Ontario’s public transit fare systems

I’m a little tired of blogging about Ontario now that I no longer live there.  But this is about public transport, which is interesting to me, and relevant since I’ll be travelling there in June.  And while public transit here in BC has its issues, none of them are ever significant enough to blog about.

Bless their hearts, the Ontario transit systems are, whether they like it or not, slowly integrating their fares.  It’s sort of an improvement.  I guess.  But it’s being done so poorly I wonder what the point is.

First, when I refer to integrated fares I mean two things: fare media, and fare prices.  To be truly integrated you need both of these things.  In many cities around the world, it’s easy. You get on at the beginning of your right, pay your fare (either cash/paper ticket, or a smart card), and go all the way to your destination on that fare – you pay one singular price for the entire trip and you only need one ticket or card.  The price might vary based on your destination, but it’s either automatically calculated based on distance or number of zones (in the case of a smart card), or based on clearly defined zones so you know how much to pay / what fare ticket to bring before you leave the house.

On fare prices, Ontario isn’t even close.  Some transit authorities, but not all, give discounts if you’re connecting to or from GO Transit.  It varies by transit authority (in the area served by GO Transit there are at least 18 I can think of); some offer a discount only if you have a monthly pass, others on any connecting trip, others offer no discount at all.  The discount rate varies and can sometimes be as high as 100%.  But if you’re connecting from one local service to another there’s generally no integration – for example, travelling one subway stop on the Toronto Transit Commission and then going two bus stops on MiWay (Mississauga Transit) requires riders to pay two fares, even though the distance travelled is far less than a single-fare trip could have been elsewhere in the Greater Toronto Area.

The fare media are also all completely separate.  Unlike in Vancouver or Melbourne (for example), each transit authority has its own ticketing system and has its own local quirks for how to go about paying for your fare.  There is (usually) no such thing as a combined fare to get you from a spot within on transit authority’s jurisdiction to another.

PRESTO is supposed to solve all that.  But I fear it’s failing.

I’ll be travelling to Ontario in June (for about a month) and, while my travel plans aren’t final yet, they will likely be something like this: I’ll arrive at Pearson Airport and take a TTC bus to Kipling station, followed by a subway to somewhere downtown – let’s say College Station to be generous (since it’s one of the PRESTO-enabled stations).  I’ll stay there for a night, then have to work up in York Region for a few days and will stay in accommodation up there.  After that, I’ll likely head straight to St. Catharines to stay with my parents, and then from there spend a couple of nights in Hamilton visiting with friends and such, and probably making a visit to my hairdresser on Hamilton Mountain.  From there, straight back up to York Region for a few more days, then to downtown Toronto for just under two weeks, during which time I’ll likely use BIXI to get around, but will also ride the subway to a handful of places around town (for argument’s sake let’s say I’ll do one return trip to Leslie Station, one return trip to the Beaches, a return trip to Toronto Island, and a return trip to Dufferin Station, from my arbitrarily-chosen location of College Station (I don’t know where I’m staying in Toronto yet)).  Then, back up to York Region for a week or so, during which I’ll make one return trip into the city, and then back to downtown Toronto for a few days (assume no TTC travel during that time), then back to Pearson Airport.

Under a PRESTO-less system (which is what I’m used to, and which is what many people still use), my fares would work like this:

  • I arrive at Pearson and pay TTC cash fare of $3 because Pearson has nowhere to buy tokens.  The bus brings me into the fare-paid zone of Kipling station so I continue on to College Station without paying an additional fare.
  • The next day I buy 15 tokens (5 sets of 3, since they can only be purchased in multiples of 3 or 7) for $39 from an employee in College Station to get me through the rest of my stay.  I use one to get to Downsview Station, and then get on a VIVA (York Region) bus, buying a 1-zone paper ticket from the machine at the station for $3.50.  I opt not to buy a ten-ticket multiRide as it won’t actually save me money – I’m only planning 8 trips which work out to the same total fare.
  • When I’m ready to head to St. Catharines, I pay another $3.50 VIVA fare, purchased at the bus stop, to get to York University, where I catch a GO bus, paying $16.10 to the driver for a paper ticket all the way to St. Catharines (or I could buy it from a fare vendor on campus).  I then take the bus to Oakville GO Station, take a GO train three stops to Burlington, and then a GO bus to St. Catharines.  (The other alternative is to take the VIVA bus all the way to Downsview, a TTC subway to Union Station ($3 cash or another token at $2.60), and then pay $14.65 at Union to go to St. Catharines via train to Burlington/bus to St. Catharines, but this is more expensive and time-consuming).  I then get to St. Catharines and get on a St. Catharines Transit bus to my parents’ place, and pay $2.75 cash fare to the driver (which is the full fare as there is no discount for GO riders) to get to their house.
  • There is no practical way to take public transit to downtown Hamilton from St. Catharines, but let’s assume I do.  I pay the $2.75 cash fare again to get back to the GO Bus stop in St. Catharines, then take the GO Bus, paying to the driver either $8.20 to get downtown (via Burlington, which is completely out of the way) or $7.75 to get to Stoney Creek.  Let’s assume I would take a bus either way so I choose the cheaper option (that involves less backtracking) and go to Stoney Creek.  I then take a Hamilton Street Railway bus for $2.55 cash fare because I don’t want to go hunting for a ticket vendor in the area while dragging luggage to wherever I end up staying in Hamilton, and the HSR only offers GO discounts if you have a monthly pass.
  • I’ll have a little more time to buy tickets before visiting my hairdresser, so the next day I go to a fare vendor (likely a corner store) and buy three tickets for $2 each, since they can be purchased in multiples of 1.  I use these tickets to get to and from my hairdresser’s, and then to the GO station on the day I leave.
  • I then buy a ticket from someone at a booth at the Hamilton GO station for $10.30 to bring me to York University.  I buy a VIVA ticket for $0.75 from a machine at the bus stop, since I’m connecting from GO and this is York’s rate for GO connections, and go to my destination.
  • To head back into Toronto, I pay $3.50 for another VIVA ticket, then use one of my tokens to take the TTC to College Station.
  • For my in-town travel I use a token for each of the eight trips (four return trips) I make.  For the trip to the Beaches I need to grab a paper transfer at College Station to switch to the streetcar, and on the way back I need a transfer from the streetcar driver to get back in the subway.  For the trip to the island I also pay an additional fare for the ferry, acquired either from a person in a booth or from a machine (if it’s working) for $6.50
  • To get back to York Region, I use another TTC token and then buy a $3.50 VIVA fare from the machine at Downsview to get to my destination.
  • For my return trip back into the city, I buy a VIVA ticket at the machine where I’m staying, use a TTC token when I arrive at Downsview station to get into the city.  I then do the opposite (token, $3.50 VIVA ticket at Downsview) to get back.
  • To get back into the city I repeat the earlier trip – $3.50 VIVA fare at the bus stop, use a token to get to College Station.
  • To get to the airport, I use my last token to take two subways to Kipling and switch to the bus in the fare-paid zone which takes me all the way to the airport.

Under this system, I’ve paid $121.95 and paid fares 9 different ways (TTC cash fare, TTC token, VIVA ticket purchased from machine, GO ticket purchased from driver, GO ticket purchased from machine, St. Catharines cash fare, HSR cash fare, HSR ticket, Toronto ferries ticket).

PRESTO is supposed to solve all of this mess.  You carry one card and can eventually use it anywhere.  The problem is that it’s being rolled out very slowly so not all transit networks are fully online, and a number of transit systems currently have no plans to join the system at all.  And the bigger problem, in my view, is there are no changes to the prices that are charged – a single trip passing through more than one transit system will get charged (almost) the same way as it does now.

The trips described above would be, using PRESTO as the system currently stands, like this:

  • Before I leave Vancouver I order a PRESTO card online for $6.  I don’t know why I pay $6, or what I get for it, but they’re calling it an “issuance fee.”  I have to be careful not to order it too soon, or too late, as it takes a week to arrive and then I have to either register and activate it online and ride the system within 7 days, or choose not to register it and activate it by taking a trip with it, at least 1 day after loading value onto it and at most 30 days after loading value onto it. I’m not sure what happens if I don’t activate in time, but I clearly need to make sure I plan well in advance.
  • I arrive at Pearson and pay TTC cash fare of $3 because TTC buses are not equipped for PRESTO, and Pearson has nowhere to buy tokens.  The bus brings me into the fare-paid zone of Kipling station so I continue on to College Station without paying an additional fare.
  • The next day I tap my PRESTO card to get on the TTC subway at College Station ($2.60 PRESTO fare deducted from my “e-Purse”) to get to Downsview Station, and then go to the VIVA fare station and tap my PRESTO card ($3.50 deducted, YRT/VIVA give no PRESTO discount) before getting on a VIVA (York Region) bus.
  • When I’m ready to head to St. Catharines, I tap my PRESTO card at the bus stop and get on a VIVA bus ($3.50 deducted) to get to York University, where I catch a GO bus, tapping when I get on.  I then take the bus to Oakville GO Station where I tap my card again on the way off, and tap again before going to the platform, take a GO train three stops to Burlington, tap my card as I leave the platform, and then tap on when boarding the GO bus to St. Catharines, tapping off again as I arrive.  In theory, all this tapping will yield a total deduction by GO Transit of $16.10 less 7.5% PRESTO discount, or $14.89.  Also, since I tapped onto a GO service immediately after using VIVA, my VIVA fare became eligible for the co-fare discount, and I get a credit of $2.75 applied. I then get to St. Catharines and get on a St. Catharines Transit bus to my parents’ place, and pay $2.75 cash fare (St. Catharines is not on the list of transit authorities that are planning to use PRESTO) to the driver (which is the full fare as there is no discount for GO riders) to get to their house.
  • To get to Hamilton, I pay the $2.75 cash fare again to get back to the GO Bus stop in St. Catharines, then take the GO Bus, tapping on and off and being charged $7.75 less the 7.5% discount or $7.17 to get to Stoney Creek.  I then tap onto a Hamilton Street Railway bus and have the $2.00 PRESTO fare deducted, and then a PRESTO-GO Integration credit of $1.50 is applied to my card.
  • I get to and from my hairdresser’s by tapping onto the HSR bus and have $2 deducted each way (total deduction: $4).
  • When I go to leave, I tap onto an HSR bus to the GO station and have $2 deducted.  I then tap on and off of the GO bus and $10.30 less 7.5% discount or $9.53 is deducted from my e-Purse, and a credit of $1.50 is applied against my HSR fare for integrating.  I tap onto a VIVA machine at the stop before getting on the bus and have a $0.75 deduction, being the GO integration fare.
  • To head back into Toronto, I tap on at the VIVA stop and $3.50 is deducted, then tap on at Downsview and $2.60 TTC fare is deducted.
  • This is where it gets more complicated, as TTC is only partly rolled out.  Only some stations have machines.  My trips, then are (from my arbitrary choice of College Station):
    • Return trip to Leslie Station: I tap on at College and $2.60 is deducted. To get back, I buy 3 tokens for $7.80 and use one.
    • Return trip to the Beaches: I tap on at College and $2.60 is deducted.  I then grab a paper transfer from a machine so I can switch to a streetcar to get to my ultimate destination.  On the way back, I use one of my tokens to pay on the streetcar, obtaining a transfer from the driver, and switching back onto the subway.
    • Return trip to Toronto Island: I tap on at College ($2.60 deduction) and switch to a streetcar within the fare-paid area at Union Station to get to Queen’s Quay.  I then acquire a paper ticket from either a person at a booth or a machine for $6.50 to get to the island.  The return ferry is free and then I use my last token to get on the streetcar at Queen’s Quay, switching to the subway within the fare-paid area to get back to College.
    • Return trip to Dufferin Station: I tap on at College ($2.60 deduction) and go to Dufferin.  To get back, I pay cash fare of $3 because I can’t buy tokens in quantities of 4 which is what I actually needed, and go back to College.
  • To get back to York Region, I tap on at College Station ($2.60 deduction) and then tap on at the VIVA station ($3.50 deduction) at Downsview to get to my destination.
  • For my return trip back into the city, I tap on at the VIVA machine where I’m staying ($3.50), and tap on at Downsview station ($2.60) to get into the city.  I then do the opposite (tap on at College ($2.60), assuming that’s where I’m going, tap on to VIVA ($3.50) at Downsview) to get back.
  • To get back into the city I repeat the earlier trip – tap on ($3.50) VIVA at the bus stop, tap on TTC ($2.60) to get to College Station.
  • To get to the airport, I tap on at College ($2.60) to take two subways to Kipling and switch to the bus in the fare-paid zone which takes me all the way to the airport.

Under PRESTO, I’ve paid $116.89 and paid fares 5 different ways (PRESTO, TTC cash fare, TTC token, St. Catharines cash fare, Toronto ferries ticket).

Is it better? I guess so.  I’ve saved a total of $5 in a month or so (even after paying the $6 fee), and had 4 fewer types of fares to pay.  But it’s still not smooth, and it’s still far more complicated than it needs to be.  There’s little to no consistency in when or how I pay my fare, let alone what amount I get charged.

Obviously the first thing that needs to be fixed is rolling it out through the entire area.  The TTC has no real excuse for not having rolled it out – all the other cities have been able to do so.  I suspect much of the reason for the delay is political – until recently there were petty fights over who was going to develop the system (and who was going to pay for it), when, how, why, etc. The TTC is likely still unhappy about having PRESTO forced on it.  It’s still not really an excuse.  That said, even GO Transit (operated by Metrolinx, which is responsible for PRESTO) has not rolled it out across all stations, which is also really quite a failure.

There’s also no reason that transit authorities like St. Catharines and Niagara Falls (or the Toronto ferries, which people don’t seem to view as a public transit system) should be excluded from this system, especially since OC Transpo (Ottawa-Gatineau’s transit system) is now set to roll it out despite having no connections at all to GO or the GTAH.  The system has been in the long, slow, process of rolling out since at least 2009.  It’s long overdue.

The other thing is, though, that some people will continue to use paper/cash fares even after PRESTO is rolled out – or will opt not to take transit at all if they are not given this choice.  I’m thinking specifically of visitors/tourists but this would likely include a number of locals.  No one is going to take a single trip on a local transit system if doing so requires they find a fare vendor and pay $6 to buy a card; cash or paper fares will likely continue to exist in some form or another.  Even without paper fares, the fare prices need to be fixed.  Whether it means adopting GO Transit’s existing fare zones (which are not clearly disclosed and incredibly confusing), or adopting one similar to Vancouver’s where the fare zones are large and roughly based on municipal boundaries, something needs to be done to allow a single intersystem trip to be paid with one singular fare — not three or more, as is the case now.

If people are going to embrace public transit as a means of getting around, they shouldn’t have to deal with these overcomplicated fare systems (it took me hours to piece all this together – if any of it is incorrect please tell me), and should be able to know what their fare will be, and how they will pay it.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by ivanvector on 2012/04/05 at 11:22 am

    Hooray for one return trip to the Beach[es]! Apparently there are some TTC bus routes that are pilot-testing PRESTO readers, but I’ve yet to see a single one, even though I ride on at least one of the routes (72 Pape) fairly often. None of these serve the Beach though.

    Reply

    • What I don’t understand is why they need to “pilot” something that’s been successfully rolled out on almost every other bus system in the province!

      Reply

  2. Posted by Justice on 2012/05/06 at 11:07 pm

    Good evening Neal, I hope you will have a beautiful trip and nice time there
    Could you please tell me if the City of Vancouver ever respond it to you about that
    Busters towing ?
    Thank you

    Reply

  3. Posted by James on 2012/05/30 at 11:51 am

    A note: you can buy TTC tokens in sets of 3, 4, 5, 7, or multiples thereof, not just 3 and 7.

    Reply

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