Why Toronto Needs a Low-Income Metropass Program

Getting around the city can be expensive — especially for low-income Torontonians.

JL1967

When many Torontonians think of poverty, the first issues that come to mind are housing and food. Mobility is often overlooked, creating a gap in accessibility and services available to those looking to get around the city.

Grassroots organization TTCriders has established the Fair Fare Coalition in an attempt to fill that gap. Last month, members attended City Hall to push for lower TTC prices for the city’s lowest income residents.

The group is lobbying to create a program that allows low-income Torontonians access to a $50 Metropass and $1 single-ride tokens to get on trains, buses, and streetcars.

“Anything else was unaffordable,” says Karin Meinzer, chair of the Fair Fare Coalition. “We looked at doing a price set at a percentage of income, but when you do that you end up with a large percentage no matter what. We felt that there had to be some sort of cutoff.”

Meinzer says TTCriders arrived at these figures when they realized many people living with social assistance end up working low-paying jobs, or end up in positions where they’re working part time, meaning any price based on a percentage of income isn’t the best option on such fine margins.

TTCriders also created a petition outlining their terms to Mayor John Tory, Premier Kathleen Wynne, other members of Council, and the TTC chair. At the time of publication, the petition had 412 signatures.

Existing discounts offered by the TTC to customers who purchase in bulk. Photo via TTC.ca

The TTC currently offers discounted Metropasses, but only to customers, typically larger companies, who buy the passes in bulk. Discounts off of the $141.50 adult Metropass are between 10 and 12 per cent, depending on the volume of passes purchased.

The Fair Fare Coalition published a report [PDF] that recommends Torontonians receiving benefits from the Ontario Works program and Ontario Disability Support Program receive a free Metropass. The report reasons that those receiving benefits from both programs shouldn’t be spending money on public transport, and that they should be spending their basic needs allowance solely on basic needs such as food and shelter.

Similarly, the report suggests that workers below the low income cut-off who do not receive benefits should qualify for $50 Metropasses and $1 tokens. Those prices mean a worker in a family of two (parent or grandparent and child or grandchild) would spend roughly three per cent of their income of about $23,000 or less on transit.

The report also recommends that low-income passes and tokens be treated identically to their full price counterparts, that service for discount customers not be limited to off-peak hours or certain days of the week.

In their research, the Fair Fare Coalition found those in need of low-income passes may be living where there is adequate transit, but have long commutes which can require the use of two transit systems and multiple fare payments per trip.

Meinzer, who is also a literacy instructor at an adult learning centre, has seen this firsthand.

“Somebody in my classroom works in Richmond Hill three times a week for six hours each shift at minimum wage. She’s taking two transit systems a day for about $12 just to get to that job,” she says. “She has access, but at a cost.”

Expensive, long-distance commutes could become an even bigger issue for low-income Torontonians if Metrolinx chooses to instate zoned fares in the city. This would travel for longer distances — particularly from the GTA to the downtown core — more expensive than that within the city. Last week, Mayor Tory voiced his support for zoned fares.

Meinzer said that beyond helping Torontonians who need a low-cost mobility option, subsidized access to the TTC shouldn’t have to be justified by potential increases in revenue and ridership.

“When we have a system priced to the point where some people can’t pay to use it, then it’s a social justice issue,” she says. “The issue with low-income passes isn’t solving a ridership problem. We don’t ask questions like that about other public services like education or healthcare.”

Sean Hertel, the co-author of the 2015 GTA and Hamilton transit study “Switching Tracks,” echoes Meinzer’s sentiments. Hertel’s study determined that transit is a “broader public good and social issue,” meaning senior government needs to step in to help with subsidization.

“Unfortunately within the current financial system we have, it’s very hard to conceive a transit system as anything more than transportation,” he says. “Under current budget constraints, it’s difficult alone to provide for the baseline transportation that people need, let alone at a reduced rate for those who can’t afford it. It’s a wicked problem.”

Hertel said the economic factors are outweighed by the need for transit equity, especially in areas that are underserved by available transit options. In addition to paying less, it’s about giving people more dignity as well.

“It’s about decency and respect for people. A lot of people that we spoke with from the inner suburbs and further out in places like Brampton said they were tired of waiting in the rain for a bus, then having garbage roll down the aisles every time the bus pumps the brakes,” Hertel says. “They feel insulted, they don’t feel valued.”

TTC spokesperson Susan Sperling said “the City of Toronto is studying [the possible relationship between low-income passes and increased ridership] and will report out later this year. As we have said on this in the past, the TTC has no concern with a discounted fare, but there is a cost and it needs to be funded.”

“We need to get a better grasp on who the ‘public’ in ‘public transit’ really is,” Hertel says.

Originally published at torontoist.com on July 4, 2016.