Free movement in transit is on the rise, advocates say

Late last Thursday afternoon, volunteers from the Free Transit Ottawa advocacy group stood near the gates of St. Laurent Mall, pushing leaflets into the hands of people rushing to catch a bus on the outside platform.

“Free rate now, free rate forever,” asked the leaflets in bold print.

It doesn’t seem like a fringe idea anymore.– Nick Grover, Free Transportation Ottawa

The very idea of ​​free public transit for all may sound bold, too, but most of the commuters who took the time to stop and talk greeted it enthusiastically. After getting a taste of the free service this month – one gesture of appreciation from the city for suffering one disruptive LRT outage after another – the long-suffering public seems poised for lasting relief .

For Nick Grover, member of Free Transit Ottawa, it’s an idea whose time has finally come.

“One thing that comforts me is the fact that it doesn’t seem like a fringe idea anymore,” Grover observed. “It’s starting to feel like it could actually happen here.”

Nick Grover of Free Transit Ottawa was among the volunteers who handed out flyers at the St. Laurent Mall last week. The group plans to step up its campaign in the coming months, Grover said. (Reno Patry / CBC)

According to advocates, around 100 jurisdictions around the world are now experimenting with at least some form of toll-free bus, tram or train service with the aim of reducing congestion, reducing carbon emissions and making life more affordable. for low-income residents. which form a significant part of the public transport population in most cities.

These include Tallinn, Estonia, which introduced free public transport for registered residents in 2013, and Luxembourg, where use of a bus, tram or train is free. for everyone since March 2020.

In Canada, several cities have introduced more limited forms of free public transportation. In Calgary, part of downtown C-Train is free. BC Transit, which operates buses in Victoria and dozens of other communities across the province, allows unaccompanied children 12 and under to travel for free.

Free Transit Ottawa is hoping that this city will be the first in Canada to go all the way, but the group is keenly aware of the obstacles that stand in the way and the significant change in mentality required to move them.

WATCH | Idea of ​​free public transit may be gaining popularity in Ottawa, advocate says

Idea of ​​free public transit may be gaining popularity in Ottawa, advocate says

Nick Grover of Free Transit Ottawa says appetite for free public transit in the city has increased as commuters find out what it’s like to travel for free in December. 1:13

Dependence on revenue from the tariff box

Like most North American cities, Ottawa relies on the fare box to finance a significant portion of its transit operations.

Here, passengers bore 55% of the costs of operating OC Transpo buses and trains, or about $ 200 million a year before the pandemic dramatically reduced ridership – and fare revenues. (Number calculators at town hall call this the “ticket recovery rate.”)

Each year, the cost of using OC Transpo – already among the highest in Canada – increases, and 2022 will be no exception, with fares is expected to increase an additional 2.5 percent to extract an additional $ 5.1 million from the runners’ wallet, which will then flow back into the system.

The free movement is disrupting this funding model. Advocates believe that public transit, like other essential services, should never have been a user-pay system in the first place. After all, we aren’t charged for driving on a city street, walking on a city sidewalk, or sitting in a city park. Our property taxes pay for these basic amenities.

As a Montreal urban planner and expert in social economy Jason Price, co-editor of the 2018 book Free public transport wrote: “We don’t pay for elevators, do we? And rightly so. The whole idea is absurd. Yet the public transport system plays the same role in the city, only sideways . “

People board a bus on Wellington Street West last week for a month of free transit. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic drop in ridership and revenues for OC Transpo. (Trevor Pritchard / CBC)

Ottawa policymakers have already, in their limited fashion, signaled that they are at least open to the principle of free public transit by offering it to certain select groups: the elderly ride for free two days a week, and the budget 2022 passed last week to include free transit passes for shelter guests.

“As a city we’re moving in a direction that people are starting to think, well, why do we have user fees for that, but not for things like libraries? Said the count. Shawn Menard, who credits advocacy groups like Free Transit Ottawa for starting the conversation.

“I think the cause and the case of [fare-free transit] is made all over the world, and in our city now much more than ever before. “

Around the council table, however, free public transport remains a radical concept, Menard said.

“There is still a lot of resistance, and above all this resistance is related to the cost.”

Changing priorities

Advocates of free public transport say it doesn’t have to be that way. Rather, Grover explained, it’s more about moving the money.

“We’re already spending the money on transport, it’s just that the city is spending it on road widening projects, developments that expand parking spaces, urban sprawl, and so it’s all money. public spending to subsidize driving, ”he said. . “If we were to transfer this to public transit, it would take a lot less money to do a lot of good to expand the service.”

Menard agrees, in the context of the city’s bigger budget, it shouldn’t be difficult to find the money.

“This kind of funding can be built up pretty quickly in a budget of $ 4.1 billion,” he said.

The city last week turned down a CBC request to speak with CFO Wendy Stephanson over the story.

Com. Shawn Menard supports free transit. “There is still some hesitation, politically and otherwise,” Menard said. (Jean Delisle / CBC)

There is a broader movement underway, led by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Keep Transit Moving Coalition, to convince senior levels of government to do more to help cities fund their transit operations.

In Ontario, cities can already count on an annual rebate of the province’s gasoline tax. For Ottawa, that stood at $ 38.5 million for 2020-21, although the pandemic threatens to erode that source as well. The city matches this provincial contribution through a tax on public transportation, which is expected to increase next year.

(The city’s transit budget for 2022 also relies on a one-time bailout of more than $ 60 million from the province to cover additional costs related to COVID-19.)

Last month, the Ottawa Transit Commission passed a Council motion. Catherine McKenney will ask the federal government for operational funding “to reduce the user share of the cost of transit so that we can reduce or eliminate user fees and encourage increased use of transit”.

“It is not without precedent to ask higher levels of government for permanent operational funding,” said Grover. “There are a lot of options, you just need the will. I think that’s always what it boils down to, is that political will.”

Dreaded “false choice”

Some advocates fear that even if politicians find the will to reduce or eliminate Ottawa’s dependence on fare box revenues to run OC Transpo, they could compensate by cutting service.

“The fare is absolutely important… but we also need a service that is frequent, reliable and gets people where they need to go,” said Laura Shantz of the Ottawa Transit User Advocacy Group. . “There is a great fear that we have a wrong choice, a compromise, we will give you free public transport but it’s going to be so terrible it won’t work.”

Such a system could be fairer, Shantz said, but commuters who have a choice are unlikely to board, even if it’s free.

“You wouldn’t want to just cut the budget and say, ‘OK now, it’s free.’ You want high quality service because it attracts users, ”said Menard, who noted that the number of users in Ottawa has been declining steadily for about a decade. (The 2022 budget is based on a return to 82% of ridership levels before the pandemic, but many believe that is unrealistic.)

In Winnipeg, Vivian Santos County has encountered resistance in her fight for toll-free transit. “The biggest problem is the money. Who will pay ? Santos said. (Jaison Empson / CBC)

The idea of ​​free public transportation has gained support from some unlikely corners. The Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers and other OC Transpo employees in Ottawa, is a member of the Keep Transit Moving Coalition, while the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group has supported Menard’s idea. to have free shuttles on Bank Street to take people to and to events at Lansdowne Park.

Yet some advocates of free transit are finding that they can only make inroads when they tone down their demands.

In Winnipeg, Vivian Santos County asked staff to report on the feasibility of a $ 1 bus ticket after her campaign for free transit failed.

“The biggest problem is the money. Who will pay ? Santos said. “In my mind it’s obvious, but I think [for] the whole population that lives in the suburbs… where everyone relies on vehicles, it’s more difficult to convince them. “

In Ottawa, Menard said he encountered resistance not only from his fellow city council members, but also from city staff who opposed the word “freely”.

“There is still some hesitation, politically and otherwise,” he said.

To help sell the idea here, Free Transit Ottawa is proposing to start with Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program recipients before opening free transportation to the general population.

Grover believes the city is moving in the right direction, albeit more slowly than some would like.

“You get the feeling that very slowly and reluctantly there is some movement,” he said.

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