Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit
Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit

Free transit study opens important discussion for Burlington

Developing a transit habit could help Burlington families save thousands of dollars a year, says BFAST member Collin Gribbons in this opinion article, first published in Burlington Today.

by Collin Gribbons

Could your family use an extra $5,000 to $15,000 per year? That’s the range of savings you could expect if you had one fewer family car.

Not so long ago, it would have been a radical idea. Burlington blossomed in the postwar baby boom, when cars were symbols of the freedom to escape crowded cities. But anyone who went through the early-October traffic horror of an accident-jammed QEW knows those dreams are turning into nightmares.

And things are going to get a lot worse. Building or widening roads only attracts more traffic, which will aggravate the gridlock we already face every day. We can expect more cars on our city streets as frustrated drivers try to find an alternative to the highway.

The traffic crisis will also hit us in the wallet. The City estimates that Burlington’s infrastructure deficit – much of it for roads – is in the neighbourhood of $500 million. That’s more than $8,000 per tax-paying household, and it only tackles the shortfall in spending to date, not future outlays.

The shift to heavier cars adds to the wear and tear on our streets and we can expect maintenance costs to increase accordingly.

City Council will debate the results of a study in the next few months that will allow us to envision, if not an alternative, at least a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

That study, to be conducted by Burlington Transit, will explore the costs and operational challenges of making transit free for everyone.

The motion to approve the study was brought forward by Councillor Paul Sharman, who questioned whether the money and effort spent to collect fares was even worth it. Currently, free transit would mean a monthly loss of revenue that’s less per household than the cost of a coffee at certain drive-throughs.

But someone who takes the bus to work every day would save more than $100 per month. That could help take a bit of the sting out of brutal housing costs and soaring food prices. It would benefit people who do essential work and spend their salaries mostly in the community.

Much bigger savings would accrue to people who can substitute a combination of transit, taxis and ride-sharing services for one of their cars. The average monthly payment for people who finance a new car is between $700 and $1,000 per month, depending on whose statistics you use. Insurance, maintenance, repairs and replacement parts can add hundreds more. Gas at upwards of $100 per month per vehicle is not unusual these days, and let’s not forget parking, tolls and other operating costs.

Could you do with an extra $500 to $1,500 per month?

The study will find that there will be many wrinkles to iron out and hurdles to overcome on the way to offering free transit. Ridership among seniors has soared since Council abolished fares for those over 65 and we could expect a similar bump if it were free for everyone.

It would be a major challenge for our current system to handle a sudden surge in ridership. Buses can’t be ordered and delivered in a few weeks. Finding qualified drivers is difficult. Free transit might also affect municipal revenues from the provincial gas tax. And it will undoubtedly create demand for more routes to areas that are currently underserved.

But free transit can be an important tool in solving key problems in our community. Improving mobility and reducing congestion alone will have huge economic benefits. It would give us the chance to reduce pollution and substitute green space for parking lots. If fewer people had to use cars, we could even save money on road maintenance.

These advantages will not be apparent from one study that looks only at the operational viability of providing free transit. But the study will open the topic for discussion in a way that has never been tried before. For that alone, it is well worth our support.

Collin Gribbons is a member of Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit (BFAST).

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