Transit Policy and Covid-19

Public transit is an essential service. In the midst of a pandemic it is also a particularly  dangerous one for transit workers and transit users. The City of Ottawa has tried to strike the right balance, but more needs to be done.  Free Transit Ottawa calls on the Mayor and City Council to immediately take the following steps:

1. Formally suspend all fare collection

Many riders are experiencing a severe loss of income but still need to use transit to make essential trips. 16 cities in Canada have already implemented free transit, however, OC Transpo has only announced back door boarding on buses and that drivers won’t accept cash payments. Fare gates on the LRT remain in operation. Due to the closure of OC Transpo Service Centres, seniors are expected to make special trips to Loblaws or Shoppers Drug Mart to renew discount passes. Procedures for renewing the Equipass are unclear at best. This policy is iniquitous. Riders who lack the means to pay should not be made to feel guilty or have to deal with the threat of fines.

2. Ensure the level of service allows for the required physical distancing

While some service reductions are appropriate given the circumstances, the switch to Saturday Service is too crude a response. In particular it ignores the relatively large numbers of people using the bus to get to and from work. The number of buses in service during peak hours needs to be increased so as to meet riders needs while maintaining the necessary physical distancing.

3. Make masks and hand sanitizer available on all buses and trains.

Ottawa Public Health recognizes that public transit is an essential service “that must continue to allow the city to function.” The majority of riders are taking transit because they do not have another option.  Masks and hand sanitizer are necessary in order to make these necessary trips as safe as possible.

4. Ensure that everyone providing OC Transpo and Para Transpo services has access to testing for the Covid-19 virus and is eligible for paid sick leave.

Transit operators are providing an essential service during this time. For their own safety, and to reduce the spread of Covid-19, workers providing essential services should have access to testing as soon as possible, and be eligible for paid leave if exposed to the virus. 

5. Ensure that all operators have regular access to washrooms for bathroom breaks and handwashing prior to meals.

In order to follow the recommendations of public health authorities operators must be able to wash their hands often, especially before eating.

Signed by:

  • Clint Crabtree, President and Business Agent, ATU Local 279
  • CUPE 4600
  • Ecology Ottawa
  • The Energy Mix
  • Free Transit Ottawa 
  • Fair Trade Carleton 
  • Healthy Transportation Coalition
  • Migrante Ottawa
  • Group of 78
  • Ottawa Coalition for a Green New Deal 

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.