Fare increase plans betray confused priorities

Few people attended Thursday’s consultations about the Grand River Transit 2011-2014 business plan. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a real zinger lurking in those plans, as I mentioned in our post on them. Over the next three years, GRT wants to raise fares by 16%, 23%, or 30%. Don’t think a fare increase is warranted? Tough luck, as GRT isn’t talking about any option of keeping fares matched to inflation. If you’re concerned about this, make sure to submit your comments on the business plan and contact your Regional Councillors.

Why fare increases? To reach 50% cost recovery from fares, apparently — from the current 37%. Why 50% cost recovery? Who knows. Chris Klein has some speculation over at Waterloons. I saw and heard nothing to indicate that this figure isn’t arbitrary.

Let’s be clear, we’re not opposed to increasing GRT’s farebox recovery rates. And we’re not necessarily opposed to fare increases, particularly if their purpose is to substantially improve service. But these fare increases look like fare increases for the sake of fare increases. It’s fare increases because we can, because “people will ride anyway”, and because “see, other cities have higher fares!”.

Which, well, is not convincing. On the one hand, the Region claims to want to get far more people using transit. But considering transit demand as static and transit riders as expendable is counterproductive, to put it mildly.

In this region, there are two big issues with increasing fares faster than inflation. The first is the disproportional impact on the poor, especially considering that we are still in a recession. The Region currently has some programs in place to subsidize transit passes, but they have long waiting lists, and the Region just recently made cuts in those programs. I don’t see anything in the GRT business plan about increasing subsidies for those least able to afford fare increases; it’s safe to say that this GRT plan considers such things an externality, someone else’s problem.

The other, perhaps even bigger issue, is that of increasing the barrier to entry for those not currently taking transit. Around here, parking is either free or cheap. There’s no bus priority measures and no massive congestion (yet) to which buses with priority could provide an attractive alternative.  The vast majority own cars. In order to get more people taking transit, some of those drivers need to be convinced to park their cars and take the bus. Given free parking, the most salient marginal cost of driving is gas, and for a pretty average car and a median local commute distance the $2.50 current one-way cash fare actually covers the cost of gas for a trip to work and back. Of course, the car typically has a major speed advantage here as well.

The barrier to entry needs to be lowered, not raised. Fare increases should be out of the question until we install a smartcard system. A modern smartcard system would allow for discounted fares for short trips, an easy way to set higher prices for trips that take more resources, and would allow for passes to be sold through vending machines instead of by cashiers. Smartcards could also be encouraged as a way to pay for parking. It would be possible to get smartcards out to a large share of the population that would allow them an easy way to get on board, without being forced to ponder the dollar figure.

Finally, if GRT really wants to increase farebox recovery, by far the best way to do it is to run the service more efficiently and increase ridership. The clearest illustration of the potential for this is overcrowded buses: even while we do have plenty of those proverbial empty buses, a decent number are overcrowded and leave people behind. Those are the most popular routes and often the ones providing the highest frequencies, i.e. the ones with the highest potential to recruit more new riders. People who rely on transit are already on those buses, so the ones for whom there isn’t space are the potential riders who would be paying full fares. Reallocate buses appropriately, and you make room for new riders.

Here are some ways GRT could increase farebox recovery without increasing fares:

  • Charge higher U-Pass fees, so student fare recovery is on par with average rates. To GRT’s credit, they are planning this.
  • Eliminate Route 7 branching and timed transfers (read: layovers) at King & University, creating a single King St trunk route and increasing iXpress 200 frequency. Spread out service on University Avenue so that the buses come every few minutes instead of in packs every 15 minutes.
  • Schedule the iXpress 200, Route 7, and any other frequent service route by headways instead of timetables when service is every 10 minutes or better; for those times eliminate schedules altogether. At driver break areas, buses should be handed off to another driver instead of the bus and passengers onboard waiting for a useless time point.
  • Immediately begin reorganizing routes to feed into iXpress 200 / future LRT stations. Build the damn driver facilities where they are needed, and stop bringing all buses downtown. This should shave substantial time off many routes.
  • Stitch up routes that are currently split by a terminal, such as Routes 5 and 35 or 1 and 25. Any downtime should be at the ends of the route, not the middle.
  • Shut down the Hespeler terminal. Have Hespeler service be part of routes that cross into the rest of Cambridge.
  • Add minimal overnight service on the iXpress 200. This will be used on its own, but will also increase usage in the evenings and daytime as people will know they will not be stranded.
  • Introduce a proof-of-payment system for iXpress and trunk routes. Dwell time at stations is a big portion of the current running time for popular routes, and can be reduced substantially through faster boardings.
  • Implement bus priority at signals and put bus lanes on University Avenue. The quicker those buses can get through, the more runs they can make and passengers they can carry. There may not be a reason to prefer a car from one street to go in front of one from another street, but there certainly is a reason to make way for the vehicle carrying 60 people.
  • Change the service standard, which is currently to have 95% of the urban population within 450 metres of a bus stop. Change it to something more amenable to a fast, grid-based system, e.g. 90% of the population within 800 metres of a 7-day, 18-hour service, with headways of no more than 30 minutes.
  • With a new service standard, straighten out routes and speed them up. Consolidate routes. Increase distance between stops to 400m by default.
  • Stepping outside GRT’s direct purview – eliminate parking minimums in all zoning. If people actually have to pay the cost of parking at the end of their trip, it will change the balance towards more cost-effective transportation choices, i.e. GRT.

And so on. If farebox recovery is the goal, there are numerous ways to improve GRT’s efficiency in tandem with improving GRT’s ability to serve as a transportation system. But increasing fares substantially while doing little to improve service is a slap in the face to transit users.