Wednesday, January 17, 2018

TTC fare fallacies -- Neoliberal delusions in transit costing

The start of the 2018 election season is nearing and fanciful neoliberal narratives about transit fares and the TTC are in full swing.

As 2017 ended an internal TTC report of questionable accuracy was obtained by the media stating that fare evasion allegedly "cost" the service $50 million a year (approximately 4.3% of fare revenue of around $1.16 billion) as opposed to the $20 million (or approximately 1.72%) previous studies and audits had stated. Councillors like Joe Mihevc said that they felt "vindicated" in their previous claims that fare evasion was a more serious issue than some claimed it was.

Meanwhile the TTC is moving ahead with a project to allow 2 hour transfers meaning that people will be able to pay a single fare and get on and off the system at will, in any direction and with stopovers in between, for a full two hours. This is projected to allegedly "cost" $20 million. Councillor John Campbell described the idea as more of an "open-ended cheque" and then displayed a total lack of understanding of who uses transit by claiming it would primarily benefit the well-to-do and tweeting a bunch of rubbish about Bay St. executives hopping on-and-off buses between power lunches. 

As we will see, both of these assessments of "cost" are predicated on notions of revenue that frame the TTC in ways that make no sense for what should be viewed as an essential public service.

To return to Campbell though, the point of a 2 hour fare window is to allow people to make trips to get groceries, take the kids to school, shop locally, etc. and return home without the burden of paying an extra $2.05 to $2.10 (for teens and seniors) or up to $3.25 for everyone else. It is not the well off who will take advantage of this, but rather students, people who do not own cars, the elderly and people making short trips.

In many cases these will end up being people who simply would not have used and are not now using the system in the absence of this fare window for these types of trips. This is a key point that also applies in the case of fare evasion and that renders many of these "cost" assessments fundamentally questionable.

As a personal example, I do not own a car. As I work out of home I also do not buy a Metropass generally. Some days  I still have to take my kids into school and their school is actually over 20-25 minutes away by foot. While in inclement weather I will use the TTC, if the weather is nice I will walk both ways to save the total cost of $6 - $6.50 (depending on if I use Presto or not). However, if the cost were only $3 - $3.25 for the entire trip due to the fare window I would be far more likely to use the TTC meaning that, in fact, on many school days over the last few years the TTC has lost at least my single fare because I would rather walk than pay for the trip both ways. This equally applies with a lot of local grocery shopping I do. I can assure you that I am far from alone on this.

In other words, many people cannot afford or do not want to pay as much as $6.50 for a local two (plus) way trip and so instead of possibly getting one fare from each of these people the TTC ends up getting nothing on routes that are running anyway. 

What we see here is that not only will having the fare window encourage positive things like local shopping and allow greater social mobility for those with low or fixed incomes, but that some of the "cost" assumptions (other than fixed ones like setup changes to systems) are based on the false idea that the return fare is being "lost" when in the much greater number of cases there would simply have been no fare to begin with.

Even if Campbell is right and some suits due to a new fare window suddenly want to use the TTC to gallivant around at lunch that would be better for the TTC in terms of revenue generation than them deciding not to use the system at all!

His argument fails not just in terms of social fairness and policy objectives, but also in terms of his own frame of fiscal reference.

Keep in mind what I said above as well. The buses, streetcars and subways are running regardless of whether any specific person uses them. These routes and the costs of running them as a service are already in place. These costs do not decrease if either I, a local elderly shopper or a Bay St. bistro enthusiast chose to walk instead of getting on for a ride. The only thing that changes is potential revenue and the opening of different transit opportunities for people, something that someone with an actual understanding of who uses public transit and why would be more likely to grasp.

This is the same problem with the way many exaggerating the significance of fare evasion frame matters as well. The primary cost that ends up being associated with fare evasion will almost always be the expense involved in trying to catch or prevent it.

All studies show that the vast majority of riders, whether it is 96% or 98% of them, pay their fares via the established and normal safeguards/waypoints in place. To begin with, this means that calls to spend more on enforcement are also calls to harass and make transit less pleasant for the overwhelming majority in order to attempt to "catch" a tiny, tiny minority. As I said in a previous piece related to this the "point is both that the enforcement measures are very expensive and that they don't only deter so-called 'cheats', they also deter everyone else" from using the system in the first place.

But further, regardless of how one views the small numbers of those evading the fares, the notion of lost revenue is, again, predicated on the idea that they would have paid to use the system if there was sufficient enforcement in place to totally prevent fare evasion (a notion as absurd and impossible as it would be exceptionally expensive to achieve).

Remember, as with the fare window riders, all the TTC routes are running whether 2-4 % of those riding them find ways to get on for free or not. As I have also pointed out in the past, creating the type of enforcement network that would put a serious dent in fare evasion "still would not generate new revenue for the system as in most cases these are riders who are hopping on to go a few stops or who do not have the money to afford to pay. If enforcement does succeed in deterring them all the time, they will simply not use the system. They will walk or find other means instead. The net gain financially to deterring this type of behaviour is actually negative as the TTC will have to spend a lot of money to stop people who were never going to pay in the first place."

These are truly examples of failing to see the forest through the trees.

The broader point is that public transit is something that we as a society allegedly want to promote and expand for essential environmental, social justice and social inclusion goals. We want to encourage people to get on buses, streetcars and subways. If we make it onerous (financially and in terms of scheduling) and unpleasant (in terms of over-enforcement or making it hard to board, etc.) to use transit fewer people will do so. If we make it easier, more flexible and more enjoyable more people will take "the better way".

We will go a long way towards achieving this if we always frame transit as a fundamentally important basic service and right for the public and the public good of the city and stop seeing it through a neoliberal lens that places the emphasis on "costs" as opposed to people.

Further Readings:

The TTC 'fare evasion' fraud and Toronto's fiscal chickens coming home to roost

Free transit: Three reasons it is an idea whose time has come

TTC fare increases continue Toronto's war on transit riders

Reality again derails Tory's fantasy SmartTrack plans

Joe Mihevc and Toronto politicians are "ripping off" the TTC -- Not transit riders!

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