How to Make Sustainable Transportation More Financially Accessible

This blog is the fifth in our series exploring accessibility. Read the previous post here.

When we think about accessibility, infrastructure like a ramp that helps someone board a bus often comes to mind. But money also plays a large role in our transportation decisions.

While taking transit, cycling, carpooling or walking are all cheaper than driving alone, there are still financial barriers that can prevent someone from making the best transportation decisions to suit their needs.

Making sustainable transportation more affordable is an important incentive for people who usually drive, and it also helps people who do not have access to a vehicle. In this blog, we’ll explore some ways to break down financial barriers to make sustainable transportation more accessible.

Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas)

Google Maps already provides different methods of getting around, from cycling to ridehailing and includes some pricing. Mobility-as-a-Service takes this one step further and treats all transportation options (public transit, rideshare, bikeshare, scooters, etc.) as one integrated system. Using one platform, users can plan their journey and instead of paying separate fees for each mode, they pay a monthly fee that could include unlimited public transit and bikeshare trips, and a limited number of rideshare or taxi trips per month.

By paying a flat monthly fee, it enables users to take modes that make sense for them while removing the payment and cost barriers. For example, cycling to a subway station may be faster and more enjoyable than taking the bus but currently, this option is more expensive, as the fee to use Toronto’s Bike Share system is separate from the transit fare (though there is a 10% discount for the first year of a Bike Share membership for PRESTO card holders), whereas there is no extra cost to take the bus to the subway station. With MaaS, the integrated fare would allow someone to choose to take Bike Share to the subway station without worrying about an extra fee to sign out a bike.

Helsinki’s successful MaaS system uses an app called Whim that allows users to pay a monthly subscription or pay-as-you-go for bikeshare, carshare, rideshare, taxis as well as transit. Seventy-three per cent of Whim users’ trips are by public transportation, compared to just 48% of trips made by the average Helsinki resident, and 42% of users combine public transportation with bikeshare.

However, MaaS is still an emerging concept and there are equity concerns that would need to be addressed. For instance, an app-based system requires users to have a smartphone, which could be a barrier to lower income individuals, as well as people who are unbanked, since customers pay through an app instead of by cash.

Additionally, a monthly fee model requires money up front rather than paying as you go. Depending on how the packages are sold, families may face financial burden if they must purchase individual packages for each family member as opposed to a system that includes family passes.

However, if implemented with equity in mind, MaaS can make transportation more affordable. For example, free or discounted transit rides could be offered at off-peak hours, and lower income families could receive subsidized passes. Incentives can also be used to shift customers from one mode of transportation to another to help reduce congestion.

Implementing MaaS requires collaboration between public and private organizations and multiple levels of government. However, with the adoption of PRESTO across the GTHA transit systems, one can imagine a future where your PRESTO card or app can be expanded to allow payment for Bike Share, Uber, Lyft, taxi services, carshare and car rentals. The challenge, though, is the collaboration between Metrolinx, local transit agencies, the Toronto Parking Authority which owns Bike Share Toronto, and private rideshare, carshare, taxi and car rental companies.

Fare integration between transit systems

While integrating fares between rideshare, bikeshare, public transit and other micromobility services is the ultimate dream of MaaS proponents, fare integration between the nine different transit agencies across the GTHA is an important step to making transit more affordable.

Many people live in one area of the GTHA but work in another and one out of every four trips in the GTHA crosses a regional boundary. Without fare integration, someone traveling from Hamilton to Toronto could pay three separate fares: one fare for local Hamilton transit to the GO station, one fare for the GO train, and one fare for the TTC, which ends up costing around $15-17 one way. With fare integration, this could be much cheaper.

Until recently, customers travelling by GO Transit and TTC received a $1.50 discount when switching between transit providers, and there is evidence to show that it was a successful program. Between 2017 and 2018, transfers between GO and TTC increased by 27%. Unfortunately, the program ended on March 31, 2020 when the provincial government opted to not extend it. However, there is still a discount available when transferring from GO to other transit agencies in the GTHA.

Over the years, there has been plenty of discussion on what fare integration could look like, with Metrolinx tasked with developing a solution that works for each transit agency. Options include fare by zone, fare by distance, or some combination of a flat local fare as well as fare by zone.

Fare integration in the GTHA is a complicated issue that requires political will and there is still more work to be done, but the adoption of PRESTO is a good start towards a more seamless system.

Subsidized transit passes

A more straightforward way to make transit more affordable is through subsidized transit passes, either through employers or for low-income residents. The City of Toronto has a Fair Pass Discount Program for eligible residents, and earlier this year, York Region Transit introduced a Transit Assistance Program. Of course, it would be helpful if there was a universal low-income transit pass available that could apply to all transit agencies across the GTHA, rather than separate applications for TTC and YRT, but we would first need to see integrated fares across the region for this to be possible.

For people who own a vehicle, paying for transit on top of car ownership costs can seem expensive, especially if they have free parking. A discounted transit pass can lower the cost burden of choosing transit and encourage less driving.

Employers can play a part in addressing financial accessibility by offering subsidized transit passes or a taxable benefit for sustainable commutes, which pointA can advise on through the Smart Commute program. Both significantly reduce the need for parking spots at the workplace and support and encourage more sustainable commutes and healthier lifestyles, all of which ultimately benefit employers.

Prior to the launch of PRESTO, TTC had a Volume Incentive Pass, or VIP Monthly Pass program, where participating employers could offer employees adult monthly TTC passes at a discount. However, there is no monthly pass discount program for TTC with PRESTO as of yet.

York Region has a discount program, called YRT@Work. The discount ranges from 10 to 15% off, and employers must have at least ten employees per month to qualify. Employees purchase the discounted pass through their employer, which is then loaded onto their PRESTO card.

Reducing the financial barriers associated with sustainable transportation requires collaboration between transit agencies, government, and businesses. To encourage more people to take sustainable transportation, the experience must be as seamless as possible, making multimodal, inter-regional transportation quicker and cheaper than driving alone. Improvements to transportation across the GTHA are still ongoing, and we look forward to seeing what the future will bring.

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