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  • Writer's pictureMatthieu Gagnon

Will transit fare changes impact behaviour in Ottawa

Important note: I think that making the city accessible and allowing everyone to participate in society is very important and should be a priority in how we design our neighbourhoods and infrastructure. However, I wanted to focus on changing behaviours in the general population so income inequality, EDI and accessibility is not discussed as part of this blog post even though it is an important consideration.


I was listening to the debate during the budget council meeting about whether or not to freeze fares and RMTransit also released a video about flat and zone base fares. I thought it would be interesting to make up my own opinion on whether or not fares are a factor in the decision of whether or not to use transit.


OC Transpo bus stopped at a station
OC Transpo bus

Let’s start with the goals of the city according to the Transportation Master Plan. The plan outlines five elements in their vision for transportation in Ottawa:


  • Reduce automobile dependence

  • Meet mobility needs

  • Integrate transport and land use

  • Protect public health and safety

  • Protect the environment


Looking at the vision, I believe that “Reduce automobile dependence” is the element that stands to me in this debate. The first principle under this element is “Give priority to public transit in accommodating future travel demand”. Transit fares should reflect those objectives.


Let’s look at the reasons people would use transit. This data is from the 2011 Origins-Destination Survey which is the latest available. We have to take into consideration that this was before the LRT and before COVID so a lot has changed since then. A new survey was conducted in 2022 but the results are not yet available (at least, I couldn’t find them). Note that the results from previous surveys in 1995 and 2005 are similar to the 2011 survey.


According to this survey, 18% of trips in Ottawa are work related and 25% of trips are for shopping and household maintenance. 41% of trips are for “Returning home” from any other category. I think it is safe to assume that the commute and short trips to run errands are the basic use case for transit so let’s look at scenarios for those purposes based on urban and suburban scenarios.


Urban Scenarios

For the urban errands scenario, let’s take the Elgin Street Diner as the starting point for a trip to MEC on Richmond. This is a good example of a trip where transit or car make sense. The 1.5 hour walk is a bit too long. The bike ride is longer than a lot of people are comfortable and the items purchased may be too cumbersome to bring without a good cargo set-up. If we compare the car with public transit on time, public transit is not competitive. If we value our time at minimum wage, the 30 minutes extra each way by transit plus the fare costs you about $24 more than the car just for time. For this scenario, the time cost ($16.55) is much higher than the fare ($7.40) so a fare increase is unlikely to change behaviour. 


Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Elgin Street Diner to MEC Ottawa. Driving time is 10 minutes, transit time is 41 minutes, walking time is 1 hour and 26 minutes and cycling time is 24 minutes
Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Elgin Street Diner to Mountain Equipment Company

For the urban commute scenario, let’s take the example of someone living again on Elgin Street who works at the Ottawa General Hospital Campus. Again we see that the time costs are significantly higher than the fare costs. 


Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Elgin Street Diner to Ottawa General Hospital. Driving time is 10 minutes, transit time is 32 minutes, walking time is 1 hour and 3 minutes and cycling time is 17 minutes
Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Elgin Street Diner to Ottawa General Hospital.

For urban riders, a fare increase is unlikely to change behaviour. If we want to change behaviour to remove cars from the urban core, we need to significantly reduce the time cost of transit for downtown riders or make it more difficult to own and operate a car downtown.

Suburban Scenarios

For the suburban scenarios, I am going to use the Queenswood Heights Community Centre as a proxy for a suburban residence which allows me to continue my bias towards eastern suburbs (sorry Barrhaven). 


For the shopping scenario, let’s consider transit to get to Place D’Orléans and Home Depot. For both these trips, transit is laughably not competitive even with walking. The bike and pedestrian infrastructure would, in my opinion, be unpleasant and even dangerous. This means that a lot of work would need to be done to make transit a viable option for the suburban shopping trip to the point where it is unlikely to be financially viable to do so. With the current state of active transportation infrastructure, people are going to have a car for those shopping trips.


Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Place D'Orléans. Driving time is 3 minutes, transit time is 17 minutes, walking time is 18 minutes and cycling time is 6 minutes
Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Place D'Orléans.

Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Home Depot on Tenth Line. Driving time is 6 minutes, transit time is 34 minutes, walking time is 43 minutes and cycling time is 11 minutes.
Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Home Depot on Tenth Line.

For the commute scenario, let’s use City Hall as the destination with an arrival time of 8h on a Monday with a return starting at 16h. We come back to the issue where the time costs of transit are not competitive, costing 42 minutes ($11.59 at minimum wage) than driving. Driving also incurs a cost of parking which is $20 for the workday at City Hall and fuel costs would be about $6 (19.3km at 8.6 L/100km with gas at $1.85 per L). The time difference between transit and driving is likely covered by the additional price of parking, especially considering that transit time can be used to read or do other things. The transit fare is higher than fuel costs but the additional cost is likely immaterial to most households. The transit experience will also significantly improve when Stage 2 LRT is complete by reducing transfers. The cost of fare or a bus pass ($125.5) is a lot lower than the cost of buying and maintaining a car ($1077 a month of average) to the point where fare costs are unlikely a factor in the decision of whether or not to take transit. However, most households will have a car for shopping trips and a lot of car related costs are fixed costs like insurance and depreciation and do not affect trip decisions. 


Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Ottawa City Hall by 8h on a Monday.. Driving time is 24 minutes, transit time is 45 minutes, walking time is 3 hours 56 minutes and cycling time is 1 hour.
Google Map screenshot of the mode types and time to destination from Queenswood Heights Community Centre to Ottawa City Hall by 8h on a Monday.

For the suburb dwellers, an increase in fare is unlikely to affect behaviour. If we wanted to change behaviour, we would need to reduce the need for households to have a car per driver. The best way to do this is by making local trips viable using active transportation especially bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters. 


Conclusion

Renée Amilcar is right when she says that increasing fares is unlikely to change transit usage.

The major impediment to transit usage downtown is the poor quality service. If we want to change the behaviours of downtown residents, we need to offer rapid and frequent transit service. This could be done through dedicated transit lanes and transit priority at intersections which would speed up the service.


For the suburb, the need for a car for day to day errands makes commuting by car is probably a bigger factor than fare price in the commute mode decision because of the fixed costs of car ownership. Making shopping trips viable by transit is unlikely to be financially viable for the city but making active transportation an option could encourage households to invest less heavily in car ownership which would increase ridership for suburban commuters.


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