Transfer Penalty Followup

My previous post‘s invocation of Reinhard Clever’s lit review of transfer penalties was roundly criticized on Skyscraper City Page for failing to take into account special factors of the case study. Some of the criticism is just plain mad (people don’t transfer from the Erie Lines to the NEC because trains don’t terminate at Secaucus the way they do at Jamaica?), but some is interesting:

This is what the paper says:

Go Transit commuter rail in Toronto provides a good example for Hutchinson’s findings. In spite of being directly connected to one of the most efficient subway systems in North America, Go’s ridership potential is limited to the number of work locations within an approximately 700 m radius around the main railroad station. Most of the literature points to the fact that the ridership already drops off dramatically beyond 400 m. This phenomenon is generally referred to as the “Quarter Mile Rule.”

Let’s look at WHY that is. If you live North of downtown and work North of about Dundas Street, it is probably faster for you to take the subway to work. So people aren’t avoid the commuter train because it imposes a transfer, but just because the subway is faster. Same thing if you live along the Bloor-Danforth line. Toronto’s subway runs at about the same average speed as NYC’s express trains. If one lives east or west of the city along the lakeshore, they are going to take the GO Train to Union Station and transfer to the subway to reach areas north of Dundas. I really doubt these people are actually “avoiding” the GO Train, though if there is evidence to the contrary I’d like to see it.

Toronto also has higher subway fares than NYC.

The issue is whether the subway and commuter rail in Toronto are substitutes for each other. My instinct is to say no: on each GO Transit line, only the first 1-3 stations out of Union Station are in the same general area served by the subway, and those are usually at the outer end of the subway, giving GO an advantage on time. Although the Toronto subway is fast for the station spacing, it’s only on a par with the slower express trains in New York; on the TTC trip planner the average speed on both main subway lines is about 32 km/h at rush hour and 35 km/h at night.

Unfortunately I don’t know about GO Transit usage beyond that. My attempt to look for ridership by station only yielded ridership by line, which doesn’t say much about where those riders are coming from, much less potential riders allegedly deterred by the transfer at Union Station. So I yield the floor to Torontonians who wish to chime in.

Update: a kind reader sent me internal numbers. The busiest stations other than Union Station are the suburban stations on the Lakeshore lines, led by Oakville, Clarkson, and Pickering; the stations within Toronto, especially subway-competitive ones such as Kipling, Oriole, and Kennedy, are among the least busy. Some explanations: the subway is cheaper, and (much) more frequent; Toronto’s GO stations have no bus service substituting rail service in the off-peak, whereas the suburban stations do; Toronto’s stations have little parking.


  1. Tom West

    Try google transit… set the destination as Bay and College (the first EW arterial north of Dundas, and mid-way between the two NS subway lines), and set the arrival time as 9am. Then move the origing point around in York Region (north of Steeles Avenue, all the the way up to Newmarket).
    What I found is that for the urban areas in northern Toronto and southern York Region, the subway is quicker. For northern York Region (and beyond) the subway is quicker.
    However, the issue becomes overall travel time…is you are travelling from (anywhere) York Region to Bay and College by transit, you end up wioth travel times of 1.5 hours. That will discourage people from doing that commute, even without the transfer penalty.

    Also, GO’s ridership potential may be limited to destinations within 700m of Union… but that’s where the vast majority of downtown Toronto’s employment is. I’m not sure which is cause, and which is effect.

  2. Katie Kish

    It really depends where you’re going… The subway is good if you’re going anywhere within a 2 block radius of the subway – which doesn’t really cover a lot of Toronto outside the downtown core. The GO train/bus system is good for commuters coming from the ‘burbs for school/work.

    Transit around here is just in general… fucked up. For example… I wanted to go and visit a friend who lives in Mississauga, a close suburb of the core. I live by York University at Steels and Keele so I could either a) take a go bus for 40 minutes to the main mississauga mall, then take mississauga transit for another 40 minutes to clarkson go station then take another mississauga transit for 10 minutes to her house. b) take the express bus to downsview subway, then take the subway to union, a go train to clarkson go station then the mississauga transit to her house (if you google this route it says it is longer than the first one, but its because google, for some reason, doesn’t take the express york buses into account; this is actually the fastest way) or c) get to downsview, take the subway over to kipling then a mississauga bus right to her house (which is the slowest, even though it avoids having to pay the extra Go Transit fare) It’s also super slow to get anywhere… once I move into my new condo at Yonge and Eglinton on a good, fast, no issues day it will take me 45 minutes to get to school – but that is where my bf lives now and it *actually* takes about 1.15 hours to get to school… and I have to transfer at least once, but usually twice. It takes less than 30 minutes to drive there.

    My point is – for any given destination, that is off the subway line, there’s usually 3 or 4 different ways to get to that place using a combo of subway/bus/Go service/a suburb transit. I take the Go bus probably twice a week, the buses/subway almost every day and I simply try to avoid the suburbs. However, people who live in the GTA have to use Go Transit and the subway to get to work if they’re not going to Union or York University of Yorkdale mall. Usually, they have to use their own cities system, the Go train and the TTC (you can get discounted passes for GTA metros, like MIssissauga Metro by showing your monthly Go pass – which isn’t even a full Go pass, its just a pass for your one route). It’s all very complicated – which is why so many people drive and why we got Rob Ford as a mayor (because he got rid of the car tax, the bike lanes… etc making it easier for drivers to come in from the ‘burbs in general… fucking dick). AND it’s very expensive if you have to buy three different public transit passes each month (or even just one… a student monthly pass for the TTC alone is $99). So I think people “avoid” the Go train, not because they want to avoid the transfer but because it is costly to take (it’s cheaper to have a crappy car, actually… because most work places provide parking), the subway is busy/unreliable, it is slow and because Ford has made it so easy for car culture to continue.

    Toronto’s transit is getting worse and worse. I have no idea why this person calls it one of the most efficient subway systems because here in Toronto we all seem to think it has completely gone to shit due to high fees, its constant need for maintenance, it’s usually so packed around busy times that you have to wait nearly 20 minutes for an empty train to come… buses and streetcars are almost completely useless and definitely unreliable… Toronto is *finally* extending the subway up to York and adding new cars that don’t break down all the time. But they scraped Transit City which would have given phenomenal access to some of Toronto’s poorer communities and places that do not currently have good public transit to the core. I love GO transit for getting around the area in general, it is my main way of visiting my mom in Guelph, for example… and it only takes like 1.5 hours. But you’re right, it’s not a substitution for the subway at all…. if you live out of Toronto but work in Toronto your ONLY options are to drive or take the GO (usually with another transit service). If you live in Toronto you usually can NOT take the GO and will rely 100% on TTC buses, streetcars and subways.

    I’m rambling.

    • Nathanael

      “it’s usually so packed around busy times that you have to wait nearly 20 minutes for an empty train to come”

      And Alon wonders why people don’t transfer from GO Transit to the subway at Union? (BTW, currently a one-platform station?)

      Toronto is undersupplied with mass transportation, and the inner sections of the subway in particular are horribly overcrowded. Transit City would have helped a lot.

      • Alon Levy

        The subway station has two tracks and (I believe) one island platform; because of the crowding, they want to add an extra side platform to speed up boarding and alighting.

  3. John W

    I’ll go out on a limb and assume there’s a similar passenger profile to London (UK), which means that most users of commuter rail (as opposed to other public transit modes) are in the top tiers in terms of income. Given that Toronto’s Financial District lies between Union Station and Queen Street (a distance of 700m), it would hardly be a surprise that there are so many single-mode journeys. On top of that, there is vast amount of shopping in the area (the south entrance to the largest, the Eaton Centre, is at Queen and Yonge, and the entire 700m trip there can be made by the linked underground concourses of the malls and office towers en route), as well as concert halls, the baseball stadium and tourist attractions within the distance specified. It seems likely that for jobs in other parts of the city that people are less likely to spend the time and money that an out of town commute requires.

    (I’m really not sure what the passenger profile for the in-town GO train stations would be, but I had the impression the system wasn’t used for that large a share of trips seating and ending within the city.)

  4. Adirondacker12800

    So Torontonians don’t avoid downtown transfers, they just take faster routes which makes it look like they avoid downtown transfers….

  5. Joseph Alacchi

    There is no such thing as a transfer penalty! Torontonians don’t routinely transfer onto the subway or bus once they arrive downtown simply because it means they’d have to buy a second TTC monthly pass on top of their GO pass. This cost disadvantage can make it more advantageous to use local transit the whole way or to drive for such trips.

    In Montreal, metro as well as urban and suburban bus fares are included in the TRAM (commuter train) passes. You routinely get swarms of people transferring to the metro from the commuter trains (esp. at Vendome and Parc stations). This also reduces the number of users that use park-and-rides because taking a local bus to the train station is essentially free whereas driving costs money.

    A lot of transit users’ behaviour as well as mode share boils down to one thing: money, period!

    • RIchard Mlynarik

      Nearly all of Anglophone transit failure boils down to one thing: rank institutional stupidity.

      Sociétés des transports en commun: not just a good a good idea, but the good idea.

      • Nathanael

        “Nearly all of Anglophone transit failure boils down to one thing: rank institutional stupidity.”

        I’ll agree with you there! I’ve been paying a lot of attention to “institutional culture” issues lately. I think it seems to be the prime determiner of whether something is going to work or not.

        Unfortunately, the most deadly institutional cultures in the US today are in:
        – The US Senate
        – the major political parties
        – major banks
        – major churches
        – military contractors
        – the judicial system
        – the military upper echelons
        … which is kind of a recipe for utter societal disaster. Compared to those, the institutional culture problems at transit agencies are minor.

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