Free transit could be the ticket to community building, contributing to economic equality, and benefiting both the economy and ecology.
By Sean Hurley
Published January 24, 2015
The debates over light rail transit (LRT) and the fate of the transit-only lane feature a number of recurring themes and perceptions, among which the following particularly stand out:
Transit advocates appear lost in overcoming the perceptions these themes generate. Even those who support the lane tend to fall into the trap of presenting transit improvement as an urban/suburban divide.
But public transit use is not limited to the downtown. There are people who ride transit by choice. Ridership depends on a number of factors, especially service levels, fare, frequency, and reliability.
We all pay for public goods and services we don't use, but transit is one of those public services we could all use.
In his inspired defense of the bus lane, Ward 1 Councillor Aidan Johnson argued that transit benefits the economy, the environment, promotes equality and strong neighbourhoods: all motherhood and apple pie arguments and yet transit remains a difficult sell.
That is because of the perception of public transit as a downtown issue, or as Andrew Dreschel describes it, a "cultural shift, pitting so-called progressives against hidebound traditionalists over the shape and shaping of a city very much in shaky transition."
It is that cogent observation that makes the education piece such difficult work.
Opposition to transit investment isn't driven so much by a lack of information on the benefits as it is a rejection of change perceived to benefit the "New Hamilton" in the core at the expense of the rest of the city - even if it is only a two-kilometre stretch of roadway.
The fact that the vocal activists tend to be from the lower city, with a disproportionate number being downtown or within walking distance of the core, doesn't help with the perception that transit, like poverty, crime, and vagrancy, is a downtown issue.
But these perceptions are wrong. There are poor people in Dundas and Ancaster. There is homelessness on the Mountain. Crime is everywhere. And people in every ward who rely on transit everywhere to get to work, to make appointments, to live their daily lives in a far-flung city.
The question is: how do we get past the perceptions and reach the people beyond the core who do and would use transit? And how do we do it quickly while bridging the chasm of Dreschel's cultural shift?
My suggestion: free transit.
Free transit will benefit transit users throughout the city. It will immediately drive up transit ridership. It will appeal to those with and without automobiles. There will be a financial incentive to leave the car at home for both individuals and families.
Free transit contributes to a more equal society, as people who are unemployed and without cars could seek jobs beyond walking distance and outside their own neighbourhoods.
The revitalization of neighbourhoods doesn't have to mean that renters must move if their transportation costs are negligible.
Free transit will boost the economy in the same way as LRT or BRT. Free transit will drive demand for greater transit investment, and it builds a city-wide community of interest for transportation infrastructure.
The opponents of free transit will argue that it is affordable, but transit is currently less than seven per cent of Hamilton's annual budget.
According to the 2010 HSR Operational Review, direct operating costs were projected to be just under $94 million last year (2014) with fares representing about $48 million. Just two road projects - the extension to connect the Red Hill Parkway to Rymal Road and the Waterdown highway expansion - would almost pay for every transit user to ride free.
But we can't afford not to spend more. The economic, ecological, social, and human costs of automobile culture are staggering. These costs are externalized from the act of driving, but we all pay for them through our taxes, our relationships, and our health.
Meanwhile, giving up a typical mid-sized car and switching to transit can save the average family thousands of dollars in annual expenses. This is the equivalent of a substantial tax break.
Free transit is not new. It is in use to some degree in cities all over the world, including Calgary, Winnipeg, Miami, Baltimore, and Salt Lake City.
Others will argue that free transit is too radical. But I suggest a 2km bus lane through Hamilton's downtown was too radical for our current council. There is nothing to be gained in seeking a compromise for less than the status quo.
By making a demand for free transit, we may spark the interest of transit users who live all over the city, who use transit by choice or necessity, and who provide the numbers to justify transit investment.
Free transit could be the ticket to community building, contributing to economic equality, and benefiting both the economy and ecology as championed by Aidan Johnson.
The future is now. We just need to demand it.
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