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Is the TTC (still) the most expensive transit system in North America?

Posted by Guest Contributor / February 6, 2013

TTC Most Expensive Transit SystemBack in December 2011, I asked whether or not the TTC is priciest transit system in North America. The answer at that time was "yes," at least amongst big-city, single-fare, bus-and-rail systems.

Since then, the lagging impact of the Long Recession has caught up with many US public transit systems, slamming them with large fare increases and service reductions. While generously funded compared to the TTC, many of these systems rely much more directly on sales, property and payroll tax revenue for these extra funds and their operating budgets are therefore much more sensitive to shortfalls during economic downturns. (Capital projects are another story, with billions in federal funding that Canadian cities can only drool at).

As a result of the economy, and despite solid ridership, cities such as Dallas, Chicago and Boston saw fare increases from 15% to 23% while other cities struggled with threats of massive service cuts. In other words, 2012 was not kind to many transit systems.

So where does that leave the TTC compared to its peers as we enter 2013? With its more stable economy, Toronto was spared some of the funding crises that hit US cities (Rob Ford histrionics notwithstanding), although soaring transit use is putting increasing pressure on the system. And of course the TTC did see a fare increase kick in on January 1st, pushing the monthly Metropass up to $126. How does the comparison shake out?

The short and unfortunate answer is that while the gap has narrowed some, Toronto has defended its title and remains the Most Expensive City for Transit in North America (see fine print below).

While many transit systems have raised cash and multiple-trip fares, the TTC remains in the top tier for base fares. Senior fares are much more expensive in Toronto than all other cities except Ottawa, which offers a low cost monthly senior's pass (and free Wedesdays!) to compensate. Except for a pilot program on the St. Clair streetcar, the TTC has no two-direction transfers or reduced fare zone for those who only take short trips, harsh treatment in a city teeming with downtown residents.

Most damaging, the TTC has by far the most expensive monthly pass, one that requires a stunning 48 trips to pay for itself. This equates to having to commute all 22 work days in a month, plus twice on the weekends, while never taking vacation or being sick. No other city has such a high index. Even New York, where levels of car ownership are low and a certain amount of non-work-related transit use can be expected, has a lower Trip Index (47).

Something is clearly wrong about the price of public transit in Toronto. The reasons are well known, and the problems are only likely to get worse. (See: Metrolinx, Presto, Ford, no Ford, Big Move, etc.). What will it take to bring the cost of riding the TTC more in line with the rest of the continent? Can anything be done to keep the Red Rocket from becoming the Red Ripoff? For the health of the city, let's hope so.


TTC FaresTTC Fare ComparisonTTC Fare ComparisonTHE FINE PRINT (i.e. stop reading if you're already convinced)

  • I'm no Nate Silver, so this analysis was rather basic. I simply collected fare data from every big-city single-fare integrated public transit system I could find, all twenty-nine of them. Note that this set does not include zone-based systems such as Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Houston, Denver, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. These are apples-to-oranges when compared to single fare-zone systems. They are typically still cheaper than the TTC for those living within city limits but at GO Transit-like fare levels for their more distant suburban commuters. Perhaps in another post I will try to level one of these vs Toronto in a discussion about future fare structures in the coming age of Presto, but for today's post they are ignored.
  • Although the title of this post mentions "North America", this is meant in the local dialect of "we really mean just Canada and the US but are tired of saying that explicitly all the time". Obviously adding Mexico to the discussion would not help the TTC's apparent costliness, given Mexico City's 23-cent subway fares.
  • The Base Fare is the cash, single-trip fare, used mostly by tourists and infrequent users. It is the easiest to compare but also the least relevant to commuters and quickly falling out of use in the era of smartcards.
  • More interesting is what I call the "Multiple-trip Fare". This is meant to reflect the lowest possible cost for a paid trip, i.e. what a frequent pay-per-ride user would pay because they buy bulk tickets or tokens or get a smart-card discount. Some cities offer a lower price for frequent users using these structures; some do not.
  • Certain cities (notably Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Dallas, Minneapolis, San Francisco) use a 90 minute or 2-hour fare that allows stopovers and transfers in either direction. This is tremendously convenient for downtown residents, who otherwise overpay in a single-fare-zone system, as they can take short trips to complete an entire errand on one fare within the time window. It is not important to commuters though, so I ignore it here.
  • A few cities in the Base Fare chart (notably Calgary and Salt Lake City) have a Free or reduced-fare downtown zone. These are ignored in this study but would obviously have a huge impact on a city with as many downtown residents, students, workers (and, to be fair, homeless people) as Toronto. However, "Fareless Squares" are not without their issues: Seattle and Portland eliminated theirs in 2012 to fill budget holes.
  • Minneapolis offers reduced fares outside of rush hour. While a boon to livability, these types of fares are ignored here.
  • Student fares are far too varied in format and age limits to easily compare, but all cities offer some sort of senior fare that is more easily leveled. Calgary and Edmonton have an usual setup where seniors pay $55 for a yearly pass ($15 for low-income seniors in Calgary), so I set their senior per-trip cost at near zero. Miami and Philadelphia actually let seniors ride free! Ottawa seniors can get a $39 monthly pass but for this study I used their senior single-trip cash fare.
  • Transfers are the hardest component to account for. Most systems are integrated, but some (notably LA, Miami and Philadelphia) still require paid transfers every time you change buses or trains, an anachronism from the private transit systems of 75 years ago. For this year's study I decided to include the cost of one transfer in the base fare for these cities. This spikes the cost by 25% (Miami) to 100% (LA) but is probably realistic since few people live on the exact bus or rail line that takes them from home to work. But take the base fare numbers for these cities with a grain of salt since they would indeed be lower if a transfer was not needed.
  • Where different prices for bus vs subway do still exist, as in Boston or St. Louis, the rail fare was used. For Ottawa the bus price was used as this city is unique in having a full BRT trunk line. (The small demonstration rail line is actually less expensive to ride but carries only 2% of daily ridership and is therefore ignored).
  • Day and Weekly passes are too varied to compare, and not all cities offer all formats, but Monthly passes are a common standard. While these do differ between cities in terms of whether they are transferrable, 30 or 31 days, or when the month actually starts, they are all considered equivalent for the purpose of this study. The unique Metropass Discount Program, which lowers the cost of a TTC metropass for an annual subscription, is ignored here as it is not the common scenario.
  • Also on the Monthly chart you will see what I am calling the Trip Index, which is the cost of a monthly pass divided by the Multiple Trip fare price. This is the tipping point that helps frequent users (such as adult students and workers) decide if they should get a monthly pass or just pay the discounted price each ride using a smartcard/tokens/tickets... The average month has about 22 working days, so after factoring in vacations and sick days the average person might by a monthly pass based on commuting alone if the Trip Index is in the low 40s. Cities with TI's in the 30s are clearly nudging frequent riders towards passes, which in turn leads to increased public transit use as it makes transit effectively free on evenings and weekends. It is a very bad sign for commuters when this number rises above 44.
  • In the 2011 comparison, much hay was made in the comments section over the cost of GTA suburban transit systems such as York VIVA vs the TTC. This post is about a big-city, rail-oriented, continent-wide transit comparison and no suburban bus systems were included, nor should they be. Suburban systems will often cost more than their peers in a large city due to issues of land use planning, density, car ownership, etc. They also tend to take their lead from their big-city cousins because they are subject to similar funding and expense parameters. And it is likely the suburban Toronto systems will eventually all be absorbed into a single GTA fare structure just as has happened dozens of other cities with regional transit authorities. So they are ignored here, disturbing as their high prices may be.
  • Exchange rate assumed to be $1 US = $1 Cdn. This has been reasonably true over the past few years and a difference of a few cents would not affect the results of the study.

Guest contribution from Larry Green / Photo by ~EvidencE~



loper / February 6, 2013 at 01:34 pm
If I have to use a transfer going the other direction within an hour I argue with the collector till they let me stay on. Till it's not worth their while to argue anymore.

I'm not paying $6 to go 10 blocks (I walk with a cane) back and forth in an hour (and sometimes even less if I'm just going to the post office).
Margaret / February 6, 2013 at 02:11 pm
OC Transpo in Ottawa is more expensive.
Stanley / February 6, 2013 at 02:19 pm
The TTC doesn't want timed transfers because their union drivers and attendants would have more responsibility when checking them and fare/metropass sales would drop dramaically. Pure laziness and greed.

It's in their best interest to keep an antiquated system in place to bring in more revenue.
John / February 6, 2013 at 02:35 pm
When I moved here from Calgary five years ago, I was AMAZED that TTC transfers were so restrictive, i.e., no back-tracking, no stopping off, just get where you're going and get there in a straight line, unless you want to pay more money.

Having lived in Calgary and Edmonton and Ottawa, I always assumed time-based transfers were the norm everywhere (because they make so much freakin' sense). TTC's transfer system still seems punitive and user-unfriendly. It makes sense for commuting, but if you want to, say, take the 501 along Queen and make several errands over a longish stretch of the street, it's useless.
Jorge / February 6, 2013 at 03:25 pm
Is not properly budgeted, and until that day comes, you can expect the TTC to not be properly run either.
Calli B / February 6, 2013 at 03:31 pm
I also was amazed when I moved here from BC, at how expensive transit is. In Victoria and Vancouver public transit is total crap. No buses run later than 12am in Victoria and only limited night buses operate in Vancouver. BUT it always cost less than $3 and you could use your pass for a certain amount of TIME. So you could bus to the grocery store and then home with your food. It's total bull that you would have to pay $6 to do that here. Or what if you leave for work and forget your wallet and have to run home to grab it? Pay another $3?
Alan replying to a comment from John / February 6, 2013 at 03:58 pm
everyone else like york region and Mississauga transit gives you two hours to transfer where you want and on the same route multiple times. I really wish TTC would so that as well, but they claim they loose money doing it. I asked during a townhall meeting that was their response.
ANTIFORD / February 6, 2013 at 04:14 pm
TTC should be put down. It is the worst attitude towards users that any company (except Rogers and Bell) can have. I wish every Metropass user could buy a used SUV and make the lives of all drivers of Toronto could get a bit worst.
ANTIFORD / February 6, 2013 at 04:15 pm
Yes and get $0.25 back for it.
Howie / February 6, 2013 at 04:23 pm
I think one has to figure out the REAL cost of a trip on a system. You need to add the subsidized $ to the user cost to get the real cost of a trip. Fares in other cities may be lower, but is it gets subsidized $$. Many other cities also have longer waits between buses. Many have less routes than the TTC does. Don't have a figure, but the TTC has routes that do not even come close to covering the operating cost of the route. (Especially during non-peak times) I've been on a route where there were only a few (
Chris West replying to a comment from ANTIFORD / February 6, 2013 at 04:43 pm
Maybe Suzy runs a business and actually writes off the cost of the TTC pass as a business expense. Otherwise its a tax credit at around 15%.
Manan / February 6, 2013 at 04:45 pm
It takes lot less time for me to walk. Better then pushing people on a queen street car. Even after talking money TTC is not able to improve service on Queen and King.
alex / February 6, 2013 at 04:56 pm
jameson / February 6, 2013 at 10:06 pm
It's pretty difficult to capture the true cost of a TTC trip because the fare price incorporates the operating and capital costs and WheelTrans. Not only that, TTC costs also incorporate funding from other levels of government and debt payments.

Regardless of this, the price of fare is definitely too high. But how do you determine the best price? As mentioned, if the price is too low people won't value the service, and if its too high its being socially appropriate. The only shortfall in price in my opinion that is valid is the cost of a cash fare. It doesn't encourage people who don't buy passes (people who bike or walk, tourists, suburbanites) to use transit since parking is similar or cheaper.
David replying to a comment from Alan / February 6, 2013 at 10:10 pm
The TTC would lose money if they did that for their transfers. You can't compare York Region, Mississauga and Brampton Transit to the TTC because the TTC has a much higher daily ridership than those three. The 29 Dufferin bus has a ridership of 39,700 people Mon-Friday with 31 buses on the entire route. Imagine if they had transfers that lasted for a couple of hours how much money they would lose.
Brad / February 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm
And they keep talking about making fared zones, as if people can afford even more
Matt / February 7, 2013 at 09:02 am
"Can anything be done to keep the Red Rocket from becoming the Red Ripoff?"

...This is a rhetorical question right?
the lemur / February 7, 2013 at 09:42 am
In short, it's not really possible to compare transit systems, unless you find an equivalent to the TTC somewhere with the same amount of geographical coverage, funding, fare structure, etc.
W. K. Lis / February 7, 2013 at 10:00 am
Most cities with the lower fares, do not have the service we have. What other North American city has subway trains every five minutes on Sunday? Very few. Compare Sunday service or service outside of rush hour with other cities and you'll see Toronto has it. The negative is with politicians who see public transit as gravy and don't use it.
LD / February 7, 2013 at 10:02 am
A monthly metropass is 128.5 not 126 as stated in the article. Also, if you do the math, 128.5/3.00 = 43 It actually takes 43 trips a month to cover the cost of a metro pass and not 47 as stated....
Chris Charabaruk / February 7, 2013 at 11:13 am
Two big problems with this train of thought: Fixed/low incomes, and that it's a *non-refundable credit* for transit passes. Let me explain.

First, the issue of people with low, fixed incomes (OW clients, the disabled, seniors, etc.). When all you get is $600 to $1700 a month and half or more goes towards just paying rent, how are you supposed to be able to afford a pass in the first place? Even if there were jobs available for OW clients, they'd not be able to afford their regular transit until after they started getting paid (to say nothing of OW and ODSP income clawbacks). Likewise, retirees in the 'burbs have no incentive to take transit so long as they have access to a working car, since even with the cost of fuel being what it is, it's cheaper for the seniors to gas up once a month than to get a pass to ride the system.

And even for those who can afford a Metropass, if you're not making enough money to have to pay income tax to the government, the tax credit for passes means nothing. Since it's a non-refundable credit, it's only good for reducing what you already have to pay -- it doesn't give you anything back.
Technomancer replying to a comment from Margaret / February 7, 2013 at 11:30 am
Not even close.
Larry Green replying to a comment from LD / February 7, 2013 at 02:46 pm
LD, you are correct, sorry for the typo. The database on which the graphs are based does have the correct Metropass price of $128.50.

As for the trip index, the relevant fare for the denominator is not the cash price (what a tourist or occasional user would pay) but the multiple-trip price (i.e. tokens or tickets or smartcard fares). If you are riding the subway to work or school and trying to decide whether or not to get a pass, the cash (base) price is irrelevant. This is the way all of the trip indexes are calculated for all of the cities.

In Toronto, tokens and tickets cost $2.65. So 128.50/2.65 = 48.49. I could have called it 49 since it really would be more correct to round up.

As for the comment by W.K.Lis, sure, the smaller cities could be discarded as interesting filler but it's rather hard to discredit fares in New York, Boston, Montreal, Chicago -- cities that all have service levels high enough to pull in ridership in the range of the TTC.
Jakob replying to a comment from Chris Charabaruk / February 7, 2013 at 03:20 pm
Except the cost of car insurance alone is more expensive than a monthly metropass, not even talking of parking and car maintenance, and completely ignoring the capital cost of obtaining a car in the first place? At that point it doesn't matter much whether or not gas is cheap (hint: it's not).

The TTC is pricy for sure, but to suggest that it's more economical to drive a car (from a purely financial perspective) is insane.
Vote NDP in the next federal/provincial election / February 7, 2013 at 06:28 pm
York Region Transit has the highest fares in the GTA and why aren't you crucifying them. They even have zone fares for travel within its own region.

You should also be glad that there is free transfer between subway/bus as no other city in the world even has this feature.
Aaron / February 7, 2013 at 11:25 pm
The TTC is stuck in the 70's. Single fares are not an appropriate comparison, frequent users make use of monthly passes or 10 fare (or whatever) incentives.

STM in Montreal:

Monthly pass (smart card since 2008): $74.00, seniors and students: $45.00, 2-hour transfer

10 fares: $24.50 (25 trip break-even for monthly pass over single fare, 30 trip break-even over 10 fare)

Annual subscription incentives: I free month, $21.00 BIXI membership, $60.00 annual membership.

Total monthly cost for annual subscription + BIXI + car share = $74.60

Not to mention credit/debit/cash accepted at automated machines everywhere as well as $4.00 unlimited evening fares, festival deals, discounts on museums and attractions, loyalty program etc.

Obviously, Montreal is trying to ENCOURAGE people to use public transit. Get with the fucking 21st century, TTC.
Aaron / February 7, 2013 at 11:27 pm
Should read: $60.00 annual Communato car-share membership.

iSkyscraper replying to a comment from Aaron / February 8, 2013 at 08:57 am
Well said. People in Toronto need to get their head out of the sand and realize that Montreal (and some other cities) leave it in the dust when it comes to public transit and cycling. It's downright embarrassing. But with Ford around, it's only going to get worse.
Rob / February 8, 2013 at 09:46 am
It's no coincidence that sound transit planning died with amalgamation. The only way Toronto will ever get anything nice again is if we can revisit history.
Dennis / February 8, 2013 at 11:50 am
The time based pilot on St. Clair has being going on for years. The TTC is very slow in making any type of changes for the benefit of its customers. It is time for a real leadership change! Bye Karen and Andy!
the lemur replying to a comment from Dennis / February 8, 2013 at 01:23 pm
I've been using (brief) time-based transfers on other routes for some time now - it's just that the TTC doesn't realize it ...
Ben Smith / February 8, 2013 at 02:15 pm
@loper thanks for making the driver's life miserable by being a dick. It's not as if they have a stressful enough job as it is without having to deal with the likes of you. You know the rules, so if you don't want to follow them, then don't use the service you douchebag.
Ashley / February 8, 2013 at 07:19 pm
I'd be various interested to see how the TTC would respond to this post. I anticipate they'll blame the government for not subsidizing more.
Stefan Caunter / February 11, 2013 at 04:05 pm
Bringing up Mexico furthers the embarassment. Stick out your hand and the bus stops. The drivers care about picking up passengers. It's about a nickel to ride, seven pesos.
Toronto's system is an embarassment. Having two subways, only one of which is really serving downtown, is pathetic.
Since Ontario removed all possibility of local representation when it redrew every municipal map, any planning in any community has deteriorated into regional squabbling and malaise. It is a great shame that amalgamation has been allowed to continue, but the citizens keep putting up with it.
There is no chance of fixing anything to do with transport until Toronto controls its own assets.
Jim Burnett / February 13, 2013 at 10:58 am
More griping and whining from the city masses. This just shows that only losers and immigrants take public transit.
toronto resident / March 7, 2013 at 11:01 am
in my opinion there is simply ineffective and inefficient management in TTC plus possibly corruption as regards its expenses. TTC is a great shame for Canada and Toronto: as said it is stuck in 70s most probably due to its management (most of them are over 50 years old and has no motivation to change anything as they enjoy their warm office chairs).
NativeTorontonianAl replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / November 11, 2013 at 02:46 pm
It's very that a lot of people in Toronto, even parts of Canada, have your kind of thinking because it is very town-like (Hogtown), outdated, incomplete and only 15% of the reason. It is not one person's fault, but the entire status quo. All levels of govt (city, provincial, federal) are at fault because they are not providing the funds nor the will to make infrastructure/transit growth ongoing. They are both stingy but also greedy by hoarding the funds and pocketing it, or simply putting it towards other things like pet projects, more "studies" or pointless foreign aid. At the same time, their big SIN is also in letting big business and developers just come here to use Canadian land and do their crap here and then not contribute financially or help build infrastructure that must be built alongside their stupid, ugly projects. Then they just leave and run to the bank while the real citizens suffer.
NativeTorontonianAl / November 11, 2013 at 02:47 pm
^ *It's very SCARY that a lot of people in Toronto, even parts of....
R / April 18, 2014 at 09:56 am
This is interesting to incorporate as well when thinking about costs pertaining to transit:

TTC subsidy per rider remains the lowest in North America at 78-cents.
Other municipalities:
Montreal - $1.16
Vancouver - $1.62
Chicago - $1.68
New York City - $1.03
Mississauga - $2.21
York Region - $4.49
Other Cities: Montreal