Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit
Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit

Burlington expands free transit for seniors, takes first step to free transit for all

Jim Young delegates for BFAST

BFAST Steering Committee member Jim Young (right) delegates at the Jun. 27 meeting of the Community Planning, Regulation and Mobility Committee of City Council to support free all-day transit for seniors. Discussion led to a proposal from Councillor Paul Sharman (centre left), supported by Mayor Marianne Meed Ward (upper left) to study the feasibility of free transit for everyone. Transit Director Catherine Baldelli (lower left) said she would supply needed transit data.

Rides on Burlington Transit buses will be free for seniors all day every day starting Aug. 1 if City Council approves at its regular meeting Jul. 11. Approval is all but guaranteed, since every member of Council has already voted for the proposal in the committee that studied the issue.

But the big news from the Jun. 27 meeting of Council’s Community Planning, Regulation and Mobility Committee could be an initiative that would make transit free for everyone in Burlington.

The Committee, made up of the mayor and every councillor, approved a proposal to examine the costs and benefits of making the entire transit system free. City staff will examine the issues and present a report this Fall, during the City’s budget process.

Following a presentation by Jim Young representing BFAST, Mayor Marianne Meed Ward supported the study. She said a reported 40% increase in ridership by seniors after off-peak free fares were approved for the group was “astonishing.”

Broader question

“If we’re trying to get to our [target] modal split, it would be helpful to know if a fare strategy helps to do that. I think it does,” she said. (The term “modal split” refers to the share of trips on public transit vs. cars. Transit’s current share of trips in Burlington is about 2%, and the Region’s target as set in its official plan is about 16%.)

The staff study will examine issues such as exactly how much fare revenue would be lost if transit were free and how much could be made up due to increased funding from gas taxes, which the city would get if more people rode transit.

Ward 5 Councillor Paul Sharman, who chaired the meeting, kicked off the discussion on the issue of studying free transit after hearing the complications involved in adjusting the fare structure for use with Presto cards, which figured in the decision on free all-day seniors’ transit. Council has also approved a plan for free youth transit during certain hours, and Presto is only able to deal with one time-based fare difference per transit system.

“I guess the question in my head is actually much broader now,” Sharman said. “It is about the entire economic underpinnings of transit, because the present total budget for transit represents about 7% of our taxes. … But the amount of fares we get is only 15% of that and I guess the question for me is ‘Why are we worrying collecting fares at all?’. You know, for $4 million, we can give that up and it’s 1% of the tax rate. … We might as well give up this discussion and just get on with it. So let’s have a full economic analysis of it in preparation for the budget. Because I think we’re fooling ourselves. Doing it bit by bit is going to be death by a thousand cuts. Why not just go whole hog? Let’s do it.”

Supports free transit

“You’re speaking my language now,” replied Mayor Meed Ward. “I’m happy to do free transit for everybody. … The amount we spend for roads for cars and free parking in our facilities is enormously [more than transit spending] if we want to compare apples to apples.”

Earlier, answering a question from Sharman, BFAST’s Young said using more transit was a surefire way for families to fight inflation.

“It costs somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000 per year to run your car,” he said. “Even if bus fares stay at $3.00, you could buy a lot of bus fares for that money, if the service was there to make it attractive for you. So it helps people keep their cost of living down, along with all the other benefits. I think there’s a whole load of other justifications and lots of good work out there by other transit advocacy groups across the country.”

For Young, the approval of all-day free transit for seniors will mark victory in a campaign he has waged for seven years. You can read a copy of his brief to Council at the following link (opens in a new tab or window): https://bfast.ca/wp-content/uploads/BFAST-TR-04-23-jun-23.pdf. For detailed information on Council’s reasons for supporting the move, please see Lawson Hunter’s report at Burlington Today (opens in a new tab or window): https://www.burlingtontoday.com/local-news/city-committee-approves-free-burlington-transit-rides-for-seniors-7206738

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