Free Transit in the Age of COVID-19

The arrival of COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the inequalities that pervade our city and Canada as a whole.  The virus itself has disproportionately infected women and/or racialized people in low-wage and precarious jobs, many of whom like grocery store clerks, health care workers and food processors were deemed ‘essential’.[i]  Low wage workers are over-represented among those who have lost their jobs as their workplaces were closed as part of the fight to contain the spread of the virus.

COVID-19’s particularly devastating impact on the residents of long-term-care homes and the workers who care for them and the lack of government preparation has laid bare the tragic consequences of decades of neo-liberal policies of privatization and austerity.  Relatedly, Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have focused overdue attention on the targeting of racialized communities by police and the chronic underfunding of social services.   These revelations are taking place in the context of a climate crisis that is the product of the same systems that generate economic and racial inequality and ensure that its human impact mirrors those inequalities.  Public transit is implicated in all of these developments.

Transit and Social Justice

Mobility and transportation have been dramatically reshaped under COVID-19.  Public transit ridership has plummeted as people have lost jobs and/or workhours, moved to working from home or are limiting social interactions.  The resulting loss of fare revenue has thrown OC Transpo into a deficit exceeding $120M as of July and estimated at $150M by December 2020[i].

This raises the spectre of service cutbacks, a concern heightened by suggestions that people, at least those who can, will rely more on their cars as they return to workplaces and resume normal activities.

This would have devasting effects on the 25 – 30 % of the population, overwhelmingly low income, that depend on public transit to get to work or school, shop, access public services and participate in the social and cultural life of the city.    As a recent study showed, those who continued to rely on transit during the pandemic were more likely to be poor, racialized, have a disability, and to be born elsewhere than those who stopped riding.[ii]  Already, they are served poorly by the existing Ottawa transit system which is mainly designed to get people with regular 9-5 jobs in the downtown core to and from work.  Moreover, fares in our city are among the highest in Canada. 

The LRT hasn’t changed this.  Indeed, the reduced bus service has made using transit more difficult for some people.  Any service cutbacks would compound this problem as they would inevitably fall on the bus service, eliminating many relatively secure, full time, jobs.

Transit and Climate Justice

The leading source of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change in Ontario is the transportation sector.  In Ottawa it accounts for over 40% of GHG emissions,[i] most of which come from private automobiles.  Switching to public transit can cut these emissions by two-thirds on a per trip basis.[ii]  This points to the central place of public transit in any serious green-jobs strategy. The shuttered GM plant in Oshawa should be converted to make electric buses [and batteries] thus preserving full time unionized jobs in that cities. And expanding transit services in Ottawa and other cities would create additional fulltime, unionized jobs.

Fare Free Transit

A return to “normal” is not enough.  To meet the goals of Climate and Social Justice in the wake of COVID -19, bold measures are needed to attract people to public transit and away from using private automobiles.  No single measure does this more than making transit ‘fare free’.  Taking this step would also serve to do away with fare enforcement, which only serves to add to the over-policing of Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.[i]  

Replacing the roughly $200M in revenue OC Transpo derives from fares is beyond the limited sources of financing available to the city in the context of the Covid pandemic.  The Federal and Provincial governments have already committed to a Safe Restart Agreement that will see Ottawa receive $75M for transit.  This funding needs to be made permanent and increased by an additional $125M. This should be based on progressive forms of taxation that target the income of Canada’s richest citizens whose wealth has exploded over the past few decades.  The tax rate paid by individuals in the top two income brackets [those earning over $150,00 and over $214,000 annually] could be increased and/or a Wealth Tax could be imposed on Canada’s richest citizens.  For example, a Wealth Tax of a mere 1% on individuals with $20M or more in wealth would generate some $7 Billion in revenue. Ottawa’s share [$214M] based on its population would more than replace the lost fare revenue.[ii]

A “New Vision” for OC Transpo

However, Ottawa should not wait for Federal action before taking steps to make transit more affordable.  At the same time, we must recognize that fare free transit is of limited value if the transit system doesn’t take you where you want to go in a safe and reliable manner.  The transportation system we need must place public transit at its heart.  

Such a system needs to be developed in consultation with many transit users and providers.

But the numerous public forums that have been held on transit issues recently , the comments from participants in the Transit Week Challenges and our extensive discussions with transit users reveal a broad agreement on its outlines.  Based on this we have identified 6 key changes that would bring highly desired immediate improvements and set the stage for others in the future.

  • Make transit fare – free for recipients of OW and ODSP
  • Add 50 buses to the weekend service
  • Add 40 vehicles to Para Transpo
  • Create ‘neighbourhood’ bus routes linking citizens to local services, shopping and entertainment beginning in Vanier, Bay Ward, West Ottawa and Barrhaven
  • Create bus only lanes during rush hours on routes of the most habitually late buses: 6, 7, 15 [was 12], 21, 80, 85, 39, 75 [was 94] and 55 [was 103]
  • Directly elect the 4 citizen representatives on the Transit Commission and replace 2 of the 8 Counselors on the Transit Commission with representatives of the transit workers union [ATU Local 279]

These changes would make the transit system much more appealing, contributing to reducing emissions as well as making for a more just city. Further, at a time of large job losses and economic hardship, these changes would increase the number of secure, unionized jobs as part of a just recovery and transition to sustainability.

Financing Our New Vision

The cost of the service improvements we are calling for would be roughly $70M and could easily be financed from local sources of revenue.  Much could come from reallocating spending from expanding the city’s fossil fuel infrastructure [i.e. road widening], and there are several possibilities for financing the remainder. The fees paid by companies like Uber and Lyft in lieu of serving disabled people are well below recommended levels and should be increased.  There is also room to impose new taxes and fees designed to reduce GHG emissions. Parking rates which have been frozen since 2008 could be increased, as could the development charges on low density suburban development that reinforces reliance on private cars.  A congestion charge could also be introduced. Finally, the property tax system could be made more progressive so as to increase the contribution of Ottawa’s wealthiest citizens to the city’s revenue.


[i] Cheung, Jessica (CBC). 2020. “Black people and other people of colour make up 83% of reported COVID-19 cases in Toronto.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-covid-19-data-1.5669091

Kerrissey, Jasmine and Clare Hammonds (The Conversation). 2020. “Low-wage essential workers get less protection against coronavirus – and less information about how it spreads.” https://theconversation.com/low-wage-essential-workers-get-less-protection-against-coronavirus-and-less-information-about-how-it-spreads-138076

Flores, Edward Orozco and Ana Padilla (Community and Labor Center). 2020. “Hidden Threat: California COVID-19 Surges and Worker Distress.” https://clc.ucmerced.edu.672elmp01.blackmesh.com/sites/clc.ucmerced.edu/files/page/documents/hidden_threat_july_12.pdf  Glowacki, Laura (CBC). 2020. “Women, health-care workers account for bulk of Ottawa’s COVID-19 cases.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/data-june-ottawa-pandemic-1.5593998

[i] Pringle, Josh (CTV News). “Ottawa receives $124 million to address COVID-19 budget pressures.” https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/ottawa-receives-124-million-to-address-covid-19-budget-pressures-1.5061462

[ii] Ibid.

[i] City of Ottawa. 2019. “Results of 2017 and 2018 Community and Corporate Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventories.” https://documents.ottawa.ca/sites/documents/files/2017_2018_greenhouse_gas_inventories_en.pdf

[ii] http://cutaactu.ca/sites/default/files/issuepaperno.16_publictransit_aclimatechangesolution.pdf

[i] Transit Center. 2020. “Why Decriminalize Fare Evasion?” https://transitcenter.org/why-decriminalize-fare-evasion/

[ii] See Andrew Jackson, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/broadbent/pages/7711/attachments/original/1592491105/The_Case_for_a_Wealth_Tax_in_Canada_-_Report.pdf?1592491105