Free roads? Why not free transit?
A recent Star editorial concerning road pricing generated the predictable response from the anti-toll crowd: we paid for the roads so we have a right to use them at no cost.
What if we all agreed that road use be free of charge, with one concession: public transit become free of charge as well? Consider this: we already pay close to 50 per cent of transit operating costs through taxes, why not go all the way and pay the full cost – it could be the cheapest way to give everyone equal access to transportation, and for those lucky enough to already own a private automobile it would be the most affordable second car they could ever buy.
Free-of-charge public transit is by no means a novel idea and even a number of municipal candidates across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) have mused about offering free transit to seniors during the middle of the day. Something that may not be widely known is that a number of cities around the world have been providing their residents with free of charge public transit for many years. Visit www.freepublictransit.org for more information and click on various communities listed in the box on the left-hand side of the Home Page.
While fare-free transit may not make sense for big cities with well-established transit systems it might be worth consideration for smaller communities that are struggling to grow transit ridership. The regions of Durham, York, Peel and Halton, the 905 belt, are grappling with record-breaking population growth and along with the new jobs and residents there’s ever-increasing traffic congestion and bad air that "auto-matically" come with more cars.
Fortunately municipal decision makers and the land development industry are attempting to turn the corner on urban sprawl and there are some notable examples in the GTHA such as Markham Centre and Cornell in York, and Oak Park in Halton. These communities have been planned with people walking, cycling and using public transit for the majority of their travel needs, and there’s a growing awareness that we won’t be able to accommodate projected population growth and densities using the same transportation approaches from an era when the car was king.
In the future, if we rely too heavily on private automobiles for the majority of our travel needs, studies and transportation models predict our communities will become choked by traffic and quality of life eroded by the associated negative environmental and social impacts.
All 905 communities have a desire and plans to increase transit use from an estimated 10 per cent today up to 30 per cent in 20 to 30 years. These targets are ambitious at best and others suggest they can’t be achieved without innovative policies and practices, and strategic investments that position shared and active modes of travel ahead of the private automobile.
According to the 2010 York Region business plan and budget, their transit system (YRT – Viva) has experienced the highest ridership growth rate in the GTHA in the past few years and one of the highest in Canada (as per Canadian Urban Transit Association statistics). Recently ridership growth has slowed down from double digit increases to approximately 3 per cent in 2008 and 2 per cent in 2009.
While this growth is impressive, and the introduction of Viva bus rapid transit and subway extensions have positioned York and its member municipalities as transit leaders in the GTHA, achieving their stated ridership goals may benefit from pioneering tactics like free of charge transit.
Today in York Region there are about 312,000 households and the transit department there expects to raise $50,499,500 from the fare box this year. Using some simple math - revenue divided by total homes – the investment required to provide each and every household in York Region with free of charge public transit for a year might be as low as $161.86.
This number is compelling considering the Canadian Automobile Association estimates it costs close to $9,000 a year to own and operate a motor vehicle in Ontario, and communities that have implemented free transit policies have seen huge transit growth plus reduced expenditures for road repair and construction.
Removing public transit fares in other urban areas appears to have paid off big time in terms of healthier ridership and improved quality of life. Could not this fall's municipal election campaigns (in which road tolls akin to political suicide have been mentioned) provide a forum in which fare-free transit is given a fair hearing?