Could free transit help Canadian cities address climate justice and social equity?

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, some Canadian cities briefly introduced transit fare suspensions. Now, advocates across the country are pushing for these fare-free systems to become permanent.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, some Canadian cities introduced transit fare suspensions and backdoor boarding to encourage physical distancing.

Vancouver, B.C. and Edmonton, Alta. suspended fare collection from March to June, and Montreal, Q.C. did so until August. Toronto, Ont. didn’t suspend fares completely, but put a hold on fare enforcement until June.

While ridership was down, essential workers—many of whom are women and people of colour—were still forced to use public transit to get to work. A survey conducted by PwC Canada in July 2020 found 27 per cent of Canadians were still commuting to an in-person workplace.

Vincent Puhakka of TTCRiders, a Toronto-area transit advocacy group, said pandemic fare suspensions across the country prove fare-free transit systems aren’t just working, but are also necessary.

“If you think about it, relying on the farebox makes you vulnerable to things like [the pandemic],” he told The Pigeon in an interview.

“What if the next crisis is something else that causes ridership to drop for some reason? You can’t have that. You can’t run a public service that way,” Puhakka said.

What does it mean to ask for free transit?

Puhakka isn’t alone. Free transit movements have been growing in many Canadian cities, even before the pandemic—but what does “free transit” even mean?

On the surface it’s exactly what it sounds like—a transit system citizens can use without paying fares.

The main benefits of a free system are twofold. First, giving people an incentive to take the bus instead of driving a car significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Second, free transit gives people of all backgrounds—including marginalized, low-income citizens—equal access to transportation.

The Amalgamated Transit Union of Canada (ATU) states there are two forms of fare-free transit.

Partially free transit allows certain riders—like young people, students or seniors—to ride for free or at a discounted rate. Partially free transit could also mean certain routes are free or transit is free at certain times, like rush hour.

Montreal’s transit service is always free for children under five years old, and sometimes free for children between six and 11. Meanwhile, the Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) and Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) offer free rides to children under 12.

These cities also offer some version of discounted fares to students, seniors, and low-income riders.

Fully free transit, on the other hand, embodies a system where public transit is fare-free for all riders regardless of age or social status.

This distinction is important. Many Canadian cities already offer partially free transit, but none currently offer entirely free systems. And when most advocates talk about free transit, they mean a fully free system for every single rider.

Free transit is more than a concept

At least 97 cities around the world already have some form of free transit. Most of these are in Europe, and Tallinn—the capital of Estonia, with a population of over 400,000—is the shining example.

According to the city’s website, Tallinn introduced fare-free transit in 2013. Residents of the city ride for free. Visitors do pay to use the system, but the bulk of transit funding comes from the municipality. The city has since seen a significant increase in ridership.

There’s also Luxembourg, which made public transit free across the entire country last year for tourists and residents, and includes buses, trains, and trams. Disabled citizens also have access to a service that functions like a door-to-door taxi service through this system.

Though calls for free transit have grown in popularity across Canada, it’s not an entirely new idea.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Jason Prince, an urban planner and professor of social economy at McGill University, explained that calls for free transit in Canada can be traced back to 1970s Montreal.

The movement started as a push for free or lower fares for seniors. When the city introduced an overall fare hike instead, students organized around the idea of free transit for all.

The movement gained some traction, but Prince explained it ultimately crumbled in the mid 1970s.

In 2017, Valérie Plante—Montreal’s first woman to become mayor—made a campaign promise to consider free public transit for seniors and children under 12, and reduce fares for low-income residents. Instead, Montreal’s transit service increased monthly fares by two dollars six months after her election.

Today’s movements can learn from Montreal’s transit history, Prince said.

“You must keep your elected officials’ feet to the fire,” he said. “Because whatever they promise, and whatever their platform might say […] they need to be pushed to do the things they promised.”

“And if you don’t push [policy makers], then you will not see change.”

Advocacy groups lead the charge

In Edmonton, city councillor Aaron Paquette first introduced a proposal to remove transit fares in October 2018. Edmonton city council voted against the proposal a few days later.

Free Transit Edmonton has been on the front lines of the free transit fight in the prairie city ever since.

The group’s organizers wrote an editorial in the Edmonton Journal in late 2019, pleading with the City to prioritize the environment and community.

”We’d never be expected to write a firefighter a cheque before they put out a burning building. Why is public transit any different?” they argued.

Sol Bobier, a representative for Free Transit Edmonton, expanded on the group’s position in an interview.

“Success for us is that the transit in Edmonton will be both free and good,” she said. “We want it to be useful for the people who need it and rely on it, but we also want it to be free.”

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of free transit in Edmonton is that the city’s priorities lie elsewhere, Bobier said. She pointed to the city’s redesign of the bus network to eliminate redundancies and to have buses run more frequently as one of those priorities.

Over in Toronto, TTCRiders sees establishing a free transit system in Toronto as a longer-term goal.

“Politicians are using transit riders to fund the system,” Vincent Puhakka said. “They should be using the general tax base, which funds things like roads and public housing.”

Toronto’s politicians have a history of doing everything possible to avoid raising taxes, he said. He thinks this is one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of free transit.

Taking from the existing tax base isn’t the only way to fund free transit, Puhakka said.

“[The city has] the power to tax a lot of different things that aren’t just the property tax. [There are] commercial parking levies they can do. They can ask the province for the ability to levy a municipal sales tax [or] levy city sales taxes.”

Students board a bus in downtown Ottawa, which uses the same PRESTO system as Toronto. Photo by: Spencer Colby

How can we make transit equitable?

For many lower-income Canadians, public transit just isn’t affordable.

Callie, who has been referred to by her first name to protect her identity, used to be one of those Canadians. She evaded transit fares in Toronto for six years, sometimes paying between $30 to $60 for fake monthly passes to avoid notice.

In an interview, Callie acknowledged that fare evasion is illegal, but as a low-income worker, it often felt like her only option.

”It was just a lot more affordable for me,” she explained in an interview.

When the TTC phased out Metropasses, tokens, and cash fares in favour of the electronic Presto payment system, which is harder to evade, Callie said she had no choice but to start paying for transit.

People with low incomes—often the most marginalized and transit-reliant groups in society—don’t always have easy access to affordable transit.

One Montreal-based study found the cost of an $85 monthly transit pass in 2018 was over five per cent of a minimum-wage worker’s monthly income.

“I worked a minimum wage job, part-time, so I had to pay my rent on my own,” Callie explained. “Paying $150 a month just wasn’t in the budget.”

Implementing fare-free transit has the power to begin addressing wealth disparities in Canadian cities, according to Prince.

“Free public transport can be a [solution] to income disparity. It can be a local action to try and fix the growing gap between the rich and the poor,” he said.

An issue compounded by climate justice

Combatting climate change is one of two primary arguments in favour of free transit systems, according to Prince.

“Free public transport is like a neon sign,” he said. “A city that adopts it can say, ‘We are taking the climate emergency very seriously.’”

A 2010 report from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration found that public transit produced 76 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than single-occupant vehicles.

Accordingly, many free transit advocacy groups are direct offshoots of climate justice groups. For instance, Free Transit Edmonton’s website describes the group as “a project of Climate Justice Edmonton.”

Sol Bobier confirmed this connection to climate advocacy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“When you make transit free, you get to allow more people onto the bus, which reduces the amount that people want to use their cars for small trips,” she said.

Policymakers disagree on the merits of free transit

There is some support for free transit systems, while limited, within municipal governments.

Josh Matlow, the only Toronto city councillor to publicly support the idea, said in an interview with The Pigeon that free transit can benefit everyone.

“If you’re a transit rider, we’re providing you free transit,” he said. “If you’re a car driver who is still reliant on [your] car, this is a way to get fewer people competing with you on the road […] So it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Matlow acknowledged the city would need to figure out funding, but said he views free transit as an aspirational goal for Toronto.

“I believe that it will contribute to our city’s quality of life,” he said. “If we are serious about becoming less auto-dependent and creating a more equitable society [we need free transit].”

Other municipal politicians aren’t so sure. Ben Henderson is an Edmonton city councillor who said he likes the idea on paper, but worries a free system isn’t as beneficial as it sounds.

“It wasn’t the magic wand solution everybody thought it was,” he said in an interview, reflecting on the period during the pandemic where Edmonton transit was free.

“[There are] unexpected consequences to it that actually make transit less attractive for people.”

When asked to expand on these unexpected consequences, Henderson pointed to Edmonton’s fare suspension at the beginning of the pandemic. The city saw an influx of people experiencing homelessness using the transit system for shelter, he said.

Henderson explained that this highlights the need for the city to prioritize housing solutions and lower fares for low-income riders above free transit.

“We need to give people proper housing, and free transit is not the answer to that,” he said.

It’s worth noting the municipal governments in both Edmonton and Toronto offer supportive housing programs that include active mental health initiatives.

Activists like Bobier argue free transit may be one of the puzzle pieces necessary to start solving some of these larger societal issues.

“It has to be part of the solution,” she said. “It’s not the whole thing.”

Free transit only works if it goes hand-in-hand with things like mental health support and housing solutions, Bobier said.

 What needs to happen next?

 Matlow suggested a place to start: looking at the current situation.

“We just need to honestly ask ourselves, ‘Are we happy with the status quo?’” he said.

He called on city decision-makers to be more open to the free transit discussion.

“What I’m asking people to do is be open to new ideas,” he said. “Sometimes new ideas are jarring, and sometimes [they] really challenge one’s concept of what we think we should be doing. But I think it’s worth challenging ourselves to think bigger.”

Prince suggested free transit groups across the country need to start organizing on a national level. He said convincing the federal government to continue to provide funding for public transit systems indefinitely is an achievable goal.

In the meantime, local advocates like Puhakka are in favour of more organization among transit riders.

“Join an organization in your city,” he said. “Go and do something.”

Tyler Cheese is a journalism student at Humber College who previously worked in the advertising industry. When he isn’t studying or writing, you can find him playing with his dog, a one-eyed rescue named Klaus.

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