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The Case for Permanent Free Public Transit

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Don't do this just yet; rides on Metro Transit are only free until March 31st. (photo: Ben Sichel)
Don't do this just yet; rides on Metro Transit are only free until March 31st. (photo: Ben Sichel)


By Ben Sichel

Public transit will be running again in HRM this week, and until the end of March transit users will enjoy unlimited free rides on buses and ferries.

Metro Transit says the free fares are a way to “welcome our customers back on board and thank everyone for their patience” during the 41-day strike. The Coast also reports that free fares may be a way to protect bus drivers from angry riders.

While there’s been no shortage of criticism of city council and Metro Transit management on this website recently, the city does deserve credit for this rather enlightened decision. Besides giving bus riders a break from searching for exact change or buying tickets or passes, the move creates space to discuss what might seem like an out-there idea – moving to a permanent zero-fare public transit system.

Of course, as HRM councillors are fond of reminding us, running a public transit system isn’t truly “free.” Fares account for 37% of the cost of running Halifax’s buses and ferries, according to soon-to-be ex-mayor Peter Kelly; the rest comes from general tax revenue. Killjoy Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation apparently opposes the current no-fare deal, tweeting that “there’s no free ride your [sic] paying for it anyway!”

Still, an impressive handful of small to mid-sized cities around the world have deemed it worthwhile to implement some degree of free transit for commuters.

Removing fares from public transit encourages more people to use it, and more people riding buses, ferries, and streetcars is undoubtedly a Good Thing. Transporting 40 people on a bus is much more efficient than transporting those people in private cars, meaning less traffic congestion, less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and less public spending on road infrastructure and parking lots.

Presumably, Metro Transit is aiming to stem a decline in bus ridership, which is a typical consequence of a transit strike. Ridership declined 4% after the last bus strike ended in Halifax 14 years ago, according to Metro Transit’s own figures.

Indeed, long-term zero-fare transit systems have been shown to increase ridership by up to 50 per cent, according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Of course, notes the study, removing fares on its own likely doesn’t result in fewer motorists on the road. Where public transit is slow, inconvenient, or unavailable, commuters stick to their cars – ridership increases in fare-free zones are partly due to people taking the bus when they otherwise might have walked or cycled. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker told Halifax Magazine recently that when Metro Transit increased the frequency of the number 1 bus, ridership on that route increased 17 per cent.

“Frequency is freedom,” Walker said.

It’s important to note that going fare-free can also save money for public transit systems, who no longer have to pay for ticket printing; farebox collection, maintenance and personnel costs; and insurance.

The DOT study says that fare-free systems can work especially well in smaller transit systems, and lists several success stories from around the U.S.; other lists of cities can be found on Wikipedia and at freepublictransports.com (a list that includes Halifax for its summer FRED service).

Interestingly, the DOT study recommends against free fares for larger centres, noting that zero-fare experiments in the 1970s led to “dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free,” and the “presence of vagrants on board buses [who] also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.”

Putting aside the offensive question of who the study considers a ‘choice rider,’ it’s true that a poorly implemented free-fare plan might be worse than none at all. (The study notes that some free-fare experiments caused a backlash from drivers experiencing more difficult working conditions, and ended up driving away customers.) That doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be done. There are movements toward free public transit in Toronto and New York (mayor Michael Bloomberg apparently supports the idea in principle), and just last week the idea was raised at a talk sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce (!).

Should we be talking about it here too? Don’t forget that car travel is heavily subsidized as a matter of course, with governments across the country spending billions each year on highways, bridges, tax breaks for car companies and business that use vehicles, and the like. Construction of the Washmill Lake Underpass was approved by council last year even though it was $8 million over budget – $2.4 million more than the net increase to Metro Transit’s budget over the next 5 years, after the new contract negotiatied with the transit workers’ union.

Let's keep free transit on the agenda after March 31st.


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free public transportation

For the past few years, more individuals have been looking towards public transportation in order to save money on the cost of a daily commute. High fuel costs and less-than optimal conditions led to the second-highest year of use in American history. Source for this article: Public transportation usage still increasing

Honour system

This comment is slightly off-topic, but one transit fare system I am fond of is the so-called 'honour-based' one common in European countries (and others, I am sure). Transit users are expected to pay a fare by ride, day, week, month, etc. like they would here (the price of these fares is an antirely different question, as some places like London are now charging exorbitant fees); however, these tickets are now checked by the bus/streetcar driver. Instead, the user must "punch" them at a small machine in the vehicle to "validate" them. This way of doing things greatly speeds up the transit system and helps keep the buses/streetcars on time (think: How many times have you tapped your foot behind someone rifling for their bus pass in an enormous purse?). While it depends on transit users being honest, fear of high fines if caught without a validated ticket tend to keep users 'in line'. Somewhat Big Brother-ish (fear of the unseen, unpredictable punishment), yes, but these checks are infrequent and, according to what I've heard, tend to be lenient to transient populations. Something to think about. I've rambled long enough.

The "Honour System"

The "honour system" described by Natascia L. is, in fact, the one currently in use on Vancouver's rapid transit ("Skytrain") system.  Riders simply purchase their tickets (or validate pre-bought one's) at the station's ticket machines before boarding.

Occasionally, transit cops (a.k.a. "Skypigs") will conduct fare inspections.  Often they will deliberately stand back from the top of the escalators so "fare evaders" don't see them until they're practically standing in front of them at which point it's too late to turn around to avoid them.  Or they board the train and snap "fare inspection!" before checking tickets.

Fare inspections, though infrequent, are certainly not "lenient" to "transient populations," quite the opposite in fact.  It is common for the transit cops to deliberately target passengers who look like they may be homeless or poor.  Those found without valid fares are issued a fine of around $175.00, which may not be a big deal to somebody making $45,000 per year, but to a person on social assistance it's an exorbitant sum.

It is never a good idea to get into a hassle with a transit cop, who have the same powers as other cops and are equipped with glock semi-automatic handguns, pepper spray, steel batons and tasers.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as the "right to transit" in Canada.  Or as a Skypig once said to a group of us when we complained about not having the money to purchase a ticket "You've got two good legs.  Use them."

A better idea would be to fight to make affordable and accessible transit a right, similar to campaigns around housing, health care and other "social rights."

Incidentally, Skytrain will soon be abandoning the "honour system" and installing turnstiles in all their stations.  However, the transit cops, ostensibly created to police "fare evasion," will be kept on, perhaps to find some new way to harass and abuse the marginalized and poor transit-using populations.



The main reason why I support the free transit campaign in Toronto is because of a "right to move". As was suggested above, I think that local transit ought to be a free public utility, alongside bike programs and limited private transport. I don't think that reasons like "benefiting the poor" or "protecting the environment" are winning arguments when tested, though. 
For example, in Ontario, total transit fares collected annually account for maybe roughly $2 billion. But for $2 billion, you could raise welfare by $400 a month - a much better deal than a free transit pass (which normally costs $126). That's because much of the money collected in transit fares comes from people who can basically afford it, such as people with jobs who are commuting. Most policy experts would probably say that giving low-income people money is a better deal than giving everyone free transit. Of course, to a limited extent, Ontario already does this - if you are on social assistance and can "prove" you need money to get to regular appointments, they will pay for most of the cost of a transit pass.
As for discouraging car use, first we have to admit that the major factor keeping people in cars isn't cost (in a certain sense). The TTC estimates that operating a car in Toronto costs something like $14,000 for the car plus average parking. Using public transit might cost something like $1,500 for a year. There's no comparison. Beyond that, coverage, while it could be improved a lot, is still such that the average person could use transit if they wanted. But studies show that something like 80% of drivers never use transit at all. That's because a car is a better experience for most people, and free transit (in itself) doesn't really address that much at all. If cars are too cheap right now relative to their environmental and social impact (I certainly agree they are) then you could always make cars more expensive through higher taxes - car taxes, gasoline taxes, congestion charges, parking meters.
Transit probably matters a lot more in terms of overall urban structure - how we choose to build our cities. And it ought to be free, since we have a "right to move." But it doesn't matter as much for cost.

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