Pay a fare to ride transit

May 27, 2024

On a recent Saturday morning I boarded the 506 Carlton streetcar of the Toronto Transit Commission, heading west. I tapped my Presto card to pay my $3.30 fare. I like to sit at the back, but it was occupied by a sleeping man, who had stretched out over five seats. I walked further ahead, and saw two other sleeping forms, one beside a cart filled with their possessions; the other sleeping on a bench with several bags tucked under the bench. I walked further forward; just behind the driver sat a fourth sleeping figure, next to a shopping cart.

I am quite sure that none of these riders paid a fare.

The TTC is in trouble. The commission notes that ridership in 2023 dropped to 70 per cent of levels in 2019, before the pandemic – even as Toronto has continued to grow. Fewer people ride transit because more people work from home. But that’s only part of the reason. The roads are as clogged with cars as ever, or more so; if more people work from home, whence all these extra cars? Part of it, I suspect, is that people choose cars over the TTC, because our transit system is becoming a refuge for homeless people, and riders feel less welcome. I feel less welcome.

The TTC’s largest union, which represents its drivers, maintenance workers and others, is in position to strike on June 7. Sticking points in negotiations include job security, wages and benefits. The TTC, what with its ridership decline, is short the cash to give the drivers what they want.

There’s an easy way to solve the TTC’s woes, close the transit system’s budget gap, give drivers a raise, and to make riders feel welcome and safe on transit: require passengers to pay.

On the 506 streetcar that rumbled west to where it turns around in High Park, I was the only conscious passenger. Granted, it was early. As I got off, to walk in the park, I asked the driver his thoughts about his vehicle, which that morning served as a rolling homeless shelter.

“A passenger is allowed to sleep,” he said. “I can’t ask them to wake up, unless they are disturbing someone.” He also said he has no authority to ask riders to pay their fare. Nor, he said, can he call and ask someone to send a fare inspector.

For most of the 30 years that I have lived in Toronto, the TTC had a simple way to ensure riders paid a fare: the driver watched you get on, and watched you pay, or show a transfer, in order to ride. Then came the new, long streetcars, where the driver sits in an enclosed cabin at the front. Passengers do not pass the driver when they board. Many newer buses are longer and articulated, and passengers there, too, can board at the rear. Effectively, many buses, and all streetcars, now operate on the honour system.

In a report in March, the TTC said it lost about $124 million to fare evasion last year, double the total from five years ago. Twelve per cent of riders did not pay. The driver on my streetcar estimated that close to half of people don’t pay.

Recently I rode the trams and buses in Amsterdam. Trams in that city have two employees: the driver and a ticket taker in the middle of the car. You must pay to ride. That makes sense. I want permanent housing for all Canadians; still, allowing our transit system to become a defacto shelter system will lead us on a downward spiral that will hurt everyone.

My streetcar home from the park had a sign painted on the outside: “Tap out of respect. Paying your fare is an investment in better transit and a better city.” It almost sounds like paying is optional.

On my return journey, and plenty of people boarded the streetcar. Only a few tapped. I asked two women whether they planned to pay. They told me to mind my own business. I feel like this is my business. For our transit system to thrive, we must pay to ride.