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.