Advocates argue free transit benefits us all

Proponents contend fareless mass transportation could sharply cut costs and be more environmental

Dave Olsen has an idea for how to get Metro Vancouver voters engaged in a transit referendum.

Let’s talk about a system where everyone rides free, the environmental consultant suggests.

After all, except for the tolled Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges, roads are free. Yet like transit, car-oriented infrastructure is paid for with tax dollars, noted the former Vancouver resident, who is based on Lasqueti Island.

“Transit is the only mode of transportation that really has a toll,” Olsen told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “You can drive anywhere you want for free. And you can bike anywhere you want. And walk anywhere you want.”

If it’s good for the planet to get people out of their cars, “why are we forcing people to pay to go on a bus or on a SkyTrain?” Olsen asked.

According to a 2012 review by the Ministry of Finance, fares provide 33 percent of the revenue of the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority, or TransLink. TransLink collected more than $433 million in 2011, a 36-percent increase from 2007, the report indicated.

Olsen noted that the collection of fares costs something. According to him, that’s another reason to get rid of them.

A 2000 report by the Toronto Transit Commission states that for every dollar in fares it collected in 1999, it spent seven cents in processing costs.

A number of cities elsewhere offer different degrees of free transit.

On January 1, 2013, Tallinn in Estonia became the first European capital to provide free public transport to all residents, following a referendum.

In Calgary, light rail is free downtown. In Baltimore, bus travel on four routes is free. In part of downtown Salt Lake City, bus and light rail are free.

In the case of Hasselt in Belgium, the town ended 16 years of free transit in 2013 because of costs.

John Bachar is a former mathematics professor at California State University in Long Beach and an advocate of what he calls a “fareless urban mass-transportation system”.

“This antiquated method of letting everybody buy all this car insurance and pay for the maintenance of their car and drive in congestion and spend hundreds of millions of hours wasted away from your personal life because you’re spending so much time travelling in gridlock, it’s insane,” Bachar told the Straight in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

In a paper, the mathematician cited benefits of free transit. For the Southern California region (Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties), the state of California, and the U.S., the potential annual fuel savings in barrels of petroleum are 298 million, 545 million, and 3.69 billion, respectively.

Bachar also noted in his study that an all-bus transportation system would cost less than a tenth as much as an all-automobile system. It would generate 90 percent less pollution, his paper added.

Meanwhile, a 2011 study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute indicated that there were $2.55 in costs to society for every dollar spent on a motor vehicle’s operating expenses.

Karen Fung, a Vancouver-based transit-policy researcher, recognizes the merits of free transit. But she cited challenges in having a conversation about this idea.

“I think that the vision of the good life in Canada is still very much associated with a very suburban idea,” Fung told the Straight in a phone interview. “So we see transit as something that you take when you’re a student, maybe something that you take when you’re a new immigrant, maybe something that you take when you’re old. But I don’t think most people see a happy…thriving…middle-class adulthood as involving transit.”

She pointed to the current divisive public discourse on transit.

“We tend to see each other as drivers and transit riders,” Fung noted. “We don’t see each other as neighbours, that we’re people that need to share the region or figure out how we’re going to grow together and be able to maintain our quality of life.”

Comments (18) Add New Comment
Stephen Rees
Quoting myself the last time this red herring floated to the surface

"The main thing that is wrong with the Olsen approach is that it starts off with a solution, and then looks for evidence to support it. If he had started with an open minded inquiry into what is wrong with urban transportation, free fares would not have been considered very long. It doesn’t help much. It costs a lot, diverts walkers and bike riders onto transit, and does nothing to win over car drivers. It is the wrong thing to do."
Rating: +3
Bruce Dean
Motorists, and their blacktop and pollution, have been subsidised long enough - it's time they help cover the cost of the solutions to the problems they create, and free (and improved) transit is a good start.
Rating: -6
Wow, there is so much wrong with this idea I don't know where to start.....except I am not aware of any decent sized city where this worked (be interesting to see how it works in Tallinn, it is too soon to tell). Transit is important, providing it for free guarantees it will not be valued as important. Lets focus on the important and get good funding for Translink. If we can actually convince the government to fund it appropriately then we can try and reduce fares. Focus on reality and make sure Translink actually has enough money to operate and expand service worry about low fares after.
Rating: +4
Alan Layton
I guess Olsen and Bruce Dean have never heard of the 'gas tax'.
Rating: +8
Eric Doherty
The problem with this approach is that it avoids the practical in favor of utopian. Lets start with reinstating off-peak fares during the mid day off-peak period. My understanding is that this would mainly fill empty seats, and get people out of their cars at no net cost to TransLink.
Rating: +13
I love this idea, it restores the city to a village.

In village life, we just walk everywhere. We can sleep, eat, work, and play and have feet or perhaps a bike to take us there.

Free transit means that the entire area is walkable.
Rating: -6
I don't know where this dreamer got the ideas the "roads are free'. Why does 1/3 of what I pay on every liter of gas go to taxes??? I guess he meant roads are free if you don't drive a car. Keep dreaming - eventually you might wake up and actually contribute something useful to society instead of silly ideas. Yeah, I know, everything should be free, but it isn't. Welcome to reality!!
Rating: -3
anonymouse 1962
so free transit for all...the driver can drive for free, the fuel can be free so n one will actually take it out of the ground, the bus can be free so the workers who make the bus with free material can work for free I guess free is the new currency.....already have bitcoin for that!
Rating: +7
I live out in Ladner. it is three zones fare to get into Vancouver during the week before 6:30 p.m.
Each way is $5.50 so $11 round trip.
Bring back off peak fares during the week, then maybe those empty transit seats might get filled.

Rating: +11
I'm not saying free transit is practical. I am saying free transit is a great idea and I love it, because it removes the barrier to getting from, let's say, your apartment that you can barely afford in the sticks to the job/medical/rehab/school on the other side that you need to get ahead in order to become happy, a good citizen, and a net contributor to the tax base.

I mean, fares cover at most 50% of Translink expenses. Because Translink is currently tapped out - there is a cap on the inflation of certain taxes and fees - I totally get that free transit is not in the cards in the near future, but just think about for a minute.

If you don't like the idea of free assistance for people who are less mobile than you, I suggest you immediate lobby every mall in the country for the installation of fare gates on their escalators.
Rating: -18
I am tired of paying for things I don't use,you want it,you pay for it
Rating: -7
Don't I pay for enough free stuff for some of our people in society. I work my butt off. I want, I want, I want, for no cost to me in money, effort, or time. Come on Millennium kids, wake up. How about anyone who rides for free also has to provide a minimum of 15 meals for free to the homeless each week. Yeah, let's see how long they'll keep up their end of "FREE".
Rating: -15
Save Vancouver
“The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money.”
-Baroness Thatcher
Rating: -6
Stephen Rees
@Rico it is NOT too early to judge the experiment in Tallinin as this article shows

"researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden who are evaluating the program found more modest results. They calculated an increase in passenger demand of just 3 percent — and attributed most of that gain to other factors, such as service improvements and new priority lanes for buses. In their analysis, free pricing accounted for increased demand of only 1.2 percent."

The biggest benefit for the City has been that since the scheme is only available to registered residents, they now get to collect more taxes as registration have increased
Rating: -12

Thanks, I saw the article this morning and thought too bad I did not see it before I posted. It is also interesting to see how little the money lost in Tallinn is (and that it basically was made up by the additional people registering as residents (so Tallinn gets revenues for them)). Orders of magnitudes differences with trying something similar in Vancouver. I agree with several posters that discounting fares further during non-peak (under utilized times) is a good idea though.
Rating: -9
Evil Eye
In the 21st century, transit is to be seen as a product and if the (transit) product is good, people will buy it and if it is bad they don't. The biggest mistake a transit agency (mostly abetted by politicians) can make is treat public transit as a social service. because if transit is seen as a social service it is operated at the lowest common denominator and usually the product is bad or very bad.

Free transit is basically saying i do not want to pay for this product/service and I expect everyone else to pay and just does not work in the real world.

Public transit in the metro Vancouver area is at a crossroads and if we let the "free transit crowd" any credence, I will soon wager that the public transit system in the Metro region will be privatized. Think I smoking ganga, the Compass Card is the the perfect fare payment system for a privatized transit system ..... tap in - tap out ...... very easy to pay the private operators and why the compass card exists because the compass Card does not deter fare evasion.
Rating: -4
Evil Eye
@ Eric D.

I'm afraid people taking transit are not coming from their cars, in fact there is no evidence that despite a $9 billion+ investment on our rapid transit system only increased transit ridership by 3% in 20 years; driving cars has remained the same at about 57%. This means congestion remains, gridlock and pollution has basically remained the same.

Bus are very poor in attracting ridership and the empty seats on buses is largely due to mismanagement, too much transit capacity at the wrong times. There is so much wrong with our transit system that I do not think we will ever provide an affordable and efficient transit system in the Metro Vancouver area.
Rating: -3
I can assure you that in Tallinn the whole "free mass transit" stinks and that the referendum mentioned in the article wasn't even a referendum.

I wonder where will the money come from for investing into new vehicles. For example, about 1/3 of the trolleys are Czechoslovakian ones from mid 1980s. While very durable and reliable, the people in them are not as durable. The list of grievances could go on.
Rating: -14
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