How we charge for transit reflects how we view its purpose

Should Calgary Transit go to a distance based fare?

One common discussion topic for transit has to do with fare, and how it is decided. Today we will look at three ways that Calgary Transit could set fares riders for using their service: fixed, distance based, and demand based fare. Each of these schemes has their own advantages and drawbacks, but the one we choose says a lot about our fundamental principles on what transit is supposed to be.

I guess the first question is: what is transit supposed to be? Is it a transportation network like a road? Is it a delivery service that moves people around? Is it a social service providing everyone with the freedom of mobility? Is it an efficient business? What do you think? This is a very difficult question to answer, and one that I have in one way or another been discussing in many of the articles here. I’ll give my own two cents at the end, once we have discussed what some of these fare schemes might imply.

The Current System: Fixed Fare

Currently, a single fare buys you 90 minutes of travel time on Calgary Transit. You can travel in any direction and transfer as many times as you want. It doesn’t matter if you travel one LRT station or across the city, the fare is the same. The principle of a fixed fare is that for one price you can travel from your origin to your destination, whatever it may be.

This approach provides consistency and simplicity for transit users, but it can also feel “unfair”, especially for people who travel short distances. This can discourage potential transit users who want to use the service for short trips like grocery shopping; for them the price is set too high and they end up choosing another mode of transportation like biking, Car2Go, Taxi or personal vehicle. This means that there is a potentially large group of riders that are not taking transit because of this fixed fare.

There are not too many examples of other transportation services that use this approach. Canada Post charges a single price to deliver a letter anywhere in Canada, and so they are in some way an example of such a system. In this vein, we can say that a fixed fare system reflects the philosophy that transit is a people delivery system. People pay for the privilege of being able to use the service, wherever they are. A fixed fare charges its users for the existence of the system at all rather than where people are going.

The Common System: Distance Based Fare

Many transit systems around the world use a distance based fare, where the amount you pay is dependent on how far you travel. This system reflects many other transportation systems; most North American taxis charge users based on the distance they travel. Driving uses this system as well, whether charging a toll on a certain road or a general fuel tax. The principle here is that you are using more of the (costly) network, spending more time in the service, and so you should pay more than someone who uses very little. In Calgary, it would also reflect the fact that longer trips into the suburbs are more costly to provide than trips that stay in the city core, simply because of the geometry of the suburbs.

On the other hand, a distance based fare requires that we keep track of how far people are travelling. This usually requires some sort of electronic fare collection, though there are ways around that. It does have the potential to discourage transit users that live further from many important destinations. This can make already low transit uptake even worse in areas like the suburbs. If our goal is to encourage transit use all across the city, or to provide transit service to everyone, this is not a great plan.

The distance based fare comes from the idea that transit is a utility. It is a service provided by the City of Calgary, and just like electricity or natural gas we should pay based on how much we use it.

The Business System: Demand Based Fare

Just for fun, I wanted to include a discussion of demand based fare, because while it is quite impractical for transit systems and would certainly cause a large amount of confusion among riders, it is based on a fairly understandable principle: transit is a business.

Here’s how it might work: when we ride the bus from point A to point B, the fare we pay is related to how many other people are also travelling from A to B. If more people are travelling between those two points, it’s less expensive per rider for Calgary Transit to offer a service between these two points and so they charge you less. In this case, we would want the bus to be crowded. The more crowded, the better it is for us as a rider, and the better it is for Calgary Transit as a business.

This type of system would make travelling to places like Hidden Valley or Cranston prohibitively expensive, since there are very few people who are also doing the same thing. At the same time, it would encourage increased usage of already busy corridors such as Centre Street and along the LRT, since those routes would become very cheap. The reach of service would shrink considerably but it would become much less expensive to run overall; depending on how you feel about transit’s purpose this may be a good or bad outcome.

Even though this idea is used in part by airlines and is related to the discussion of “surge pricing” in taxi systems, it would be next to impossible to implement or sell to the public for a fixed transit system. This is because the price you would pay for a service is dependent on the behaviour of other people. It would create uncertainty that is completely unacceptable for people seeking reliable and affordable mobility, and so the system just isn’t going to work properly.

Here’s a fun contrast: the cost of travelling by personal vehicle (often measured in travel time) is also dependent on the behaviour of other people. In this case, when a road gets more use traffic slows down, and the “fare” to travel on that road by car goes up. It has the opposite behaviour of transit. This is just one example where transit and automobiles can serve the same need in very different ways.

Going the Distance

I generally favour changing to distance based fare in Calgary. We have a large, sparse city and trips can vary significantly in length. Low density life is costly for the city to service, and the price we pay for those services should reflect that, if transit is considered a form of city service. In terms of transit use and mobility, I feel the potential increase in riders who would have made short trips at a lower price outweighs the potential loss of riders who do not wish to pay more for a longer trip. It reflects the approach that transit is, in many ways, a utility. It should be offered and organized in a way that reflects that.

If nothing else, changing to a distance based fare might encourage Calgary Transit to finally get an electronic fare system going.

Willem Klumpenhouwer

Willem is a PhD student in transportation planning and engineering at the University of Calgary, working on improving transit schedule design. In his spare time, Willem does programming projects and is a volunteer and improviser at the Loose Moose Theatre.

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