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Fare Integration on Public Transit Can Help Fight Gridlock in Urban Canada

05/13/2015 12:57 EDT | Updated 05/13/2016 05:59 EDT
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Let's face it. Public transit is often more expensive and much slower for commuters whose trips cross municipal boundaries. While it may take billions of dollars to reduce transit commute times, fare integration between neighbouring transit operators will not cost much in infrastructure. In addition, it will help reduce travel costs for commuters while attracting thousands of new public transit users.

Writing for the Globe and Mail in July 2013, I lifted the veil off the well-kept secret of the longer than LA travel times in some Canadian cities. Our urban commute times are significantly longer than the American cities because of our higher public transit use. The flipside of higher transit commutes is our longer than the average aggregate commute times. Using the data from the 2011 National Household survey, I found that public transit commute times in Canada are 81 per cent longer than those by car.

But what about the costs? Most believe it is cheaper to commute by public transit than by car. This may be true for those who can start and end their trips within the jurisdiction served by the same transit operator. The commuting reality of the increasingly suburbanized Canadians is much different. Our daily commutes cross municipal boundaries where several transit operators have staked their claims for proprietary service.

The lack of collaboration between transit agencies and their continued refusal to integrate fares and routes is what is ruining public transit for the suburbanites. If public transit would like to compete with the car, the transit operators have to stop competing among themselves.

Canadian cities have enjoyed a steady population growth rate, which is significantly higher in suburban municipalities than that in central or urban municipalities. While workers have increasingly taken up residence in the suburbs, the urban employment hubs have continued to expand resulting in an increase in commuting from the suburbs to urban employment hubs. At the same time, the suburb-to-suburb commute has also increased given the suburbanization of jobs. This forces a growing number of commuters to pay multiple fares to different public transit operators for a single commute that crosses the municipal boundaries.

Smart fare integration across transit operators and jurisdictions will help grow transit ridership and improve accessibility and equity in metropolitan areas.

Consider my daily commute from Mississauga, a large municipality to the west of the City of Toronto, to downtown Toronto. If I were to travel by public transit, I would have to board a bus, operated by Mississauga Transit, for a 15-minute ride to Port Credit GO Station. There I can board a GO train to Union Station in downtown Toronto to switch to subway trains operated by the Toronto Transit Commission for the last leg of my journey, which ends near Eaton Centre.

If I were to catch the 7:47 AM bus, which is too infrequent to rely upon, I can make the journey in 70 minutes. If I were to drive, and in spite of the delays caused by construction, I can make the same trip in about 35 minutes. Parking in downtown costs anywhere between $10 and $20.

For the same trip by transit, I need to pay three different fares to three different operators. The total two-way cost is over $22. Here lies the problem. As long as the out-of-pocket costs for transit commutes are higher than the out-of-pocket costs for the same commute by car, public transit does not stand a chance. Remember, commutes by transit, on average, are 81 per cent longer in Canada than by cars!

What is needed is fare and schedule integration between transit operators so that the commuters may travel from origin to destination without having to deal with competing transit bureaucracies.

Smart fare integration requires the following. First, regional transit operators should accept the same transit card (preferably smartphones or smart watches) for fare collection. Some preliminary development in integrated transit payment cards has taken place in Toronto and elsewhere.

Second, the fare integration should offer significant discounts to riders. The resulting increase in ridership from fare integration could cover, albeit partially, the costs associated with discounts. Several US studies have shown that fare integration led to greater transit ridership. In fact, studies even show that lower transit fares because of fare integration did not result in revenue loss to the transit operators.

Third, one needs to establish a multi-operator/multi-jurisdictional transit-planning regime to operate an integrated transit service for neighbouring municipalities. This is necessary to offer a synchronized transit service across jurisdictions for competitive transit travel times relative to the private automobile.

Fourth, a regional transit information system be established for commuters to search the fastest transit alternatives for trips starting and ending in different municipalities. Google maps, and not the transit operators, offer limited functionality to search for transit routes across jurisdictions for large urban areas. Transit operators offer the same, but only for their respective service areas.

Bridging municipalities by integrating public transit will create new opportunities for citizens to benefit from the socio-economic opportunities available across the region while reducing the adverse environmental impacts of commuting. For this to happen, we may need to demolish regional transit hegemonies and incarnate integrated regional transit systems.

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