropped ridership and increased congestion on city roads.

The government of the day went as far as filling in a hole that was already being dug. While public transit has been scaled back in Canada’s largest city, in the same period we have seen roads widening.

In the 1950s, the 401 was a mere four-lane throughway compared to the 12 lanes now across most of the Greater Toronto Area.

The cost of vehicle ownership has kept pace with inflation whereas the cost of transit use has far exceeded it. In both 1954 and today, the average cost of a new car was about half of the annual household income. The cost of driving has been relatively flat in terms of earning power.

When the Metropass was introduced in 1981, it cost $29.75, about $74 in today’s dollars. Today, it costs double that after adjusting for inflation.

While Rob Ford made great headlines fighting the “war on the car”, the fact is that decades of public policy have favoured vehicle ownership and operation over public transit.

Is it any wonder that Toronto’s roads are congested and nobody feels like they get good value out of their public transit? Rome wasn’t built in a day and Toronto’s once world-class transit system didn’t turn into a laughing stock overnight either.

This is a result of decades of public policy designed to favour the car manufacturing sector and feed into a misplaced notion of “the American dream”. The result? North America’s most congested city costing the GTA an estimated $6 billion annually.

The debate at city council is infuriating to the outside observer not because of what is being discussed, but because of what isn’t. The needs of the system are largely outside of council’s control but there are steps it can take while the other two levels of government slowly decide how much money from Toronto’s own tax base it wants to give back to us.

  • Raise parking prices: Toronto can’t realistically impose road tolls on its own but why is parking so cheap? Unless the marginal cost of driving is higher than transit, there is no ecnomic incentive to get out of the car.
  • Bring back the car tax: this is self-explanatory. It brought much needed revenues to the city’s coffers by decreasing the subsidies to drivers for the upkeep of municipal roads.
  • Bring back distance-based fares: three friends bar-hopping downtown should not SAVE money by hopping into a cab rather than the subway. If we want people to use transit, the fare system has to make sense compared to other alternatives.
  • Outsource management: this isn’t about outsourcing jobs but rather outsourcing high level decision making to world renowned experts. Stockholm has done this successfully without reducing any frontline jobs. Ultimate decision making still rests with city council to ensure that the interests of Torontonians are looked after, but this can open the door for much more advanced transit technology. The comfortable modus operandi the TTC finds itself in is not working, and it’s time to leapfrog from baby steps.

While we are finally launching the state of art circa 1990s technology of Presto, places like Hong Kong have been so successful with their electronic payment systems that one can now use them to purchase one’s morning coffee. In such places the transit system is the backbone of society rather than an afterthought.

Rather than debating the cost of transit, the discussion needs to shift to what kind of society we want to build. One where transit is treated as a service to meet the needs of the poor, or one where transit is the backbone of a vibrant city?

As the provincial and federal governments decide how to direct the newly promised infrastructure funds, it will be important to look at the bigger picture.

Toronto needs help. While the city can take small steps in the right direction, it has limited reach. Toronto is so intertwined with neighbouring cities that city council alone can’t fix the problem. Leadership from Queen’s Park is needed. We are waiting.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to Terri at terri.chu@whyshouldicare.ca.

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