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Free public transit could challenge reliance on cars

Streetcars lined up on Queens Quay in Toronto. Photo: Evan Goldenberg/Wikimedia Commons

Free public transit could combat both economic inequality and climate disturbances. And, if paid for by fees on automobility, fare-less transit could be part of a serious challenge to private, car-centred transit and urban planning.

At Toronto's first mayoral debate Saron Gebresellassi called for fare-free transit. By detailing a bold proposal the left-wing mayoral candidate steered the other candidates to bemoan ballooning fare costs and suggest eliminating some of them.

Gebresellassi's plan also garnered significant media attention. In an article titled "Making Toronto  transit free isn't realistic now. But it's a terrific idea," Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan offered an informative rundown of the argument. But, as is wont in the dominant media, Keenan implicitly downplays the climate crisis and the importance of ditching the private automobile. Rather than being a long-term objective, free public transit should be viewed as a short- to medium-term tool for shifting away from our dependence on ecologically, socially and health-damaging cars. Of instant benefit to those with the least resources, free transit would drive price-conscious individuals towards less environmentally and socially damaging buses and trains.

While Keenan downplays the need for urgent, bold action on countering the automotive and climate crisis, he correctly states that making the Toronto subway (and some streetcars) free would exacerbate the rush hour crush. Making it free outside rush hour, however, would spread the ridership crunch out until new subway and streetcar lines are built. For their part, buses can be added quickly and eliminating fares will speed them up. Expanding ridership should also grow support for giving buses the right of way.

Eliminating transit fares is not radical. During times of high pollution Paris and other large European cities have removed fares. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, recently expressed interest in making transit free permanently and launched a study into its feasibility. The book Free Public Transit: And Why We Don't Pay to Ride Elevators details dozens of cities that have expanded transit ridership by eliminating fares.

While not radical, fare-less transit is not free. It would be an enormous failure if it only cost what the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) currently raises from fares -- $1.2 billion minus the not insignificant cost of gathering and enforcing fare payment. As the TTC expands to displace ever-greater numbers of private cars, free transit would certainly cost magnitudes more.

But there are many ways to finance it.Greenpeace Germany has suggested placing a levy on car manufacturers to pay for eliminating transit fares. In France employers with 11 or more employees pay a small tax devoted to transit.

Some of the billions of dollars currently spent on roadways -- $3.6 billion, for example, on rebuilding a Gardiner Expressway that should be torn down and the land used for co-op/social/rental housing -- could be directed towards free transit. Toronto could also repurpose some of the 27.4 per cent of the city presently devoted to free roadway to moneymaking ventures (another 13 per cent of Toronto is parks and open spaces -- a share of which goes largely unused because of the unpleasantness of adjacent traffic-filled roadway). A more straightforward way to incentivize public transit while deterring private car travel is to earmark congestion fees to the TTC.

A more novel option would be to replace requirements for businesses, public institutions and developers to offer parking with an equivalent contribution to a free transit fund. Toronto currently prescribes a specific number of parking spaces for every new residence as well as for a "bowling alley," "bus station," "adult entertainment," site, etc. The cost of complying with these bylaws could fund significant mass transit.

Unlike education, health care, housing, etc., transit shouldn't be promoted as a social right, at least broadly defined. While less damaging than a private automobile ride, a 30-kilometre oil-powered bus journey emits substantial greenhouse gases and there are various social downsides to long commutes and urban sprawl. Making Go Transit free, for instance, would encourage exurban dispersal and even daily commutes to Hamilton or Kitchener. For environmental, health, safety, noise and cost reasons, walking and cycling should be prioritized wherever possible.

But free transit should be promoted as an equality-based, short- to medium-term solution for mitigating the climate crisis. Kudos to Gebresellassi for pushing the issue to the forefront.

Yves Engler is co-author of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. His latest book is Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada.

Photo: Evan Goldenberg/Wikimedia Commons

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