Should public transit be free to ride?

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Should public transit be free to ride?


A candidate vying for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party has a big idea for how to improve public transit: make it free to ride.

Michael Coteau, MPP for Don Valley East, frames his proposal as a visionary one that would dramatically increase transit usage and help address two of the biggest challenges facing modern cities: traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s taking an issue like climate change, which is obviously a very serious issue, and looking for opportunities to improve transit at the same time and bringing them together,” said Coteau in an interview.

The idea of eliminating transit fares may sound radical, but Coteau isn’t the first Canadian politician to propose it recently.

In the run-up to the October federal election, the NDP released a platform that included a pledge to work with municipalities and provinces to institute free transit. Last year, outsider mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi ran in the Toronto municipal election on a promise to eliminate TTC fares, arguing transit should be considered a right akin to health care or education.

But though the concept appears to be gaining traction here as well as abroad, some experts warn not only is the idea impractical, but it would be an inefficient way to boost ridership, and isn’t as progressive a policy as proponents claim.

Jurisdictions around the world have been experimenting with fare-free proposals since at least the 1960s. Tallinn, Estonia, Dunkirk, France, and Frydek-Mistek in the Czech Republic are among the cities that have embraced the policy in various forms.

Last year Luxembourg, the European microstate with a population of about 600,000, announced plans to make transit there free, while the German government said in early 2018 it would pilot free transit in five cities (although it’s since backed off the plan).

Coteau’s version is light on details. He hasn’t said how the provincial government would pay the enormous costs involved should he win the Liberal leadership in March and go on to topple the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in the 2022 provincial election.

In Toronto alone, the TTC is expected to collect about $1.3 billion in fares this year, revenue that’s used to operate the system and would have to be replaced if transit became free.

But the MPP says a fare-free system could be implemented gradually over 10 years. In the interim, the government could take incremental measures like allowing residents to ride without paying at certain times of day or on certain parts of the network.

He noted children under 13 already ride free on the TTC and GO Transit, and the number of eligible groups could gradually be expanded, perhaps to seniors or commuters who switch from private vehicles.

“You don’t have to change everything overnight. What you do have to do is find the low hanging fruit, the opportunities, and move on those quickly,” he said.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, the executive director of TTCriders, a non-profit transit advocacy group, said she supports lowering fares, and transit should be free to all low-income residents.

But she noted that according to research, it’s better service, not cheaper prices, that has been shown to be the primary driver of attracting more riders.

“People who can afford a car won’t ditch it if their bus is infrequent and unreliable,” she said.

Pizey-Allen said if the goal is to get more people taking transit, governments should invest in initiatives like bus-priority lanes and more frequent service.

A recent study published in the Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography reviewed how fare-free transit has been implemented in different cities, and concluded it can “play a crucial role in transport policy.”

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But the authors, Daniel Straub and Vaclav Jaros of Charles University in Prague, cautioned that eliminating fares is “only one aspect of a whole range of tools urban policy-makers can use” to achieve their goals.

As an example, they cited Hasselt, a Belgian city of about 77,000 that boosted transit ridership and cut traffic congestion by eliminating bus fares, but also by improving its transportation system.

The city invested in a new bus fleet, built a bypass road around the downtown area, and relocated parking lots to the city’s outskirts, where they were connected to the town centre by bus lines.

Despite being workable in some contexts, the authors concluded fare-free transit “is not suitable for every city” and “the system is mainly used in small to medium-sized cities.”

It’s not difficult to see why. While smaller municipalities can replace lost fare revenue with relatively modest tax increases or contributions from higher levels of government, big cities with expensive systems have fewer options.

Steven Farber, a transportation geographer at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said for fare-free transit to work in Toronto, the government would not only have to come up with funding to replace the $1.3 billion a year in lost fare revenue, but also hundreds of millions of dollars more to add service to the TTC’s often overcrowded system. Otherwise, the thousands of new riders fare-free transit is expected to attract would have nowhere to go.

The equivalent of the billions of dollars the scheme would require would be enough to pay for part of a subway extension, an entire LRT line, or multiple bus-priority lanes every single year. Farber argued investing in that kind of network expansion would be far more effective at convincing residents to get out of their cars than eliminating fares.

He argued most people who drive do so not because they find the $3.25 TTC fare too expensive, but because they’re willing to pay more for the advantages afforded by driving, such as convenience and quicker travel times.

To fully subsidize transit rides for all users, even wealthy ones, would be “regressive” and “a bad use of public dollars,” Farber argued. A better use would be to make transit free only for the relatively few low-income citizens who can’t afford it, which could be done at a fraction of the cost.

If policy-makers truly want to shift drivers to transit, Farber said there are tried-and-true methods to do so: increase fuel taxes, introduce road tolls, and use the proceeds to improve the transit system.

“You want to have a massive shift in congestion and greenhouse gas emissions in this region? Charge more for driving. It’s simple. And invest in better transportation options,” he said.

“But that’s politically much more difficult than giving something away for free.”

Ben Spurr

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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