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.”