Why TTC and GO should consider a free transit pilot program

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Pradip Rodrigues

Transit systems across the developed world from New York City’s MTA, London’s Tube, Chicago’s CTA and even our own TTC have been seeing their ridership fall year after year despite population growth in these cities. There are several reasons for this phenomenon ranging from the popularity and ease of getting around via rideshares like Uber and Lyft and the number of employees who can work remotely. Any other business faced with losing customers to the competition would offer massive discounts and other incentives to woo back lost customers and keep existing ones, but TTC has done quite the opposite. Last week it announced a 10C fare increase. Presto fares are now $3.20 for adults and $2.25 for seniors and youth.

Cash fares will still be $3.25 for adults but are up to $2.30 for seniors and youth. Monthly passes for adults, now cost $156.

If one lives in Mississauga and needs to use GO Transit and the TTC to get to work and back, it can cost about $3,400 annually. A couple living further away in places like Hamilton or elsewhere in the Golden Horseshoe traveling into Toronto for work can expect to set aside close to $7000. I was recently talking to a couple with a combined annual income of over $200,000 who spent a good 20 minutes grumbling about the rising cost of transit. If the comfortably rich find the cost of getting around prohibitively high, what about riders lower down the food chain?

Coincidentally the TTC is reporting losses to the tune of $70 million as a result of fare evasion. Those evading fares aren’t criminal elements but simply low-income earners, students with barely enough cash for lunch and mostly people of colour trying to get to their low to minimum-wage jobs.

On one hand you have declining ridership because people with means and in a hurry would prefer the convenience of Uber and on the other hand you have a significant number of riders who can barely afford to cover their travel costs. Either they take a risk evading their fare or they spend money that could otherwise be used for better grocery or a swimming class for their kid.

I know of individuals living in places like Brampton and Mississauga turning down promising jobs in downtown Toronto because the salary was too low after factoring travel costs. The same individuals ended up taking mediocre jobs in Mississauga. This ends up depriving companies in Toronto of a larger talent pool and it ends up forcing people living in the 905 region to compromise the quality of their jobs and possibly alter the trajectory of their career path.

Millennials and other climate activists currently trying to shutdown pipelines and mining companies over greenhouse emissions might instead pressure our government to massively subsidize if not make all public transit free. They may have gotten more sympathy from the traveling public when they blocked rail movement recently if they were fighting for free public transit in addition to their stated causes.

In the United States, according to federal government data, transportation is responsible for 29 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with passenger cars and light trucks emitting 59 per cent of that. It is very likely that if GO Transit was free or massively subsidized, there would be fewer cars on the road. A pilot project for three to six months could indicate if that outcome is achieved.

Offering free transit would be more popular than imposing carbon taxes. This idea is being considered in the US and Europe. For example, Lawrence, Massachusetts, a post-industrial city used a municipal budget surplus to make some bus service free on a trial basis last fall, and ridership jumped 20 per cent.

Kansas City, Missouri, passed a resolution that could make this municipality of 490,000 people the largest in the U.S. to eliminate bus fare. Its Mayor Quinton Lucas hopes the scheme, can help “build up a culture of bus riding.” 

The cost of housing is forcing more and more young families to live further away from Toronto and other cities where they work. Currently, while housing in a far flung community in Kitchener, Brantford or Stoney Creek is relatively cheaper, commuting via public transit into Toronto takes out a good chunk of one’s income.

The high cost of buying, renting and getting around is creating invisible poverty in many communities and while the government may not be able to help bring down the cost of housing or create affordable housing, massively subsidizing GO Transit and the TTC would be more cost-effective and great for the environment. It would also go a long way to achieving a modicum of social justice.

Consider the fact that a large number of fare evaders in most North American cities happen to be people of colour, (more than 90% of fare evasion arrests in NYC) a massive subsidy or free transit would be a kind of social justice. Think about it this way, if the average banker earning a six-figure income living in Mississauga using public transit to get to Bay Street finds GO Transit expensive, you have a problem. Perhaps GO Transit and TTC could abolish fares for all those making an annual income of under $40,000. -CINEWS

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