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

Many people are very focused on the costs of not paying the fee. But what about the benefits?


Inflation has us all looking for relief. That is why it has been so disingenuous to hear the mayor, the media and mayoral candidates Mark Sutcliffe and Bob Chiarelli dismiss the idea of ​​free transit. Since the city claimed that it would take $482 more a year in average property tax bills to replace OC Transpo’s $200 million fee revenue before the pandemic, everyone has focused heavily on the costs of not paying. rates.

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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 nearly free transit in June to offer some relief from high gas prices, and early data shows it resulted in more ridership and less driving, congestion and pollution. It is the same in Luxembourg, where transit is free from 2020.

kansas city found that the vast majority of passengers have better access to food, health care and jobs since the fees were eliminated in 2019. the Angels‘s’s two years of free transit made the service more reliable by shortening shipping times. Ridership grew (or fell much less during COVID) in all of these places.

Compare this to the city of Ottawa. Despite declaring a climate emergency and pledging to reduce the modal share of cars, the City Council has taken little action. Traffic remains chronically neglected and people are expected to absorb the cost of driving everywhere. Individual spending on cars, gasoline, parking, insurance, and maintenance is about $10,000 per year. Ubering everywhere is not better. Then there are the health impacts of road traffic deaths, air pollution, and climate change. Transportation accounts for 40 percent of emissions in Ottawa, most of which come from private vehicles.

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With hundreds of trip cancellations in the past week, it’s obvious that OC Transpo needs to revamp service: Dedicated bus lanes on busy highways, more buses on high-demand and underserved routes, and Para Transpo service that satisfies a good start would be a good start. the needs of its riders. But why fund improvements through fare increases for disproportionately low-income passengers who use public transportation?

Free transit must be part of our approach to getting people out of cars and making our transportation system affordable, accessible and low-carbon.

People who take a hard line against free public transportation often make vague calls to “fix reliability in place,” as if we had to choose one or the other. OC Transpo desperately needs to fix service (ie more 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 through fare increases for low-income riders who disproportionately use public transit?

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Seemingly forgotten 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, health care, and fire services. Transit is no less important.

A fee-based system will never give us good transit. Fares are an unpredictable and regressive way of funding an essential service that often justifies delaying improvements until after passenger usage and farebox revenues increase, which is completely the other way around. Investments must be made in advance to attract passengers; this requires stable operating budgets from year to year.

To suggest that property taxes are the only way to pay for free transit is to instill electoral fear. Watson and his councilmembers had no problem greenlighting a host of money pits: $62 million for highway 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 about where they locate their businesses); Y subsidizing low-density expansion to the tune of $465 per household per year, as serving these areas costs more than their tax contributions.

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By reallocating funds from highway widening projects, ending wasteful corporate subsidies, increasing Ottawa’s unusually low parking fees and Uber and Lyft surcharge paid in lieu of accessibility services, and increasing development fees in new single-family homes, plus the savings from not having to collect or enforce fees: the city could offset the tax increase required to replace OC Transpo fee revenue by at least $80 million. This amount alone would be enough to fund, as a first step, major transit system improvements plus free transit for Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program recipients, who pay the largest share of income to use transit.

Our priorities are the problem, not the finances. We cannot afford four more years of the same: increased emissions, increased cost of living, and no action on it.

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

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