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Abolish public transit fares – for social justice and climate change

Photo: Diego Mazz

A few years ago, I was sitting in the usual morning gridlock traffic among thousands of other commuters in the Metro Vancouver area. While we were all idling in our own singly-occupied vehicles, I remember thinking “there’s gotta be a better way.” Each of us was in our own vehicles, half-asleep, emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And then the Skytrain whizzed by overhead. There it was, the better way.

Public transit is much more than getting from point A to point B. It is implicitly linked to broader societal issues like climate change and social justice. Eliminating user fares would be a great first step in the right direction.

It is true that not everyone can use public transit. I myself fall into this category as I drive an electrical service vehicle all across the lower mainland. Still, there is much room for improvement; there are many single-occupancy vehicles that could be eliminated from the roads with a high-quality, green transit system.

A growing grass-roots movement

Free Transit Ottawa describes itself as “a diverse group of environmental and social justice activists who believe that public transit has a crucial role in combating climate change and promoting social justice.” 

These activists were recently covered by CBC, describing their goals and challenges related to abolishing user fares:

Advocates are calling for fare-free public transit in the city as a way of boosting ridership, cutting carbon emissions and making life more affordable for low-income residents.

[…]

In Canada, several cities have implemented more limited forms of fare-free public transit. In Calgary, a downtown portion of the C-Train is free to ride. BC Transit, which operates buses in Victoria and dozens of other communities in that province, allows unaccompanied children 12 and under to ride for free.

Free Transit Ottawa is hoping this city will be the first in Canada to go all the way, but the group is keenly aware of the roadblocks standing in the way, and the significant shift in thinking required to move them.

But how are we going to pay for it?

As with every publicly funded initiative, the inevitable knee-jerk reaction from the right-wing will be invoked: where the funding will come from? After all, nothing in life is free right?

User fares are often only a fraction of total public transit revenues. For an example from BC, Translink is the authority responsible for public transport, major roads and bridges in the Metro Vancouver area. 

Translink’s user fares, including programs like U-pass for university students, accounted for about $685 million in revenue, or about 33% of total revenue in 2019. Given that the province of BC pledged about $22.9 billion in infrastructure over a three-year period, the money is already there. It just has to be reallocated.

“We’re already spending the money on transportation, it’s just that the city is spending it on road-widening projects, developments that expand parking space, urban sprawl, and so these are all public dollars being spent to subsidize driving,” he said. “If we wanted to shift that to public transit, it would take a lot less money to do a lot of good to expand the service.”

Menard agrees that in the context of the larger city budget, it shouldn’t be hard to find the money.

“That type of funding can be made up fairly quickly in a budget of $4.1 billion,” he said.

Last month, Ottawa’s transit commission passed a motion by Coun. Catherine McKenney to ask the federal government for operational funding “to reduce the user share of the cost of public transit so that we can reduce or eliminate user fees and encourage more transit use.”

“It’s not unprecedented to ask upper levels of government for permanent operational funding,” Grover pointed out. “There’s lots of options, there just needs to be the willingness. I think that’s what it always comes down to, is that political will.”

Free transit for all is social justice

As stated on the Free Transit Ottawa website:

The broad goals of climate and social justice include making transit ‘fare free.’ Taking this step would also serve to do away with fare enforcement, which only serves to add to the over-policing of Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.

“We are advocating for long overdue changes to Ottawa’s transit system that would make it much more reliable, convenient, and attractive for all riders.” They propose 6 demands that could be implemented immediately:

  1. Make transit fare-free for OW and ODSP recipients
  2. Add 50 buses to the weekend service
  3. Add 40 vehicles to the Para Transpo fleet
  4. Create ‘neighbourhood’ bus routes linking citizens to local services, shopping and entertainment beginning in Vanier, Bay Ward, West Ottawa and Barrhaven
  5. Create dedicated bus-only lanes during rush hours on the most habitually late bus routes: 6, 7, 15 (was 12), 21, 80, 85, 39, 75 (was 94) and 55 (was 103)
  6. Directly elect the 4 citizen representatives on the Transit Commission and replace 2 of the 8 Councilors on the Transit Commission with representatives of the transit workers union (ATU Local 279)

Public transit as democracy

A more radical, democratic conception of public transit will go much further than fare-freedom. While many public transit workers are unionized, worker-ownership is essential for a truly democratic system of moving people.

As Nick Grover stated in the Ottawa citizen, “What if riders and bus operators, who have the deepest understanding of what quality transit requires, actually had some control over the service? The idea is novel, but how could baking human needs and technical expertise into transit planning be anything but an improvement?”

An improvement indeed. Both workers and riders of our transit system must be incorporated into the ownership and decision making of these public services

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