Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Free Transit Illusion

with 5 comments

One of the reasons that I blog much less these days, is that I got bored with myself. Every time I sat down to write it seemed that what I was writing, I had written before. Even when I was writing that it was repetitive, I kept on. Yet the illusions that beset us continue to be repeated. As if those notions had not already been disproven, repeatedly.

It is a truism, but it takes more energy to refute a falsehood than to repeat. Conservatives rely on this. Almost everything they assert turns out to be untrue. Yet the policies they endorse continue to operate despite their obvious failures. Wealth has never trickled down. Holding down wages has not created more jobs. Making drugs illegal has not reduced their use at all. Increasing spending on the military has not made us safer. Prisons do nothing to reduce crime. Corporal punishment is not effective at improving children’s behaviour.

The left also endorses fatuous policies, ones shown time and again to be ineffective. Mostly deciding to adopt the policies of previous, conservative governments. The BC NDP is doing now exactly what the BC Liberals endorse: Site C, highway widening, cutting down old growth forests, expanding LNG.

Just as we know what we should be doing – reducing ghg emissions being the most important – what we actually do barely scratches the surface and mostly we continue with business as usual.

There is a problem of poverty. Just as providing homes turns out to be the only effective solution to homelessness, so providing money is the only way to relieve poverty. The first thing new Premier Ford did was cancel the Guaranteed Income pilot project – just in case it proved that point once again.

Here we have once again fallen into to happy illusion that in order to deal with poverty – and the fact that some people have a hard time paying their transit fares – we should make transit free. The latest developments here have been an endorsement by Victoria City Council – and now by Kai Nagata of Dogwood who uses Jason Kenney’s swearing in as a hook for a piece about what to do when Kenney “turns off the taps”. Kenney, now sworn in, says he won’t – yet.

It is not surprising that in support of this proposal a number of easily disprovable assertions are made

“Zero-fare public transport is the norm in many cities across Europe. ”

Actually very few cities – Dunkirk (France), Tallinn (Estonia) and apparently two dozen other French urban areas – though only Aubagne is named and analyzed. Luxembourg is going to try it nationally, though it is a very small country and has made its own economy successful by being a well known haven for tax evasion.

There is a list at but it is not reliable. Calgary, for example, is shown on that list, but its own webpage provides a list of fares – free only applies to a downtown section, not the whole system, and pets. Frankly, I am not about to spend any more time checking the veracity of ALL of the rest of the assertions but Winnipeg isn’t a free system either. Bizarrely England is listed as fare free – that may just be a formatting error or a reference to the Old Age concession of a free bus pass. This is of limited value since it does not apply to other modes – trains – and in the deregulated market where local government has been deliberately starved of funds there is little to no socially essential service outside of the dense urban area. The country bus is largely a fond memory. The lack of revenue for the operators (little to no subsidy from local government, no income from pass users) means there is no incentive to increase service.

By the way, Seattle used to have a free fare zone downtown, but dropped it. It is one of the few transit systems in the US that reported increased use last year.

There is a wikipedia article (see below) but it lacks references (though the bit I quote has a source).

The notion that appeals to Dogwood is the mistaken belief that free fares will get people out of their cars and onto transit, and that this will reduce congestion and thus fuel consumption. Nagata simply asserts this belief. The evidence does not support it. The inescapable rule is that traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. Congestion exists because there is more demand that can be accomodated. Congestion tends to be worst at peak periods – journeys to and from work or education – and on some routes on public holidays – the road to the ferries from Tsawwassen on the Easter weekend being a most recent case. Generally people adapt to predictable congestion but just as a few will try car sharing, or leaving really early, others will drive when it seems “not so bad”. And there is a sort of equilibrium. Like most human compromises one which leaves everybody equally dissatisfied. We know that adding lanes to freeways just increases the amount of traffic, just as removing a freeway usually reduces congestion. The only thing that we know works is to price road use – when it is free it is over consumed – and provide more and better transit service that, as far as possible, uses its own right of way to avoid the congestion. You have to do both. Oddly, pricing roads, even though successful, is much less tried than free transit fares, which mostly isn’t.

From Wikipedia

Several large U.S. municipalities have attempted zero-fare systems, but many of these implementations have been judged unsuccessful by policy makers. A 2002 National Center for Transportation Research report suggests that, while transit ridership does tend to increase, there are also some disadvantages:[7]

  • An increase in vandalism, resulting in increased costs for security and vehicle-maintenance
  • In large transit systems, significant revenue shortfalls unless additional funding was provided
  • An increase in driver complaints and staff turnover, although farebox-related arguments were eliminated
  • Slower service overall (not collecting fares has the effect of speeding boarding, but increased crowding tends to swamp out this effect unless additional vehicles are added)
  • Declines in schedule adherence

This U.S. report suggests that, while ridership does increase overall, the goal of enticing drivers to take transit instead of driving is not necessarily met: because fare-free systems tend to attract a certain number of “problem riders”, zero-fare systems may have the unintended effect of convincing some ‘premium’ riders to go back to driving their cars. It should be kept in mind that this was a study that only looked at U.S. cities, and the author’s conclusions may be less applicable in other countries that have better social safety nets and less crime than the large U.S. cities studied.[7]

[7] Perone, Jennifer S. (October 2002). “Advantages and Disadvantages of Fare-Free Transit Policy” (PDF)NCTR Report Number: NCTR-473-133, BC137-38. Retrieved 1 November 2012.

So if free transit does not attract drivers, who does it attract? Here it will be the homeless – kicked out of shelters during the day and looking for somewhere warm and dry. And for people to panhandle. The transit police will not be able to cope as without the need for proof of payment, removal will be at best temporary – even if they do manage to persuade the most offensive to leave. It will be gangs of kids. It will be people with nothing better to do than go for a ride somewhere – anywhere. Yes free transit increases the number of people on transit – just not the ones that you wanted to leave their cars behind.

The other reason that people do not leave their cars for transit is simply the inconvenience and relative slowness of transit (all those bus stops) compared to driving. Even for relatively short trips in denser parts of the region, car is still the preferred mode. It is not until there is a clear transit advantage for some trips do people switch in significant numbers. Clearly the expansion of the SkyTrain has worked well. In the parts of the region where additional road space is next to impossible, car trips are being curtailed. Where there is a better alternative, it does get used. More people are also choosing to walk or ride a bicycle – and the option to not own a car, but use ones that are available (Modo, car2go et al) – reduces the need to own a car, and thus try to maximise the return on capital investment. (“It’s sitting in the driveway, I might as well get some use out of it.”) The recent record boost in transit use, and the growing mode share for bikes and walking in Vancouver has nothing to do with transit fares, but everything to do with comparative advantage. And protected bike lanes – not white lines or sharrows.

Nagata also makes the fundamental error of assuming that governments (federal and provincial) will fund free transit. So far, the only thing that they have been willing to do is fund capital projects – preferably expansions – and usually with ribbon cutting opportunities and naming rights (The Canada Line for instance). What has always been lacking is adequate funding for operations and maintenance. Canada, on the whole, has done a much better job than the US. The shameful condition of the New York subway being one of the most glaring examples. Government also likes to play at innovation – which has given rise to several expensive, and usually short lived, experiments like the Whistler hydrogen buses. Instead of doing the essential dull, repetitive non-newsworthy state of good repair and high reliability transit cannot do without. Much of the innovations have not actually been necessary, but one thing that did come out of the imposed electronic fare collection system was essential data on how the system is used. In earlier times, Greater Vancouver saw a complete neglect of data collection as a result of foolish cost cutting. At least some of the newer and improved services now being provided is from a better understanding of when and where people are travelling – despite the lack of tap off on buses.  Again, a free fare system loses all that information.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 30, 2019 at 11:01 am

Posted in fares, transit, Transportation

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5 Responses

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  1. “There is a list at but it is not reliable. Calgary, for example, is shown on that list, but its own webpage provides a list of fares…” Look closer. Calgary has a free downtown section and that’s what lists – as it does for other cities on their list. Of course I couldn’t check their entire list


    April 30, 2019 at 11:43 am

  2. You are nitpicking – but irritatingly right. I will update the post.

    Stephen Rees

    April 30, 2019 at 11:44 am

  3. A good read, Stephen.


    September 12, 2019 at 8:44 pm

  4. There have been overcrowding problems on transit again this week, as students go back to class, get their UPass and once again find they have to wait while full buses pass them by. Getting more riders for transit – in Vancouver at least – is not the problem. It’s getting more buses and trains into service. Same thing in Toronto, where there is not enough funding to buy new streetcars. The artics they bought in 1988 are now life expired but there have been delays in delivering now ones, which by themselves are not enough to cope with increasing demand. The Mayors Council is still pushing the federal candidates for more commitments to transit, but also fails to mention the need for more funds for operations and maintenance, when the prospects for more revenue from the gas tax seem to be fading as more people buy electric cars.

    Frankly we seem to have enough problems without making them worse by abandoning fares as a revenue source.

    Stephen Rees

    September 12, 2019 at 9:14 pm

  5. On my way to UBC yesterday I got to my stop (#60211) to catch my bus (#49) at the scheduled time of 8:39am at 8:34am. It never came nor did the next one at 8:45am. Finally the 8:51am one came after my 13th ironic read of the sign posted on the stop about there being now more service hours. And while the wait wasn’t bad given the relatively high frequency of the route in the morning peak, It demonstrated the issues of reliability (or possibly the “fiscally-planned adherence” to a required reliability rate) and how it impacted a group of people probably with minutes to spare before their first class or punching in at work. I could feel the frustration of the ever-growing line up behind me (I was 2nd in line) each time their heads turned to see if the bus coming down EB Central Blvd was #49. Only to see most veer to the left-turn lane into the undercover mall bus loop.

    Once on board, as we rode down the route, the articulated bus became full after the first few stops and except for the times where people wanted off, only a few times did it stop for people. And those times when the front doors did not open to let people on the full bus, as the mid/rear doors opened to let the egressers egress, strategic boarders pushed through those doors. I felt sheepish-pity for the may people who got up from their benches with the universal smile that signifies an approaching bus, to then see their smiles be pulled by gravity as they sensed the bus is not stopping, to finally both arms up in the air, with an occasional digit being displayed. The worst is when the bus has to stop due to an inconvenient red light and we all on board lip-read the animated pass-ups at stops on the near-side yelling at the poor driver. **Flashback**

    **Back when I was helping analyse the implementation of UPass in the early days of TransLink I did note the issue of too much success could be an issue. Still having the lingering memory of being a student, anything “free” would be taken up regardless of how long the line up was, or how hard it was raining, or both. And so the UPass, when demand>>supply becomes the PassU.**

    Now given the scheduled arrival of the 8:51am bus was 9:57am in front of UBC Hospital / Beta Theta Pi House, I thought I would arrive earlier given we were passing by so many stops. I eventually arrived pretty much on time. Maybe the karma from all those pass-ups didn’t allow us on board to save time on their time. Hopefully the driver was truthful in telling those on the other side of the doors that a bus would soon be arriving to clean up all the stops, otherwise they were all late for their 10am class.

    In closing and maybe a consolation, I thought of an idea that could possibly help the situation–ideas that usually pop into my cognition in such moments where “the ugliness of unintended reality” >> “the beauty of intended design”. Maybe there will be some karmatic redemption if TransLink funds my idea….


    September 12, 2019 at 11:19 pm

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