Getting around in Toronto without a car

April 16, 2019 14:22
Travel within Toronto has become easier and cheaper, thanks to new offerings in public transit as well as private ride services. Photo: Bloomberg

When I lived in Toronto about thirty years ago, people used to say that it is hard to survive in Canada if you don't have a car. And a driving license there was as good as an identity card.

Well, things certainly have changed since then, as I discovered during my current trip to the city.

Arriving in the place recently, I found myself in the pre-spring season with the snow starting to melt and a heavy wind blowing. I was able to recognize the surroundings, but what really came as a welcome relief was the issue of transportation -- there were more, and easier, ways to get around.

First, let me mention the Presto card. It is pretty much like Hong Kong's Octopus card, except that it can only be used for transportation. Replacing the need to use cash, tickets, tokens or passes on public transit, the electronic fare card can be used across 11 transit agencies in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the Ottawa area.

Learning about a hop on–hop off transfer arrangement that was put in place last year by the Toronto Transit Corporation, I seized upon this fact: one can have as many rides as one wishes in two hours using the Presto.

Riders with Presto fare cards can take several short return trips within a two-hour time frame, but they will only be charged for the first trip.

I initially balked at the idea of shelling out C$4 for a ride, but then began falling in love with the system which yields huge savings. For maximum benefit, this is the key: make as many trips as possible within two hours, going shopping or visiting friends.

Apart from this, I also found what could, in many circumstances, offer even greater value for money. I am talking about ride-hailing service Lyft, which is taking on Uber but is focusing more on the North American markets.

I was particularly attracted to Lyft's new user recruitment program that offers C$5 discount in 10 rides. Often, I found it more economical to travel in a group in a Lyft vehicle rather than take public transport.

Speaking of Lyft, which made a strong debut last month on the Nasdaq but quickly slipped below the offer price, I was surprised to learn that it charged its drivers as much 35 percent for each ride. The commission was way higher than that demanded by Uber, which takes a 25 percent cut. No wonder some Lyft drivers talked about setting up apps of their own.

I also used Uber, a legal transport option in the city. I found the Express Pool concept particularly interesting as a cheaper alternative. Building on the multi-rider, multi-destination framework of Uber Pool, the Express Pool connects riders heading in a common direction, allowing them to share a car.

Instead of getting picked up from a specific location, users might need to walk a few minutes from the pick-up points to meet their vehicle as the driver maps out a route to most efficiently serve all riders. Also, one may need to walk a while to reach the destination after getting dropped off.

But the upside is that the service offers a bigger discount compared to Uber X, the basic plan. According to my rough calculation, the Uber Express Pool is about 40 percent cheaper than Uber X rides, and 20 percent cheaper than the traditional Uber Pool, which offers pooled car service for specific point-to-point service.

Riding on the customer demand and matching them with drivers who want to trade time for a little extra income, Uber is set to become an even bigger talking point in the days ahead as it prepares for a mega initial public offering.

Among other things I noticed during my Canada trip, I should mention that the customs procedure at the Pearson International Airport in Toronto is now almost fully automated, saving time and hassle for travellers.

I am, for sure, happy to call Toronto my second home.

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EJ Insight writer