Special Report: Transit

An Easy Ride

The real problem is that Hamilton has to keep transit fares extremely low to compete with the relative ease and convenience of driving.

By Jonathan Dalton
Published March 19, 2007

The city's recent proposal of a transit fare increase has provoked much concern over the detrimental effects it will have on ridership and level of service.

The strongest argument against fare increases is the projected decrease in ridership, thus starting a negative feedback loop of reduced service - less ridership - less revenue - fare increase - reduced service.

However, it is also true that our system is cheaper than surrounding municipalities; and the Toronto system is thriving at $2.75 per trip.

Are TTC users on average richer than HSR users? Those who commute to high paying jobs on the TTC would bring the average way up, but for the involuntary transit users in Toronto, those who use the system by necessity, their situation is worse because they have to pay higher fares while their living expenses are much higher than ours, while the minimum wage in Toronto is the same as here. Yet Toronto's transit system does not suffer from falling ridership levels and reduced service like ours does.

It appears to me that in the event of an HSR fare increase, the lost ridership will come out of voluntary users (those with other options) who will see taking the bus as less value for the money.

Involuntary users will not likely be forced to quit their jobs over a 15 cents increase, or will not be motivated to walk to work and back to save 30 cents. If you consider someone making $8/hour, working full time, the cost of that fare increase in terms of reduced income would be 0.47 percent of their income or about $6.30 per month. Somehow, I doubt the 'tax on the poor' factor is really what this is about.

The TTC has a higher percentage of voluntary users because the system is more efficient and the traffic situation is worse, making convenience and direct cost savings a greater motivating factor in taking the TTC rather than driving.

In Hamilton our living costs are lower, low income workers are more likely to be able to afford a car (though the financial sense of doing so is questionable), the bus system is slower, and there is much less congestion. As a result, private vehicle travel is universally faster than transit.

A higher fare will do damage, but it is not the root cause of the problem. The fact that single occupant vehicle travel is more convenient, affordable, and accessible in Hamilton is what is crippling our transit system, and that is why we need to keep our fares consistently below average to protect it.

So do we keep the fares low and financially starve the system while the root causes remain (ignorance of energy/environment issues, subsidies for private vehicle travel, miseducation of the public, cultural reinforcement of existing habits)?

Or do we recognize fare increases as an inevitable consequence of inflation and one more reason why it is imperative to change our policies to stop subsidizing and encouraging unsustainable living?

More people need to use transit out of principle, and awareness of the true cost of the alternatives. Two factors influence the result and work against each other: the cost/convenience of transit, and the cost/convenience of driving a car.

I would argue that we are pushing the former to its limit with the resources we have, and work must be done on the latter - making it more expensive and/or slower to drive a car through the city of Hamilton.

For reference, a bus/metro ticket in Paris, one of the world's best transit systems, is about $2.25 Canadian, $0.15 more than ours. Hamilton is not out of line in asking $2.25 to ride the bus. This is less than the cost of gas alone for many trips.

In conclusion, I would say we should not raise the HSR fare now, but in acknowledgment of the rising costs, we should do everything in our power to eliminate all governmental facilitation, encouragment and subsidizing of single occupancy vehicle travel, so it will become apparent that transit is much more cost effective.

Then, a more reasonable fare could be charged without hurting the system.

Jonathan Dalton runs a small music shop on a two way street in downtown Hamilton. He is a board member of the Durand Neighbourhood Association, and volunteers with Transportation for Livable Communities.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted March 22, 2007 at 11:21:40

I agree that in some cases a fare is increase would be justified, but I don't think HSR has made a convincing case.

If HSR agreed to significantly improve service (e.g. double frequency on busy routes, add new routes to under served areas and start planning for a streetcar line on Main St) then a fare increase might be a good idea.

In other words, the improved convenience would outweigh the extra cost. However, I don't think this is what is being proposed. There might be some minor improvements in service, but not enough to persuade car owners to take public transit. The risk of a downward spiral is still there.

In any case, users still contribute more to HSR than in most other systems.

The comparison with Paris is a bit unfair. Paris has 14 subway lines, and 5 suburban lines in an area of 10km diameter! In the morning, there is a subway train every minute, and one is never more than 200m from a subway station. And I haven't even mentioned the bus system. If Hamilton had that sort of transit service I'd happily pay $3 a ride.

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By Locke (registered) | Posted March 22, 2007 at 12:24:15

While I certainly understand the argument here, $6.30 per month is a lot for people working minimum wage. No, they are not likely to quit their jobs, but that $6.30 will hurt that wage earner more and come directly out of the local economy.

In contrast (and in keeping with a progressive tax system), $6.30 per month can more easily be given up by wealthier wage earners -- and is less likely to be removed from the local economy... which is why a gas-tax transfer is so appealing: it works on a luxury-tax scheme where if you really want and can afford to drive your SUV in the short term, then you can help your community improve public transit service. In the longer term, we lessen the appeal of single vehicle commuting through improved service and might pry commuters out of their cars.

Yes, inflationary raises are reasonable, but until we stop subsidizing the single-vehicle commute it will only hurt the system.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2007 at 01:37:19

Skip a couple McDonalds breakfasts and you'll break even.

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By not a robot (anonymous) | Posted March 28, 2007 at 16:46:11

Not only is it a hardship for some, it will make less and less economic sense for those who are struggling but can still afford it.

As for voluntary riders, this is what we need! This is what we should be striving for! The bus does not have to be only for those who cannot afford a car.

So it is absolutely rediculous to purposely raise fares, keep the quality the same or less and just try to justify whether or not the porrest can still use it.

public transit is not some "lesser" form of transportation but a viable environmetally friendly one... when run properly.

Everything in Toronto is higher but they also have an incredibally better transit system, so there is no real comparison there. Also, does anyone truly know how many Toronto residents do not take because they cannot afford it? There is nothing to suggest there are not people who avoid regular bus use because of the cost and the same rule applies here.

Want to increase the fair? Increase the service. At least there will be some justification. but even then there should be some hesitation as more income from more riders should do much to pay the rising cost.

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By appalbarry (registered) - website | Posted March 29, 2007 at 10:49:58

In reference to the suggestion that the trasnit fare increase would disproportionately hurt our poorest residents, someone calling themselves "A Robot" wrote:

"Skip a couple McDonalds breakfasts and you'll break even."

Am I alone on finding that stereotype really offensive?

Anyhow, I'd love to see research or even anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that lowering fares and improving service would actually increase ridership enough to create a net benefit to the system as a whole.

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By JH (anonymous) | Posted March 29, 2007 at 13:05:26

Thriving at $2.75?

While more efficient mass transit is commendable on many grounds, including the obvious environmental benefits, and the potential to affect "urban renewal" I wonder whether the author, and readers of RTH, have considered the so-called "growth and efficiency" of the Toronto transit system to be a consequence of the increasing gentrification of Toronto.

See, efficient transit is great for middle-class folks, though it vital for the survival of poor folks. Where mass transit was originally developed as part of the welfare state's need to provide efficient means of transport for the masses of people lumped in high-density, urban core areas, the changing class demographic of Toronto's downtown core, where the most accessible transit is to be had, also reflect the ability for wealthier (or upwardly moblile) people to choose car-free living in newly fashionable neighbourhoods, with all the ameneties of "inner city living," such as mass transit, at their doorsteps. Though one might disagree as to the extent of the impact of fare increases, it is logically untenable to claim that such increases will NOT have an effect on the lower income people who rely on mass transit. Transit increases, as stated in a previous post, neccessarily reflect the increasing down-shifting of financial costs of public services (if you consider public transit to be, actually, a public good) on to individual citizen-consumers. So while the middle class transit users might look at a 15 cent transit increase as insignificant, this dismissal of the relative impact of this cost does not take into account the very real fact that as impoverished sectors rely on public transit, the real minimum wage, and the sheer percentage of people living in poverty has increased in the last decade (does the year 1997 ring a bell for anyone?)

This bring the question of "voluntary ridership" into new light. Choice, here, is defined as what the relatively wealthy can do. (i.e. "what to take...the train, plane, or automobile?"). So, to increase the ridership of "voluntary riders" is to construct a choice to NOT travel, to NOT be able to enjoy a public good, for those low-income riders who cannot bear the brundt of increasing costs of mobility. Remeber, planes, trains, and automobiles are real travel options for some, and not for others.... just as restricted mobility, and ghettoization are real options for some, and not for others.

And, Jon Dalton, as a university-educated, presumably middle-class professional, I propose that you reexamine just who, exactly, are the people who are riding the Go train with you everyday. Then take a look at how these commuters stack up compared to the people on the HSR on some of the routes going to North or East end Hamilton. Even a sensitive perception of these differences should reveal how the benefits and so-called "publicness" of travel by mass transit, are restrictively fixed by cost.

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By mark (registered) | Posted April 02, 2007 at 16:42:19

Currently the HSR is treated as a service strictly for students, seniors, and the working poor. This propogates the prevailing perception that transit is for those who cannot afford to drive, or are unable to drive. In other words, that the bus is for those who have no other option.

For transit in Hamilton to thrive, it needs to destroy this generally accepted perception. The HSR must become an attractive alternative to driving for everyone living in Hamilton. In order to do this, the HSR obviously needs to expand service coverage, increase frequency, and extend hours of service. But improvements are not just about level of service. It's also the quality of the service experience. Buses need a comfortable seating plan, a more frequent cleaning schedule, an air filtering/freshining system, and friendlier drivers. Connections to inter-regional transit should be better coordinated with timing and geographic location.

Fare increases are inevitable. Everything goes up in price. A relief plan for those who cannot afford it could ease the pain of increases on those with a low/fixed income. However, a fare increase should be preceded by the service improvements listed above.

Furthermore, if you are going to expect the working poor to pay more for transit, then those who have made their home in the expensive suburbs (Ancaster, Flamborough, Waterdown) should no longer be excluded from the HSR portion of their taxes. Area rating of transit taxes is poor practice that must be reversed in tandem with any fare increase. Lack of transit service to these areas is a weak excuse for area rating, given that better transit means less gridlock for everyone. Moreover, those who have made their home in these areas are in a much better financial position to absorb the additional tax bill than those being forced to pay a higher fare. Everyone should pay their fair share.

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By A Robot (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2007 at 23:36:25

I didn't mean for the McPukes comment to be offensive, just an example of how easy it is to save that kind of money. I've seen just about everything in the Jacko Square McD's, from single moms to suited businessmen, even Sky Dragon staffers (haha, busted!) It was my own mother's uncanny financial management that pulled my family out of poverty, and eliminating all these small things that slowly eat at your bottom line is crucial.


(that Sky Dragon bit is totally true. I swear on a stack of bibles, korans, and talmuds.)

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By bus-ker (anonymous) | Posted April 07, 2007 at 02:39:31

To get riders, to boost transit income & viabilty you have to run a transit system like a utility.
(Or maybe how we used to run a utility?)

You can't turn off the water or the Hydro for 2 decades because 'The system needs repairs, & we can't afford them until 2027'.
Maybe we need to increase fairs, or maybe we just need to increase ridership by concentrating on providing a good dependable service? Call it an investment in the future, if you like.

If public transit become an impass to getting to work, or downtown for an evening out, it won't be used. The habit never forms. Most people discover the enjoyment of public transit when they are adolescents, getting the freedom to travel on their own for the 1st time. High school & university students boost their budgets by using it. Positive experiences with public transit last a life time. People who have cars often opt to take public transit daily because it is cost effective, simple & relaxing.

Regular Dependable public transit will in the longer run create it's own ridership. Putting a 'token' bus that runs only at rush hours, not regularly on holidays or evenings does nothing to create ridership. All it creates is bad memories of waiting in the cold/rain/heat/dark & being late. (or worse yet, finding that there is no bus today/tonight.) People who don't work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday have little use for that kind of service & frequently they are the ones who need low cost transit the most. Negative experiences with public transit can also last a lifetime.

People may be ready, willing & able to use public transit but if poor service is the rule they will simply buy a car, & never think about it again..even if service does greatly improve in the future. Those potential clients are lost forever, & so may be their children.

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