Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Free Transit

with 11 comments


CBC 690 AM

Regular readers here will know that I do not think this is a good idea. Neither did the people of Geneva . Though it was a bit of a surprise that Frank Buckholz thought our fares were a bargain. But this idea keeps coming back.

On the radio Dave Olsen (who wrote the Tyee series) presented the other side and at the North Shore Transportation Panel were Eric Doherty and Jane Sterk (Leader of the Green Party of BC)

I was asked to provide my “usual summary” but sitting on a panel and sitting in the audience are two different things. Not only that but there was a timer on every speaker and the questions were set and then rotated. So the format was really not conducive to note taking. I didn’t take my lap top, and the notes I scribbled were to make sure I did not miss any of the points I wanted to make.

This is being written the next morning and I hope that if any of the participants feel that it does not reflect their views that they will post a comment. And there is no time limit here!

Dave Olsen has done a lot of research on this issue – and the first thing he says is that you should not just take out the farebox. He likes the example of Hasselt in Belgium. He also said that some larger high ridership systems are also considering fares free systems including San Francisco. He thought that we needed to have done transit in this region much better in the past – he likes surface light rail – and the first thing we need to do before we go for completely free is expand service and look at free fares off peak, where he said there is currently spare capacity. He thought that it should be possible to use the sources that now subsidize road users to finance transit use, and that abandoning fare collection would also reduce costs, although he did point out that Translink does not separate out the cost of fare collection in its accounts.

Jane Sterk is a very impressive politician. She was the only speaker who consistently spoke for less than the time allotted her but managed to be balanced and fair. She also was clear that free fares are not a solution in themselves but could be part of a much wider transformation of society, which would see more people living where they work and an overall reduction in transport demand. She opposed the idea of encouraging longer commutes, and thought that the carbon tax was a positive step in the right direction if only a very small step. I should perhaps point out that the meeting was actually organised by the Green Party, though it was free and open to the public.

Eric Doherty talked about UPass, and how it had out performed all predictions. He conceded that overcrowding had been (and still is) a major problem, but with better planning a universal pass system showed promise for promoting a shift from driving to transit. Unfortunately it also promoted a shift from car pooling and bike riding too. He spoke about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from driving, and the costs that car dependency imposed on society. In contrast, the cost of supporting transit was trivial now and would not be very much greater if fares were lower, but the pay back in terms of health and the environment would far exceed the cost. He agreed with Jane that longer distance commuting – and he singled out West Coast Express – should not be free.

The discussion was really more about how we get from where we are – with an inadequate transit system that is expensive and difficult to use – to where we need to be. And that allowed concepts to be introduced like paying for road use as a way of funding transit. There was also an interesting comment that free transit could reduce walking. The pro-side thought that was worthwhile since it would reduce pedestrian casualties. But it also became clear that most people also wanted better walking and cycling facilities too. The title of the discussion might have been free transit but we spent quite a bit of time on what is wrong with bike lanes at present.

I am not going to use this space to repeat what I said as it is all here – somewhere or another. But there was a high degree of consensus – the main differences being priorities and methods. “How are you going to pay for that” is a difficult issue, and just identifying the current subsidies to car use (and disagreeing about how big they are) really did not resolve the issue.

No major transit system is fares free. All systems that are have support from national or federal taxes. They are all in smaller cities, none in major conurbations. But there are also wide ranging free passes for different groups, and widespread dissatisfaction with the way that BC treats people who cannot afford current transit fares. It was also generally agreed that BC communities outside Metro Vancouver would need to look to their rather different circumstances.

As it happens the Guardian’s travel blog looks at free bus passes in the UK this morning.

UPDATE April 5 A Guardian reporter and his Dad try to travel the length of England on his free bus pass

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 7:38 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I’d love to come but a tunnel and 3 bridges to cross, is a bridge too far. ‘Free’ transit is one of those subjects that sound good, but upon investigation shows poor results. I believe a few US cities tried free transit with poor results.

    I believe the European ‘environmental’ ticket deserves some attention, as it has been successful in attracting ridership to public transport.

    Malcolm J.

    March 31, 2008 at 8:41 pm

  2. The carbon-auto industry makes profits. There are expenses incurred by the system necessary to generate these profits that are paid by the taxpayer.

    Carbon dumped in the air – billions $$$
    Oil wars – billions $$$
    Roads – billions $$$
    Parking – billions $$$

    It’s all free for the carbon-auto industry. How do you justify these profits while the taxpayer is paying the expenses?

    You can not call urban public transit subsidized because there are essentially no private operators. It is a public investment. Why then should a public investment that benefits the whole public have a tariff that penalizes the users and discourages use. Its like buying a horse and then tying its legs together.


    April 1, 2008 at 5:59 am

  3. fpt – so the roads are free to users – and thus over burdened and congested and cost us huge amnounts in extrentlisites. So on that basis you think it is a good model for transit too. Ah but then I read the date. You almost got me there.

    Stephen Rees

    April 1, 2008 at 6:57 am

  4. Good show. You sounded very professional and convincing in your arguments. Being a professional I suppose that’s to be expected… 🙂 Please also post the summary of the library meeting if you can. I had class so I couldn’t make it.


    April 1, 2008 at 8:57 pm

  5. Roads are not crowded because of a lack of user-fees. They are crowed because there is one internal combustion engine and a ton of metal and plastic for each individual traveler.


    April 2, 2008 at 8:13 am

  6. “No major transit system is fares free” …
    Commerce, CA, carries more riders than San Franciso Muni


    April 2, 2008 at 8:34 am

  7. Actually average car occupancy in this region is 1.3, and I have had American transportation planners tell me that is better than they achieve. Getting people to share their vehicles more seems to be as big a behavioural issue as getting them to try other modes. But it is also very clear that most transportation engineering is still about facilitating traffic flow and insisting on “standards” that encourage car use.

    But the reason road space is not allocated properly is that it is not priced. As the Economist remarked “We allocate road space the same way that the former Soviet Union allocated everything else. And the result is the same – queueing.”

    If we used traffic management here the way it is done in European cities, we would not face the problems we now have. Our transit mode share is 11% of all trips, which for a city of 2m is ridiculously low, but actually not bad by comparison to US cities of the same size. Sadly the system we have here is also very expensive – not just in terms of fares but also in terms of tax payer support.

    Stephen Rees

    April 2, 2008 at 8:35 am

  8. “All systems that are have support from national or federal taxes”
    Is public education “supported” by taxes? No it is NOT. It is a “paid for” through taxes. There is a big difference between a public investment and a subsidy for private industry. The “free” roads are paid by the taxpayer. This is a subsidy for the carbon-auto industry as they benefit more than they contribute. Others also benefit from roads, but these same others would benefit even more from more public transit and rails.

    User fees on a public investment exist for the purpose of discouraging use. The private companies lobby for these fees just like a tariff on importing cotton.


    April 2, 2008 at 8:43 am

  9. Glad you like the Economist. They say that money invested in transit and undoing sprawl has the most return on the dollar of any anti-greenhouse-gas investment. We will provide the link on our blog as soon as we find it.


    April 2, 2008 at 8:51 am

  10. Commerce is a suburb of Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, California, United States. The population was 12,568 at the 2000 census


    Greater Vancouver population 2,116,581 at the 2006 census.

    Not quite the same sort of place I think

    Stephen Rees

    April 2, 2008 at 9:03 am

  11. […] idea has been around for a while – you will find earlier refutations on this blog […]

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