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The Case for Permanent Free Public Transit

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Issue: 82 Section: Labour Geography: Atlantic Halifax Topics: public transport, transport

March 19, 2012

The Case for Permanent Free Public Transit

by Ben Sichel

Don't do this just yet; rides on Halifax Metro Transit are only free until March 31. Photo: Ben Sichel

HALIFAX—Public transit will be running again in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) this week, and until the end of March transit users will enjoy unlimited free rides on buses and ferries.

Metro Transit says the free fares are a way to “welcome our customers back on board and thank everyone for their patience” during the 41-day strike. The Coast, Halifax's alt-weekly, also reports that free fares may be a way to protect drivers from angry riders.

While there’s been no shortage of criticism of city council and Metro Transit management recently, the city does deserve credit for this rather enlightened decision. Besides giving bus riders a break from searching for exact change or buying tickets or passes, the move creates space to discuss what might seem like an out-there idea—moving to a permanent zero-fare public transit system.

Of course, as HRM councillors are fond of reminding us, running a public transit system isn’t truly “free.” Fares account for 37 per cent of the cost of running Halifax’s buses and ferries, according to soon-to-be ex-mayor Peter Kelly; the rest comes from general tax revenue. Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation apparently opposes the current no-fare deal, tweeting that “there’s no free ride your [sic] paying for it anyway!”

Still, an impressive handful of small to mid-sized cities around the world have deemed it worthwhile to implement some degree of free transit for commuters.

Removing fares from public transit encourages more people to use it, and more people riding buses, ferries, and streetcars is undoubtedly a good thing. Transporting 40 people on a bus is much more efficient than transporting those people in private cars, meaning less traffic congestion, less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and less public spending on road infrastructure and parking lots.

Presumably, Metro Transit is aiming to stem a decline in bus ridership, which is a typical consequence of a transit strike. Ridership declined four per cent after the last bus strike ended in Halifax 14 years ago, according to Metro Transit’s own figures.

Indeed, long-term zero-fare transit systems have been shown to increase ridership by up to 50 per cent, according to a 2002 study by the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

Of course, notes the study, removing fares on its own likely doesn’t result in fewer motorists on the road. Where public transit is slow, inconvenient, or unavailable, commuters stick to their cars—ridership increases in fare-free zones are partly due to people taking the bus when they otherwise might have walked or cycled. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker told Halifax Magazine recently that when Metro Transit increased the frequency of the number 1 bus, ridership increased 17 per cent.

“Frequency is freedom,” Walker said.

It’s important to note that going fare-free can also save money for public transit systems, who no longer have to pay for ticket printing; farebox collection, maintenance and personnel costs; and insurance.

The DOT study says that fare-free systems can work especially well in smaller transit systems, and lists several success stories from around the U.S.; other lists of cities can be found on Wikipedia and at http://freepublictransports.com (a list that includes Halifax for its summer FRED service).

Interestingly, the DOT study recommends against free fares for larger centres, noting that zero-fare experiments in the 1970s led to “dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free,” and the “presence of vagrants on board buses [who] also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.”

Putting aside the offensive question of who the study considers a "choice rider," it’s true that a poorly implemented free-fare plan might be worse than none at all. (The study notes that some free-fare experiments caused a backlash from drivers experiencing more difficult working conditions, and ended up driving away customers.) That doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be done. There are movements toward free public transit in Toronto and New York (mayor Michael Bloomberg apparently supports the idea in principle), and just last week the idea was raised at a talk sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.

Should we be talking about it in Halifax too? Don’t forget that car travel is heavily subsidized as a matter of course, with governments across the country spending billions each year on highways, bridges, tax breaks for car companies and business that use vehicles, and the like. Construction of the Halifax Washmill Lake Underpass was approved by council last year even though it was $8 million over budget—$2.4 million more than the net increase to Metro Transit’s budget over the next five years, after the new contract negotiated with the transit workers’ union.

Let's keep free transit on the agenda after March 31.

Ben Sichel is a teacher and writer in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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