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Commuters ride the streetcar through the Financial District during Toronto’s evening rush hour.Ian Willms

By the time it hits midtown, nearly an hour before the subway opens, the southbound Yonge bus is jammed.

The reverse route of the infamous "vomit comet" that carries revellers home from Toronto's core, this is a crucial lifeline for downtown workers who start early. It is a microcosm of the city, a place where people across the socio-economic spectrum quite literally brush shoulders.

There's the labourer with the Slurpee-sized cup of coffee. The woman who reaches into a finely crafted leather purse, extracting a Bible for a bit of early-morning solace. There are suits, retail workers and students. The lucky ones score a seat, everyone else sways in unison as the bus flies down largely empty roads.

The range of customers on the Yonge bus reflects the relative success Toronto has had in creating a system that attracts so-called "choice riders," people who can afford to drive, but opt for the TTC. It also demonstrates the challenge the TTC board faces Monday as it dives into the annual fare debate.

Set the fare too low and you give better-off riders a break they don't need, while starving the system of the money necessary to make it attractive to a broad range of residents. Set it too high and you risk driving away lower-income people who rely on the service. And complicating the issue is the recognition that transit fares are, at best, a crude way to try to pursue broader social policy goals.

"Anything we do will be really imperfect," acknowledged councillor and TTC chair Josh Colle. "I still think it's our responsibility and our job to keep trying, but you recognize that we do so with a really tiny amount of tools in the toolbox."

And they do so with the plight of lower-income riders sure to dominate the debate. This makes sense, inasmuch as the fare represents a bigger share of their finances, but it also helps perpetuate the myth that transit is for poor people.

Perception versus reality

Although Toronto has had notable success in attracting a wide range of riders, public opinion hasn't really kept up. Witness the reaction to Dwane Casey.

The Raptors coach was driving to a playoff game in the spring of 2014 when he became mired in traffic. He went back, hopped on the TTC and rode the subway to the Air Canada Centre. Surprised fans snapped his pic and the act was considered novel enough to become a minor news story, with articles saying he had been "forced" to ride the subway. He was left a bit bemused, saying in a recent interview that he simply made "the rational choice."

"We do use it as a family … the kids love it. It's part of everyday life," he said. "Guys were shocked that I was on there. But for me it was, you know, I'm not too good or above taking the subway."

According to Statistics Canada, Toronto's median household income is $72,000. The TTC, which slices data into different categories, says 35 per cent of riders have a household income above $65,000. Those with family income below $65,000 made up 32 per cent of riders and 24 per cent wouldn't answer. It's unclear from the data what the remainder earned.

Jess Bell, spokesperson for the advocacy group TTC Riders, takes exception to these figures, noting that the agency's top category encompassed a much bigger range than the lower-income ones. But she agrees that the TTC has an economically diverse ridership.

"Toronto is lucky because so many use transit," said. "Rich and poor people take public transit, and that's great."

Warren Buffett once famously said that Wall Street is "the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway." The quote dates from 1991, and could now be updated to include other financial centres, including Toronto's.

Carmine Di Federico, a managing director at BMO Capital Markets, believes that the majority of people in his Bay Street office take transit to work. He is among them and, because he rises early enough to get to the gym before work, that means taking the all-night Yonge bus from his midtown home.

"I just would rather not drive," he said. "I think that if you're close enough to a subway stop, even if it's a short bus ride, I'd much rather deal with the transit issues. I think generally they're minimal."

What diverse ridership means for fares

A mix of incomes on the transit acts as a great social leveller. But it makes it very hard to choose the right fare.

Scratch an expert and you get a different solution: Transit should be cheap to help the poor and encourage broad ridership; fares should be raised across the board, with some sort of rebate to poorer riders; transit should be free as a social right; better-off riders should help subsidize poorer ones.

"If we're going to be progressive, [transit] should largely be paid out of taxation," argued Ole Harder, a lower-middle income Air Canada flight attendant who needs three connections to get to the airport from his St. Lawrence Market-area home. "Increasing the subsidization is the way to go."

Another difficulty with setting a rational fare policy is that TTC riders can have wildly different experiences, often because of their income.

Some of the shortest and most convenient commutes are by TTC users who live in homes, generally expensive ones, that are close to subway lines. But those riders hailing from so-called "transit deserts" – typically poor areas where service is sporadic or involves multiple buses – can argue they are getting less value for their token.

"If you look at where the subway map is," said Mr. Colle, the TTC chair, "it certainly does serve a lot of areas that don't have the same [economic] needs."

The city is working a fare equity strategy as part of its poverty reduction work. But for now the TTC does not offer a reduced fare for lower-income riders.

A full look at fare policy will probably have to wait for the roll-out of the Presto smart card, which should be complete by the end of 2016 and will allow a wider range of pricing options. In the short run, a boost to the cash fare is widely anticipated for next year. But the debate is expected to be difficult – even raising the fare just a nickel is projected to cost the agency two million riders.

"We'll probably have a big battle at [the TTC board] about fare increases," councillor and TTC commissioner Joe Mihevc predicted earlier this month.