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How much should a ride on the Union Pearson Express cost?

When I was in Chicago a few weekends ago, one of the things we did was take the train from Midway Airport to downtown. We were a large group, but since it was only $2.25 and we figured it would be easier and faster than contending with traffic, we decided to take it.

Since it was their local transit service (as opposed to a dedicated airport rail line), the train came within a few minutes and it took us about 25 minutes to get to the Loop. It was a great experience. And I would take it again the next time I go to Chicago.

I mention this because there’s been a lot of debate in Toronto recently about the potential ticket price for the new Union Pearson Express train to the airport. Some are suggesting that it could cost upwards of $30 for a one way ride, which would also take 25 minutes and would leave every 15 minutes.

The concern is that at this price, the train will only serve the business community and the rich. And indeed, it’s a lot more than the $2.25 I paid when I landed in Chicago earlier this month. But at the same time the Union Pearson Express promises to offer a more refined travel experience than your regular old subway train. So how should it be priced?

Pricing exercises are really interesting because, as David Fitzpatrick pointed out in a recent tweet, increasing the price of the ticket will lower ridership. And at a certain point, this will cause overall revenues to also decline (the loss in ridership stops being made up by the higher ticket price). So, in theory at least, there exists a magic, profit maximizing number.  

Of course, profit may not be the only goal. One might also be interested in reducing the number of vehicles on the road, promoting sustainability, and generally providing people with a convenient way to get to and from the city’s biggest airport. And should this be case, then those factors also need to be worked into the pricing model.

Now, I don’t know what that magic number should be off hand, but I do think we need to be clear on our goals as that decision is made.

I personally believe that we underprice roads in this city, which is why we have such a supply and demand imbalance (i.e. gridlock). And so if we decide that rail travel should be a premium service, then I don’t think it’ll do much to correct that imbalance.

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