Advocates argue free transit benefits us all

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

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      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.”



      Stephen Rees

      Jan 29, 2014 at 11:05am

      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."

      Bruce Dean

      Jan 29, 2014 at 11:47am

      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.


      Jan 29, 2014 at 12:54pm

      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.

      Alan Layton

      Jan 29, 2014 at 1:20pm

      I guess Olsen and Bruce Dean have never heard of the 'gas tax'.

      Eric Doherty

      Jan 29, 2014 at 1:36pm

      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.


      Jan 29, 2014 at 2:00pm

      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.


      Jan 29, 2014 at 2:07pm

      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!!

      anonymouse 1962

      Jan 29, 2014 at 3:17pm

      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!


      Jan 29, 2014 at 5:44pm

      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.


      Jan 29, 2014 at 11:13pm

      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.