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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Montreal vs. Toronto: battle of the bus transfers!

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MONTREAL — French Panic, a local blogger who may or may not be my neighbour, recently spent some time in Toronto. She came back with some pertinent observations about the way that each city’s character manifests itself in bus and subway transfers. Yes, transfers. Read on:

Now, I know it’s dull to compare Toronto and Montreal. They are very different from each other, and shouldn’t be compared. But. These transfers say all sorts of interesting things. The Montreal transfer is devoid of all information, save for a set of arrows to let you know which side to stick in the machine at the metro and a time for when it expires.

But the Toronto transfer is barking information at you. It’s the 307th day of the year! It’s Saturday night! We are the Toronto Transit Commission! Thank you!

When you turn it over, there is the date, the day number, and instructions:

Must be obtained from operator at time fare is paid.
Must be used at first available transfer point (cannot walk to next stop.)
Must be used on day of issue within reasonable time allowance to the transfer point. Not valid for stopover.
Must be issued by the person to whom issued.
Must be retained and shown when requested on Proof of Payment routes.

Then some phone numbers — three different ones depending on what your intentions are — the website (twice) — and a final “Thank you.”

The Montreal transfer is completely devoid of information, aside from the holes so that a machine can read it. If the machine chooses to read it.

Montreal gives you no information. It is blank – you can do whatever you want with it, but it’s not going to share any information with you very easily.

Toronto is eager and polite – but fascist, too.

Next spring, after forty years, Montreal will be getting rid of its punch-card transfers by replacing them with magnetic-strip transfers similar to the metro tickets and weekly passes we already use. We’ll shift from 1960s punch-card technology to, uh, 1970s magnetic-strip technology — but will our transfers keep their Montreal spirit?

Photo by French Panic



  1. My immediate impression of the two side-by side had more to do with how technologically backward the TTC is. Montreal is moving from 60s technology to 70s technology? Toronto is stuck in the 20s.

  2. Montréal’s transfers win hands down.

    This is despite my nostalgia in remembering the time I came back to Toronto in 1979 and rode the Spadina line with my friend Nate — collecting a rainbow of transfers from all the stations.

    Toronto even has two kinds of not-so-useful transfers: those given out on buses and streetcars and those thermal printed stubby ones in the stations (with the odd touch sensing buttons).

    Maybe in the distant future Toronto will adopt a swipe card system and that might be a bittersweet end to our pulpy transfers.

  3. Gilbert, the article doesn’t mention the full story:

    Toronto buses routinely enter the fare-paid area of the subway system, so most people changing from a bus to a subway, or the reverse, simply don’t need a transfer. Transfers are mostly for changes between buses and streetcars, and there, it’s more important that the transfer tell the driver what route the transfer is from, what day it is from, and when it was issued. Toronto’s transfers do that well, and probably much more effectively than Montreal’s do.

    In Montreal, given that buses never enter a fare-paid area, transfers into the subway system are fare more important, so it was necessary to create a machine-readable transfer. In Toronto, that only occurs at a handful of subway stations, and so the requirement simply wasn’t there to the degree that it justified the expense.

    If the TTC does sign on to the Presto fare-card system, the odds are that Toronto’s current transfers will disappear within the next few years.

  4. The amazing thing about the Toronto transfers is how inefficient they are. The TTC has to buy *preprinted* transfers for every route, for every day of the year.

    That means the TTC is buying 365 x #? separate printed forms every year. That is quite astoundingly ridiculous.

  5. Toronto may be using old technology, but the system works fairly well. I would rather see money spent on more buses and streetcars than retrofitting vehicles with new fare boxes for Presto.

  6. The big problem with having to use a machine to read transfers and passes is that it takes FOREVER for a group of people to board a bus/streetcar at a stop.

    This drove me nuts in Vancouver. Every single person getting on a bus had to put their little card into a reader that sucked it in and out a few times. Even longer for a newbie like me that put it in backwards. 🙂 At least with the TTC, you just walk by the driver showing your transfer…much faster.

  7. I like the TTC’s transfers.

    It works just fine the way it is, so why change it?

    The only way I see to improve service is to go to a POP system with transfers as on the 509, 501. Why waste time on machines when it’ll only slow down boarding times?

  8. I’m an idiot, just remembered that the 509 doesn’t use a POP system…

  9. I agree with Joe, that a POP system would make so much sense, at least for reducing boarding times at major stops. I’ve sat behind the Carlton 506 car through three lights at Yonge St. waiting for it to load.

  10. For a real apples-to-apples comparison, you need to compare Toronto bus transfers with the transfers you get *in* the Montreal metro. They’re designed to be read by bus drivers (and they’re the same size) so at least you’d be comparing designs meant to solve the same problem.

    (And yes, the whole “fare-paid area” business is bound to confuse this ex-Montrealer slightly when I move to Toronto next month.)

  11. Some relics are just fine. Getting my transfer is like shaking the driver’s hand. I’m OK with that level of interaction. And when I use it next, I flash it, and make eye contact with the next driver. Nothing wrong with that either.

    Doesn’t sound fascist to me.

    “A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” [Robert O. Paxton, “The Anatomy of Fascism,” 2004]

  12. I moved here from NY a couple of years ago, and at first, the transfer system was actually a bit confusing. I just assumed that having a transfer allowed you to switch from subway to bus/streetcar at any point within a set period of time, and not just at the “first transfer point.”

    In one of my very early explorations of the city, I once walked from Dupont station up to Eglinton (yeah I’m not really sure why I walked that way either) and got on the bus, just assuming that my transfer was good. The bus driver was nice, saw that I was clearly confused and let me stay.

    But yeah, it is a bit annoying that you are not really allowed to walk and transfer at a different point. As is getting the transfers in the subway. Part of the reason I’d so much rather get a metropass is just to avoid worrying about transfers.

    It’s also not that hard to cheat the system as well: I’ve had friends visiting from NY who were able to get through a whole day of travelling on one fare and a few days using an ‘expired’ day pass. It’s not a good thing to do, but it’s easily done.

    Obviously I agree that the TTC much rather spend money on improving service, but a fare card system would be much, much better than the current system: day passes good for 24 hours from time of purchase, and a week/month for weekly/monthly passes; stopovers; ability to transfer at different points. It would also reduce the stress level of TTC workers and users somewhat – the card will just know when the transfer is allowed, when it’s not, how much time you have left, etc.

    How much would a fare card system cost anyway? I’ve seen some estimates, but they seemed way too high to be actually plausible, but with Canadian bureaucracy the way it is …

  13. Transit Toronto has some tranfer history too:

    I still remember the satisfying “caCHUNK” sound the old subway transfer machines made when you pushed the big button and your transfer shot out. Pushing the button and littering the floor with transfers was a particularly fun game when I was little and visiting the Big City. The transfer itself made a nifty souvenir too. The current machines don’t strike me as nearly as much fun, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m now 25 years older, or because I’m just used to them. Anyone know when they replaced the old “caCHUNK” machines? The Transit Toronto folks don’t seem to know either…I didn’t think it was that long ago, but time flies.

    Anyway, I’m of the opinion that newer technology is not in itself a sign of progress, and so I don’t see the TTC’s antiquated transfer system as a cause for shame. They make better souvenirs than that Montreal transfer anyway. Far more shameful are the TTC’s the poor levels of service in many areas, and the incredibly high fares that make it difficult for many to travel within the city. That’s where Montreal has us beat: While their single fare matches TO’s $2.75, their Metropass is a mere $65 vs our $109!

  14. TTC bus transfers are very wasteful. Every route needs a pad printed for every day of the year.

  15. It’s a little weird showing a Montreal bus transfer to a second bus driver — it’s just a little punch card and they don’t even care if they see the side that’s printed. I can see lots of potential for abuse there.

  16. The TTC transfers make more information available to you than is even mentioned here… though the time-of-issue isn’t written out in text, it’s still human readable since the employees have to be able to read it themselves, without a machine.

    I wrote a post on blogTO about how to decode this information:

  17. It is time that the TTC move into the 21st century and realize that public transit is not just for commuters to/from work Monday to Friday. Their trip-based transfer system reflects this old way of thinking (i.e.: you pay a fare to get from point A to point Z).

    The fact that a majority of TTC fares are now paid by the use of some sort of pass (monthly, weekly, or daily), why shouldn’t fare payment be based on a piece of time for transit use, as many other cities now use? Your single fare should get you a transfer that gives you use until an expiry time (somewhere from 90 to 180 minutes from time of issue).

    The advantages are numerious… No need to print different transfers for different routes (or possibly days, if you make the drivers punch the date on a single transfer design); No need to wait at a proper transfer point (no gamble on whether you should start walking only to have a bus pass you, or end up waiting longer than the walk would have been); no arguments over validity – expiry time has either passed or not.

    There are some ‘negatives’ that make this a hard pill to swallow… To the TTC, time-based transfers allow stop-overs, which they see as a loss in revenue. Never mind the riders who would use the TTC for a short out-and-back trip if it cost only a single fare, who now just walk because they won’t pay two fares for it. And just why is it wrong to grab something from a fast-food outlet located at an intersection where you are waiting for a connection, but not wrong to buy somehting in the fare paid area of a subway station while transferring?

    From the public point of view, time-based transfers would mean the end of free-access transfer machines at subway stations. Time-based transfers can only be obtained at the time of fare payment. It will be a typical public response to not want to give up the sacred cow of free-access transfer machines over getting time-based transfers. As usual, we will collectively cut off our noses to spite our faces.

    For an insight on a number of cities fare collection and transfer policies, see the Toronto LRT Information site at – several cities are featured with fare media outlined down the left side of the pages. All the cities covered use time-based fare except for Pittsburgh.

    One other city worth noting that is not covered (because it does not have an LRT system) is San Antonio. Their transfers are good for 2 hours, BUT they cost 15 cents each and must be surrendered when used to board a bus. The key is that the base fare for the system is only 80 cents! So a trip involving two buses (including a round trip if you return with 2 hours) is 95 cents.

  18. having used both montreal and toronto transit, i must say the transfer system in toronto is completely ridiculous. WHY can’t i walk to the next stop? What’s the big deal? It’s just a cash grab for people to pay more fares.

    In montreal it’s fabulous that the transfer is so devoid of information, it means you can use it longer and can use it anywhere. if you decide to hop back on the bus then you can do so without having to be yelled at by the driver.
    Montreal’s transfer system is more relaxed and as a result works better for the commuter!

    A timed transfer system in Toronto would be way better and would probably spare the drivers many arguments with commuters.

  19. hello,

    i love montreal bus transfers (the little punch cards) so much that i am using them in my artwork. are they going to stay around after we get the new card system?

    anyone know how i can get a bunch of used bus transfers?


  20. Hi
    I really like the old Montreal transfers, the ones with much much more information than the TTC ones.

    Does anyone know where I can find some of these old transfer antiques?