It often seems like there's no shortage of complaints when it comes to the TTC: overcrowded trips, frequently dicey service, and ever-increasing fares. But at least most of us are able to afford a ride.
There are thousands of residents who aren't so lucky, and for whom the cost getting on the Red Rocket can be a significant financial burden. Thankfully, they could be in for some relief.
In a decision that could eventually mean a fundamental change to the TTC fare system, council voted 35-3 Tuesday to look into giving discounts to low-income riders as well as additional price breaks to senior citizens.
Although the proposal is still a long way from becoming a reality, Jenn Huang of transit advocacy group TTCRiders says she's "extremely pleased" with the vote.
"There are a lot of low-income residents who are marginalized because they're not able to pay for transit," says Huang. "They're having to make the painful choice between buying food and buying TTC tokens, because they can't pay for both."
Linsey MacPhee, manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network and a member of the Fair Fare Coalition, says that community agencies like hers have long identified the high cost of transit as a major obstacle for the city's disadvantaged. Homeless people and others who visit drop-in centres are often referred to other agencies for help, which is useless if they can't get around to keep appointments.
"Access to transit is as important as access to food and housing and employment," MacPhee says. "When people don't have access to transit... it impedes the forward motion in all sorts of areas of their life," including housing, employment, access to medical and legal services, and connecting with family and fiends.
The idea of special low-income transit fares has been brought up at various city committees this term, but this is the first time its won widespread support. The council vote stems from a remarkably progressive report co-written by the TTC and the city's finance department, which warns that hotly debated plans to expand the transit system will be a failure unless, once the new buses, trains and LRVs start rolling, everyone can afford to get on.
The economic and societal benefits of new transit "will not be realized if the expanded service is too costly for the people it is built to serve," says the report, noting that already approved transit lines are set to run through 15 of 31 economically disadvantaged Neighbourhood Improvement Areas.
If approved, the new discounts could go into effect by 2017, in concert with the introduction of the Presto fare card system. The electronic payment regime will make it easier to institute a fare policy that could charge different prices depending on when and how far a person is traveling.
While the idea of giving discounts, or "concession fares," to poorer residents is new to Toronto, many other municipalities, including Calgary, Hamilton and York Region already give price breaks to low-income passengers. The criteria for eligibility varies, but many cities use the Statistics Canada low-income cutoff as a benchmark. Depending on what measure is used in Toronto, thousands of riders could be eligible: 22.2 per cent of the city's population lives in poverty, according to Social Planning Toronto.
In an interview, TTC spokesperson Brad Ross says the transit agency "will do all it can to help the city reach a decision that's fair and equitable for all," but he cautions that the TTC won't be on the hook for the millions of dollars that such a program could cost.
"We're okay with concession fares for any category or any group of people. The question becomes who pays for the lost revenue that would result?" Ross says. "That's the TTC's only position on this."
Councillor Joe Mihevc, who supports the fare equity proposal, says the most cost-effective solution could be for the TTC to only provide discounts to low-income riders during off-peak hours, when many vehicles run half-empty.
"The costs of providing across the board fare reductions are enormous," Mihevc says, arguing that offering reduced fares outside of rush hour would still allow people to hunt for jobs or go to appointments.
Many supporters of the fare equity plan see only one viable source of funding for it: the provincial government. The city report notes that successive premiers' decisions to withhold money for TTC operations has pushed the financial burden of public transportation onto the city and transit riders. As a result Toronto transit fares are among the least affordable in North America, and the portion of TTC operations funded by fares has reached close to 80 per cent, much higher than in most cities.
Council has repeatedly asked the province for more transit funding, with no results. But report co-author Chris Brillinger, the Executive Director of Social Development, Finance and Administration, hopes that developing a thoroughly-researched transit equity policy "is going to put the city in a better position to have potential conversations" with Queen's Park.
A final decision is likely years away. Details of the proposed policy will be worked out in a cross-departmental process led by the finance department and TTC, but that will involve at least five other city departments. The group is expected to deliver a report by the end of 2015 that will include the results of public consultations, and make recommendations on fare reduction options as well as who should be eligible for the program.
Affordable fare passes in other cities
Price: $44/month, 54% less than regular pass
Eligibility: Must earn below the Low Income Cutoff (LICO), or be a dependent of someone who does
Price: $43.50/month, half the regular pass
Eligibility: Must currently be working part- or full-time, or in a casual position (self-employed ineligible), be between 18 and 64 years old, and be earning below the LICO or receiving Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program benefits
York Region, pilot project initiated in 2012
Price: $66/month for one zone, $88.50 for two zones, half the regular price
Eligibility: Must be receiving OW or ODSP benefits
Price: $46.75, 35% less than regular pass
Eligibility: Total net household income must be below LICO
Various discounts for jobseekers, first-year apprentices, and veterans. People receiving government support, employment and support allowance, jobseekers allowance, can receive 50% off bus and tram passes.