The Case for Free Public Transit

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The Case for Free Public Transit

The TTC's goal should be to help Torontonians get around. So why do fares keep rising?

Increasing ridership should be the goal of public transit. Photo by Nick Kernick in the Torontoist Flickr pool

Metrolinx recently announced a program to discount TTC fare for those transferring from the GO Transit system. (Other TTC riders and those transferring from other systems get nothing.) It’s a little gift that will cost about $18 million, but in the greater scheme of things, it’s a pretty weak gesture.

I say, go big or go home: In 2009, the economist Irwin Kellner argued in a MarketWatch column that public transit should be free. The sociologist Eric Olin Wright has made the same case. Free. Now we’re talking.

Kellner argued that we shouldn’t think of transit as a business that needs to recover its costs from its income. Public transit is not a closed system. It’s a service that feeds the entire economy and enables a society to thrive, because it provides that essential urban good: mobility.

As I’ve discussed before, urban economies are interdependent. People need to leave their homes to work, buy food, get educated, acquire services, find recreation, and so on. To thrive in a city requires mobility.

Increasing people’s mobility increases their economic participation. They can get and keep jobs, and they can move throughout the city spending their money.

Increasing people’s mobility also increases congestion. And this is where we get stuck in our thinking.

When we try to fix congestion by limiting mobility instead of providing alternatives, all we do is reduce economic participation. This hurts individuals and the city as a whole.

We don’t want to reduce mobility or the number of trips people take. We do want to reduce how far they have to go and change the mode they choose to get there.

I earn an income from my employment, and many others benefit from the fact that I can get to work. Through my employment, a number of other good things happen: I pay taxes, teach hundreds of university students, improve the world’s knowledge of cities, pay someone else to make me lunch when I forget to pack mine, and so on. We all benefit from other people getting where they need to go.

There are many factors affecting the continent-wide slide in public-transit ridership, to which Toronto is no exception. But one cause may well be that in many places, including Toronto, fares went up and service went down. Raising fares, especially when accompanied by service cuts, Kellner says, is the wrong way to invest in the economy. The increase in revenue comes at the expense of ridership: People either get in their cars instead or don’t make the trip at all.

Reducing TTC fares to zero for everyone, not just kids, would increase ridership significantly.

Many cities already have some degree of free transit. Merced County in California offers free transit every August, and their ridership jumps by over 30 per cent. Columbus, Ohio, did a pilot study over the last two years, providing free bus passes to workers at four companies, and saw the share of workers using buses double.

The increased economic participation pays dividends, as do the positive environmental and health impacts from fewer cars.

Studies regularly show that the cost of travel is one of the highest-rated concerns for transit riders, along with accessibility and frequency/reliability. The sensitivity to cost comes through consistently across gender, race, age groups, and even income groups. Not surprisingly, lower-income households rank transit fares as a more important issue than those in the top 5 per cent, but even about half of the wealthy rank it as an issue.

As soon as anyone starts talking about managing congestion with tolls or congestion charges in the absence of good alternatives, they are arguing for less movement or less efficient movement. Neither is good for a city.

We want people to choose better modes, not to choose to stay home. Transit surveys often ask people what they would do if the mode they use were not available. As many as 20 to 25 per cent say they wouldn’t make the trip—perhaps giving up a job, or a class, or a social contact, or a hobby they like. None of those is a good outcome.

It’s not just about direct economic participation. We should not underestimate the cost of people foregoing recreation or social contact. Some researchers believe the costs and health impacts of loneliness are as high or higher than for smoking or obesity.

There’s a common concern that saving the environment shouldn’t come at the cost of the economy. That’s a valid aspiration. But it turns out moving people more efficiently also helps the environment, because private cars are the least efficient and highest-polluting mode of transit available.

The great advantage of cities is that their built form enables all kinds of efficiencies. Private cars undo that advantage. If we were serious about getting this city moving, we would be doing everything possible to give as many people as we can a reliable alternative to driving. Instead, we keep raising transit fares, and we have extended battles over bike lanes and sidewalks.

Worse still, we pour billions into major infrastructure projects that help small numbers of people. In the case of SmartTrack, several proposed stations will actually reduce transit ridership. It’s a plan with a lot of political style but not much substance in terms of actual mobility.

Maybe it would be better not to think about having a “transit plan” but a “mobility plan,” where we think about how best to move millions of people. Maybe that would enable us to see how inefficient our existing situation is.

We need to increase the number of people taking transit by making it a much better option than driving. Making transit free not only lowers the cost to the rider, but also makes transit very convenient. This attracts new riders, and the more reliable and convenient the service is, they more likely they are to take transit more regularly.

Public transit is a public good. The city and the province should consider something more substantial than a little discount for selected suburban riders. Let’s get serious about investing in mobility. How about making the TTC free on Sundays? Or after 7 p.m.? Or…all the time?

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