Don’t miss the bus!
Last summer, the President of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association, Lily Ryan, penned an excellent editorial on our city’s bus system. If we wish to expand transit use across the city network (not merely on the workday commuter routes), she argued, what better way to increase use than by attracting riders early. “Early” – the teen years, our kids in high school and CEGEP. “Attracting” means offering teens mobility anywhere – at a cost they can afford, basically free (at non-peak hours).
And “increase use” means starting young and continuing life-long, and “wishing” that transit use increases means that we understanding the need to reduce vehicle numbers and their emissions, reduce wear and road maintenance, reduce congestion, its stress and unproductive lost hours, and, in general, reduce the waste of thousands of personal vehicles, eating fuel and defecating exhaust . . . all to save our individual health, to save the city’s budget, and to derail our planet’s fast cruise into climate chaos.
Offering a public service for free seems radical in today’s engineered-scarcity budgets, but her editorial picked up on this growing current and has been followed by more such calls. Last election a candidate for City Council proposed free transit for Ottawa, a candidate for mayor of Toronto proposed free transit; and Edmonton City Council had the proposal on its agenda. The call is growing!
We have the experience of Calgary’s downtown fare-free zone, plus the successes elsewhere in the world: the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, France’s Dunkirk and Paris ... and others. Free transit has not bankrupted any city nor run taxes through the roof.
The main objection is that transit already costs plenty and making it free would be like making ... what? ... health care free? Libraries? City parks and gardens? Schools are free. Even sidewalks are free. Imagine the expense!
One suspects that this austerity argument is really moral, not fiscal. The moral argument is this: there is no free lunch, and if you want one you’re asking for a “free ride” (yes, we are!), to avoid paying your own way. We hear this from grandparents who survived the Great Depression.
Everything has changed since the Great Depression – but not this attitude. Isn’t it time for our social morality to catch up with our social technology?
Put aside the moralizing. Fiscally, Vancouver has calculated full-cost accounting – measuring the costs of every input and effect – to compare the cost of the same trip by foot, cycle, car or bus. It measured all costs: carbon emissions, social stress, health impacts, noise pollution, road maintenance, policing. You know Vancouver’s answer: public transit is the most cost-effective. And the more transit is used, the cheaper it gets. Where’s Gatineau?
Getting there from here is what’s expensive, and this is another reason why a new financing of cities is required from both provincial and federal regimes.