Transit Pricing in Calgary
As a frequent user of Calgary public transit, I often think about how we can improve the public transit system, and I can’t help but notice what we might have done better. One issue I tend to wrestle with is how we pay for transit access as individual users. How a municipality implements transit fees is more than a trivial detail. It has the potential to impact a number of important decisions at the municipal level, such as where and how much we invest in transit infrastructure. At the individual level pricing also impacts when, where, and why, we might choose to use transit.
I thought about this issue more during a recent trip to Vancouver where I had a chance to take the new Canada line train from the airport to the downtown core. The trip began as usual with my purchasing a ticket, but involved a slight twist as I was asked by the computerized ticket kiosk to choose which zone I would be traveling to. The zone based fare system is something I had read about but had not yet encountered. My travel from the airport included my crossing from zone-2 into zone-1, and included an additional charge levied on trips departing from the airport. The greater Vancouver transit system is composed of three zones with a fare of $2.75 for a trip which takes place in a single zone, $4 for two zones, and $5.50 for three zones.
The logic behind Vancouver’s zone based pricing is really based on a broader concept in transportation economics and finance known as variable pricing. The idea being that users of transit should pay in proportion to the benefit they receive, and by extension the costs they impose on the system.
Unpacking this idea a little, it implies that someone who rides the train a few stops to work should pay a smaller fee than someone who trains it in from the farthest reaches of ‘the burbs’; and on the face of it this makes senses. Not only does the suburban commuter spend more time/distance consuming the train’s limited or ‘congestible’ capacity, but her broader demand for transit results in massive investments in track and stations that lead out and away from the dense core to the increasingly sparse suburbs, where the benefits from any large scale infrastructure investment become increasingly concentrated. This same logic is also behind the Canada Line’s additional airport fee. The idea being that the tens of millions of dollars required to build the YVR airport leg—a segment that breaks away from the main train line headed to the suburbs south of Vancouver’s core—should be paid by the frequent flyers who benefit directly from its use. On this point it is important to note that the many travelers who do not live in, and thus pay municipal taxes in Vancouver or provincial taxes in B.C. would otherwise be getting a largely discounted ride courtesy of the Vancouver tax payer. To sum it up, those who ride should pay, those who don’t shouldn’t.
Now you might say, “Hey wait!” transit is nearly 50% subsidized through income and property taxes in Calgary, and those ‘fees’ don’t have anything to do with transit use. This is true and some would argue it’s problematic in so far as user fees are the primary policy lever to encourage efficient use and development of public transit. However, there are also totally valid justifications for subsidizing transit at present. For one, we don’t charge any user fees for roads which are nearly (the federal gas tax isn’t as big as you might think) entirely paid for indirectly through general tax revenues. Roads are also congested, which compounds carbon emissions and reduces people’s productive time—not to mention drains their life energy. As such we subsidize transit to encourage people to use it and reduce the social nuisances associated with roads. Other justifications might include some amount of social redistribution allowing low income individuals who may not have personal transport to commute to work and—though a blanket subsidy is far less desirable than a subsidy targeted to such individuals based on need–it does serve that function.
To wrap it up, Calgary should catch up to Vancouver and put zone based pricing in place for our C-train. While it would certainly be a larger logistical challenge to consider how we might extend this system to include buses and transfers, implementing zone based pricing for our C-train at point of purchase—similar to that used in Vancouver—is both doable and low cost. We could even leapfrog Vancouver by instituting station-to-station distance based pricing at point of purchase. Given that Calgary’s C-train system currently functions as a virtual honour system we really don’t have much to lose.
Variable pricing is not only efficient, it’s fair, and it might lead to better decision making on the part of both municipal officials and transit users as to how we allocate our transit resources. With the ever diminishing cost of technology and prevalence of NFC enabled personal smart devices it’s not hard to imagine that a fully integrated variable-priced transit system could be implemented at a low cost and designed in a manner that was convenient for the user.
On the contrary, if Calgary continues to grow in the absence of smarter pricing for transit we be developing a transit system that increasingly concentrates benefits for those who commute from the fringe, at the expense of those who do not.