Time to look at fare-free transit?
Despite assurances that Gatineau’s transit system is being improved, many riders complain that the new schedules and route changes have not improved service – travel time is still outrageous, inconvenient, and costly. At the same time, drivers complain that rush-hour congestion is only getting worse. As for Gatineau instituting light rail, tramways, or even extending the Rapibus network, all will depend on federal/provincial funding, and that is not assured, unless it becomes an issue in the provincial election this October. To talk about light rail today is to avoid dealing with present transit problems.
Another bridge is a non-starter, given Ottawa’s insensitivity to its neighbours’ needs, as well as the prohibitive costs of such new infrastructure. Corporate interests may propose public-private “partnerships”, but these have proven more costly in the long run than straight-up public investment in many jurisdictions.
Given these circumstances and Gatineau’s constant population growth, traffic congestion and transit costs seem destined to grow. We’re not facing the best of all possible worlds, are we?
Ninety-seven cities and towns across the world have opted for a simple model: free-fares. Most appear successful in reducing congestion, pollution, and time loss, as well as saving money for working families. The US has 27 fare-free systems.
There are many variations. Some are free-fare for everyone, everywhere. Others have conditions: free for certain user groups (e.g., low-income families, students), within certain zones or certain times of day. Progressive transit systems combine several actions: free fares on smog days, limiting some streets to deliveries and business purposes, pedestrian-only streets, others open only to buses and taxis, and, the big one, encouraging cycling.
The arguments for fare-free are not only to ease traffic congestion by getting more people onto buses and out of single-occupancy cars, but also to reduce city smog and pollution. Fewer parking lots means fewer heat-sinks in city cores. Everyone would benefit, besides those with their transit costs reduced.
All of us must benefit, since most free-fare systems rely on taxes. Cities now pay about 70% of transit-system costs, so transit is already a subsidized city service. Transit is a necessity to keep our cities working; it is not a individualistic “commodity” “purchased” by “users”.
Even with a user-pay model, we’d still pay for roads, bridges, traffic lights, police, snow-clearing and maintenance, whether we drive or not. Forget user-pay; we want liveable cities, where we can raise kids pollution-free and pursue our non-economic interests.
Free-fare systems do not depend on increasing property taxes. Cities have instituted small taxes on large-employers or on properties near transit corridors, developers contribute to transit to gain transit locations -- “land-value capture” by the city. Hong Kong has operated a full-service transit system with $1 fares by maximizing ridership and instituting land-value capture.
Transit is a necessity, and it is a public good. Let’s talk from that, given there’s no new bridge coming, nor office complexes either. And when we do get light-rail, it’s free-fare, too. Because it works.