Free Public Transit in Canada?

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada has added its voice to discussions about fare-free transit in Canada. This is an important development in the fight for free transit.

Read the ATU’s piece, Free Public Transit in Canada” here.

“ATU Canada advocates for fares to be affordable for all, and advocates for progress toward creating a fare-free transit. Incremental pricing actions (such as fare-freezes and reductions) are realistic in lieu of immediate fare-free transit subsidized by government. In our advocacy, we prioritize efforts to eliminate cost barriers to accessing jobs, education, health care, and other services, through the implementation of low-income passes. A gradual approach to fare reduction is sorely needed in many municipalities across Canada, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that transit is safe, reliable, and affordable for all.”

Trillium Line Extension

SNC-Lavalin’s Trillium Line extension plans failed to meet the minimum technical requirement not once, but twice. That the City could accept SNC-Lavalin’s flawed proposal is down to the use of a secret clause included in the Request for Proposals (RFP) contract which gave senior managers discretion to disregard technical requirements in favour of financial ones.

Putting cost-savings over technical soundness is no way to plan a transit system. Indeed, the problems with Stage 1 show that improper technical requirements can lead to delivery delays and a flawed system. Secretive dealings like this let corporations get away with delivering poor service while charging high costs to the people of our city. The City of Ottawa must stop building our transit system on the cheap and in ways that outsource its responsibility to build and maintain a functioning system to for-profit entities outside of its control.

Read more about the issue here: SNC-Lavalin’s ‘poor’ LRT bid should have been tossed, evaluators found (CBC).

Free transit is just the beginning

Check out this new article by James Wilt in Briarpatch about international movements for free transit!

“Free transit is about much more than transit: an end to austerity, a refusal of police power, and a demand for decommodified and universal public services. We simply can’t build the world we dream of until we confront ruling class power in all its forms.”

Click here to read the article.

Is transit a right?

Take a look at this great article from Michelle Perry in the Centre for Canadian Policy Alternatives January-February 2019 publication

Check out the whole CCPA Monitor for this month

FREE PUBLIC TRANSIT. It’s an idea dismissed as noble but unworkable in Canadian cities. Without fares, who would pay?

Yet free transit is making inroads into our public discussions about the cities we want in an era of climate breakdown, growing congestion, rideshare competition, rising urban air pollution and calls for transportation equity. And more of those discussions are framing transit as a right to be extended to all.

Last fall, Ottawa municipal council candidate Shawn Menard, who went on to unseat an incumbent in a central urban ward, wrote an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen explaining why he supported free transit. “[J]ust like libraries, sidewalks and parks, a free and efficient transit system would operate for the common good,” he said.

At a mayoral debate in Toronto, also last fall, candidate Saron Gebresellassi said several times that “transit is a right” and should be free. The “right to transit” was one of six rights in her platform, alongside the right to housing and to the fair allocation of city resources. Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan called Gebresellassi’s free transit proposal “the most interesting discussion idea of the debate— one that occupied an outsized amount of debate time, given that it’s a promise she alone has made.”

Free transit was on the agenda in Edmonton last fall after Councillor Aaron Paquette proposed that the city should look at eliminating fares. Paquette argued that “transit should be seen as an essential service [and] a basic necessity for a thriving economy.”

The idea of free transit is having a moment, with inspiration coming from a growing cadre of cities where it is already a reality. An international survey of the free transit movement can be found in the second edition of Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay To Ride in Elevators, published in 2018 by Montreal’s Black Rose Books.

Two oft-mentioned examples are Tallinn, Estonia, which in 2013 became the largest city in Europe to offer free transit to its residents, and Dunkirk, France, which in September 2018 offered the same free service for residents and visitors alike. Much attention was also paid to Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s launch of a study of free transit for Paris, which was expected at the end of 2018.

Tweeting a photo of himself and Hidalgo during a visit she made to look at Dunkirk’s free transit last October, Dunkirk Mayor Patrice Vergriete stated (translated from the French): “#freetransit is the right to the city for everyone. An innovative and modern answer to today’s real economic, ecological and social challenges.” In the background was a promotional poster of a smiling youth and the tagline: “liberty, equality, fraternity…mobility!”

It’s difficult to imagine a similar photo- up with two Canadian mayors, who operate in a political climate shaped by the archaic way our cities are funded, decades of auto-centric city planning, and the mainstreaming of public austerity in this country. Calgary’s downtown fare-free zone notwithstanding, it’s widely assumed that free transit in Canadian cities would place an unfair burden on taxpayers.

When asked on Twitter to eliminate fares on part of Ottawa’s new light rail line, Mayor Jim Watson responded: “Who will pay the salaries and costs to operate if the service is free? The taxpayers and they are already paying over fifty per cent of the costs to operate.”

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is likewise skeptical of the idea of free transit, which he told Edmonton council would be “equivalent to at least an eight per cent property tax increase.” Toronto Mayor John Tory has said he doesn’t support free transit for all, in part because “the people out there know how much tax they’re paying and they know that free transit is not free.”

In North America we have tended to look at only the most obvious costs of different transportation modes, but that may be changing. The “Cost of Commute Calculator,” developed by Discourse Media in the run-up to the 2015 transit referendum in Vancouver, uses full-cost accounting to show the cost to society of the same trip taken by foot, bike, bus or car. Based on the work of engineer and planner George Poulos, the calculator takes into account “externalities” such as carbon emissions, health impacts, congestion and noise pollution, and shows that driving is subsidized far more than other modes.

Even if we agree that transit is a right, making it fully or partially free in Canadian cities would require a serious rethinking of how transit is funded, how we calculate the true costs of our transportation decisions, and what kinds of behavior should be subsidized. But in the face of the climate crisis, growing urban inequality and—as Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently demonstrated—the urgent need for cities to have more control over decision-making and funding, now may be the perfect time for that rethinking.