Grover and Swartz: Free public transit is part of the solution, Ottawa

Many people are hyper-focused on the costs of free. But what about the benefits?

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Inflation has us all looking for relief. That’s why it was so dishonest to hear the mayor, the media, and mayoral candidates Mark Sutcliffe and Bob Chiarelli reject the idea of ​​free public transit. Ever since the city claimed it would take an extra $482 a year on average property tax bills to replace OC Transpo’s $200 million in pre-pandemic fare revenue, everyone’s been freaking out. is hyper focused on the costs of free.

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But what about the benefits?

Free transit is part of how we address transportation costs, social barriers and carbon emissions. Germany adopted near-free public transit in June to offer some relief from high gas prices, and early data shows it has led to more public transit ridership and less driving, congestion and pollution. It’s the same in Luxembourg, where transit has been free since 2020.

Kansas City found that the vast majority of passengers have better access to food, healthcare and jobs since the removal of fares in 2019. Los AngelesThe two years of free transit have made the service more reliable by shortening boarding times. Traffic has increased (or decreased much less during COVID) in all of these locations.

Compare that with the City of Ottawa. Despite the climate emergency declaration and the commitment to reduce the modal share of cars, the town hall has taken little action. Public transit remains chronically neglected and people are expected to absorb the cost of driving everywhere. Individual expenses for cars, gas, parking, insurance and maintenance are approximately $10,000 per year. Ubering everywhere is not much better. Then there are the health effects of road deaths, air pollution and climate change. Transportation accounts for 40% of emissions in Ottawa, most of which come from private vehicles.

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With hundreds of trip cancellations over the past week, it’s clear that OC Transpo needs to overhaul its service – a good start would be dedicated bus lanes on busy roads, more buses on high-demand routes and poorly served, and a Para Transpo service that meets the needs of its riders. But why fund improvements through fare increases for disproportionately income users who use public transport?

Free public transport must be part of our approach to getting people away from the car and making our transport system affordable, accessible and low-carbon.

People who take a hard line against free public transit often make vague calls to “fix reliability instead,” as if we have to choose one or the other. OC Transpo desperately needs to fix service (i.e. more dedicated bus lanes, more frequent service on high demand and underserved routes, and a Para Transpo system that meets the needs of its riders) . But why fund improvements by raising fares for low-income riders who use transit disproportionately?

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Seemingly overlooked by Jim Watson, Sutcliffe and others is that taxes, not user fees, are how we fund many essential public services such as schools, roads, libraries, medical care and fire services. Transit is no less important.

A tariff-based system will never give us good transit. Fares are an unpredictable and regressive way to fund an essential service that often justifies delaying improvements until ridership and fare revenues increase – completely backwards. Investments must be made from the outset to attract traffic; this requires stable operating budgets from year to year.

To suggest that property taxes are the only way to pay for free public transit is an election scare campaign. Watson and his advisers had no problem giving the go-ahead to a host of money pitfalls: $62 million for road expansion last year; $113 million to widen a few miles of Strandherd Drive; providing corporations with tax breaks through the Main Streets and Brown Field programs (which have shown no impact on where they locate their businesses); and subsidize low-density sprawl to the tune of $465 per household per year, since operating services in these areas costs more than their tax contributions.

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By reallocating funds from road-widening projects, ending unnecessary corporate subsidies, increasing Ottawa’s unusually low parking rates and the Uber and Lyft surcharge paid in lieu of accessibility services, and increasing development charges on new single-family homes — plus savings from not having to collect or enforce rates — the city could offset at least $80 million in tax increases needed to replace income from OC Transpo fares. This amount itself would be enough to fund – initially – major improvements to the public transit system as well as free public transit for recipients of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, which pay the largest proportion of their income to use public transit.

Our priorities are the problem, not the finances. We can’t afford another four years of the same thing: rising emissions, skyrocketing cost of living and no action on either.

Nick Grover and Donald Swartz are members of Free Transit Ottawa, a grassroots community group advocating for affordable, reliable and accessible public transit in Ottawa.

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