Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit
Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit

Is universal free public transit the solution to all our problems?

A tram speeds along in Luxembourg, a European city-state that made all public transit free. BFAST member Jim Young argues in this opinion article, first published in the Hamilton Spectator on Oct. 17, that free transit could help solve some serious problems here in Canada.

by Jim Young

Burlington now provides free seniors’ transit all day every day, with free evening and weekend transit for youth. With both ends of the age spectrum travelling free, ridership is up significantly with minimal impact on fare revenue. City Council now asks: “What might we gain if we simply made all transit free, all of the time?” At September’s annual Transit Users Forum, hosted by Burlington for Accessible Sustainable Transit and Burlington Transit, McMaster University Professor Emeritus Atif Kubursi, a transit economist of worldwide renown, presented his thoughts on the benefits of universal free transit, highlighting economic and environmental benefits we can achieve if cities adopt this idea.

To transit advocates this is not a radical idea. Free transit is much more than a freebie for riders. As well as reducing traffic congestion and improving mobility for seniors, students and families, it has the potential to tackle three of the most pressing issues Canadians face today: climate change, affordability and household debt levels.

Climate: Daily headlines around the world confirm that a climate emergency is upon us; forests burn, glaciers melt, farmlands parch, and people die in heatwaves. Our cars, the single biggest greenhouse gas contributor, are one that we can control. Each of Ontario’s 8,700,000 private cars emits some 4.62 tonnes of Co2 per year. (402 million annually). If we get even one in ten car journeys on to buses we might achieve a 40 million tonne, Co2 reduction.

Affordability: We face daily food and housing affordability issues and wonder how to stretch family budgets. Yet, the annual cost to run a car in Ontario is staggering. The most popular family saloon, Toyota Corolla, costs $10,022.63, per year, 49c per Km, a Ford F150 truck around $14,218.88, 71c per Km. (Figures from CAA 2022). Imagine the impact on your family’s disposable income if access to free public transit let you keep some of those car dollars.

Household Debt: Bank of Canada and media pundits remind us constantly of a looming debt crisis. Average household debt now equals $1.85 for every dollar of disposable income. The cost of servicing that debt, as interest rates soar, forces trade offs between grocery bills and mortgage or rent payments. Again, imagine the impact on your household budget of freeing up even part of those car costs using free public transit.

These infusions into family budgets do not disappear into a hole. They are spent on rent, mortgages, groceries, kids’ clothing, home renovations etc. increasing demand for those things the current economy has made less affordable, boosting local economies, business success, employment and the enjoyment of life, doing all this while helping sustain the environment.

Apprehension about giving up the car is understandable, but around Burlington I see so many three and four car families, expensive conveniences. We may need a car for groceries or major shopping, but for every short trip? And, how often might we share a family car? Taking a few free bus trips every week, might we do without one vehicle and reap huge savings along with the environmental and traffic congestion benefits?

Opponents of free transit claim the cost is shared by taxpayers whether they use transit or not. This is true, however, of many services. We don’t personally pay for police officers or firefighters, or for parks and libraries. Car owners seem oblivious to the fact that taxpayers subsidize their automobile use through road and highway infrastructure. In Ontario they don’t even pay for plate stickers anymore, promoting car use over public transit. So, considering the social, health, environmental and personal costs of automobile usage, free public transit will doubtless prove less costly on every level, but first our cities must adopt this bigger picture transit thinking. Burlington could join enlightened cities around the world, reaping the benefits of Free Public Transit, and be the first in Canada to do so.

Jim Young is a member of the BFAST Steering Committee and chaired September’s Transit Users’ Forum.

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