In Toronto (as elsewhere), low-income earners are the biggest users of public transit.
Now a simple change to the TTC's transfer system could make public transit more accessible to the people who need it the most.
On Tuesday (January 28), the TTC board voted to move ahead with a plan to switch to time-based transfers. The proposal will give riders either a 90- or 120-minute window to hop off and on TTC vehicles after paying a single fare.
According to a 2010 University of Toronto study, 56 per cent of households earning less than $24,000 a year did not own a car, compared to 29 per cent of households making $40,000 or more.
Kara Santokie, project director at the Toronto Women's City Alliance, says the proposal is about a lot more than just making transit more convenient. It's about equity.
Low-income women and single mothers depend on transit to run daily errands like taking their children to medical appointments, daycare or recreational activities.
Under the current system, however, a round trip for such an outing could cost a mother and two children at least $11.50, depending on the kids' ages. That price is too high for many low-income women to pay regularly.
Santokie says, "I have personally met women... who actually have had to give up accessing recreation because of the cost of transit."
She says that timed transfers would ease the burden on low-income women, who are disproportionately new immigrants or from racialized groups, by allowing them to make round trips on a single fare.
That's especially important as fares continue to rise year after year.
The report that went before the board Tuesday notes that the timed system, which is standard in many Canadian cities, has been "requested frequently by customers to aid them in making stopover transit trips." It would also be easier on transit operators, who are tasked with enforcing the current continuous-ride transfer system.
Santokie's concerns about equity are backed by recent research conducted by the city. Citing information collected by the Fair Fare Coalition, a 2013 report by Toronto Public Health noted that "the cost of public transit limits [poorer residents'] access to essential programs and services (e.g., doctors' appointments, food programs, employment services) by restricting when and where they can go."
The report says that "for many respondents, decisions can come down to purchasing food or taking the TTC."
Murtaza Haider, director of the Institute of Housing and Mobility at Ryerson University, also supports the timed transfer proposal. He argues that it would serve "the very purpose of public transit," which is "to help facilitate commuting not for just the privileged few, but for all."
Although instituting the new transfer regime could cost the commission up to $20 million in lost fares, Haider hopes the price tag won't scare the commission off. He sees it as a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars being invested in questionable projects like the Scarborough subway extension.
The subway extension "is not [considered] a waste of money, but somehow when we create a program that would benefit low-income households, suddenly we become money-cautious," he says.
The new system could be implemented in 2015, but its cost would have to be offset by an increased subsidy to the TTC, which may be a tricky proposition given the current investment-averse climate at City Hall.
But Santokie argues that if funding for the TTC is going to be increased to change the transfer system, the commission should also look at using additional money to reduce fares or even give discounts to low-income riders.
"We can't look at the time-based transfer in isolation," she says.