Special Report: Transit

Making Transit Free Could Unite Hamilton

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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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 11:25:29

Just to point out: roads are already free - we don't expect users to pay for them. It's not really a stretch to do the same for transit, although tbh it's hard to imagine ever selling council on raising taxes to pay for it.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 11:57:15

The relatively small city of Aubagne in France near Marseille decided to make transit free. Interestingly, the system is actually run by a private company!


This was a radical choice for a city that is fairly right wing. The choice was to see mobility as a right and a way of enhancing the economy by allowing people to easily get to jobs and companies to easily find workers.

One statistic: transit use doubled from 2008 to 2010, far beyond the forecast of 58%!

As other have pointed out municipal roads are free to drivers (they are paid through property taxes) ... transit could be the same.

I am currently reading a book about their experiences:


Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-01-24 11:59:53

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:23:36 in reply to Comment 108342


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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 12:02:59

Cost may not be the only barrier. Transit adoption is also influenced by hours and frequency of service.

At the time of the 2010 Operational Review, half of HSR routes had headways of 30 minutes or more or offered peak-only service. Putting mountain/suburban routes on 15-minute headways would position transit as a more attractive option.

2008: 221 revenue buses
2014: 221 revenue buses

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 15:03:53

I don't usually disagree with Sean or Ryan -- and when I do disagree with Ryan, I'm usually wrong -- but I think that free transit is the solution to the wrong problem.

Subsidizing any form of transportation encourages inefficient city-building by incentivizing lower-density development. (Look at what GO Transit has enabled in the v905 belt.)

The argument for free transit implicitly rests on the premise that the private automobile will always be subsidized, so it makes sense to subsidize transit if the subsidy required is less or the negative externalities are less (both of which are usually true.)

The better solution is to stop all forms of subsidy for the private automobile (e.g. free or below-cost parking, free roads) and charge automobile users for the negative externalities of driving (e.g. health effects of pollution and motor vehicle collisions). If we did that, transit wouldn't even need to be subsidized, let alone free, and developers couldn't make money by building car-dependent sprawl.

One could argue that we will never achieve proper pricing for motor vehicle use, although many other jurisdictions have gone pretty far down that road (pardon the pun). In that case, there may be an argument for free transit if it indirectly saves money by reducing the subsidy needed for private automobiles. But that argument ought to be explicit.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted January 29, 2015 at 11:51:57 in reply to Comment 108349

Subsidizing any form of transportation encourages inefficient city-building by incentivizing lower-density development. (Look at what GO Transit has enabled in the v905 belt.)

I think this is the wrong way to look at it. To me, inefficient city building is a product primarily of a bad approach to development. Cities incentivize bad development by under-charging for the cost of infrastructure, and if they had taken a more sustainable approach --- added up over many decades --- the region would look very different. Of course, they didn't, but does that mean the 905 would be better off without the Lakeshore West line? I don't think so. GO Transit on the Lakeshore corridor has transformed the economy of the GTA by vastly increasing access of workers to jobs and companies to talent. And that is the point of subsidizing transit --- we hope that by doing so we can get a net gain in terms of economic growth. The same thing is true of cars --- I benefit from public roads greatly even though I don't own a car. Treating the use of cars as 100% only benefiting their users is a distorted view that ignores how great it is for our economy as a whole that driving is possible. Its good for you that your neighbour has the option of driving to one job or taking the bus across town to another, or hopping on a train to go to a job in another city. Ergo, subsidy.

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted January 30, 2015 at 09:11:14 in reply to Comment 108537

I respectfully believe that you're getting it backwards. GO Transit didn't increase the access of workers to jobs in Toronto and Hamilton; it enabled those workers to live in poorly planned sprawl developments in Mississauga/Burlington/Oakville rather than in the cities where they actually worked. It thereby encouraged terrible planning and development. It seemed like a good idea because the perceived alternative was inexorable widening of the QEW. (It was a good idea relative to that even worse idea, and there's certainly no argument for getting rid of GO Transit now that we've got the GTHA that we planned, or didn't plan, for.)

If our predecessors in the 1960s had decided to implement tolls on the 400-series highways in the GTHA rather than subsidizing trains to compete with subsidized roads, we'd have much more densely built cities in which transit would be self-sufficient. That's not going to change overnight, but in terms of the big picture I think the best solution to our transportation problems is to stop subsiding roads rather than subsidizing transit even more in order to compete with free roads.

I think Hamilton should start by putting tolls on the RHVP and Linc. It's a scandal that trucks driving from Brantford (or places west) to Niagara can drive down our municipal highways free of charge, contributing nothing to our economy but incurring expenses for the Hamilton taxpayer.

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By JWilbur (registered) | Posted February 03, 2015 at 11:53:56 in reply to Comment 108567

Good arguments here, on balance I agree with John Neary. We don't need free transit, we need to start charging road users, on a per-use basis, just as we now charge transit users.

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By Yes (anonymous) | Posted January 24, 2015 at 21:25:05

Free transit is the way to go!

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By sick and tired (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2015 at 22:37:43

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2015 at 23:43:02 in reply to Comment 108379

Childish insults aren't exactly helping your point.

I'm not sure I agree with the idea of free transit, but there is one good point: We already have "free" roads and street-side parking and sidewalks and various other city amenities. The fact that transit got left out of that list is simply because it's convenient for cities to charge for transit and it's inconvenient to charge for roads.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted January 27, 2015 at 11:35:13 in reply to Comment 108380

Actually, it was inconvenient to charge for roads.

Now, with gps, cell networks and computers it is very simple to charge for roads based on location, time of use and congestion levels. This would be much closer to a true free market in transportation where price signals would help people decide which mode to use and which trip to take where and when. A true capitalist would support this, rather that having municipal roads paid by all residents and property owners regardless of how they use the roads through general property taxes.

Paying directly for transit, but getting as much driving on roads for "free" (i.e. from general taxes) distorts the transportation market, as does "free" parking (someone is paying for it).

And, of course, those without cars would pay indirectly for trucking and transport of goods they buy since the tolls would be incorporated into the price through the magic of the market!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-01-27 11:36:47

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2015 at 11:03:45


First, nothing is ever free. If you want to reduce transit fares to zero taxes and user fees will have to go up to pay for it (or we have to cut other services or some combination of the two).

Second, even if transit were free there probably wouldn't be much of an increase in ridership as you would expect. People don't ride transit because of time and convenience. If you have a full-time job, kids etc (basically a life) you cannot afford to spend two hours waiting for and riding the bus each day to go about your daily lives. The savings and convenience of using a car far outweighs its cost (or people wouldn't buy them now would they?).

You guys need to stop living in a fairy tale world.

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By Crapitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2015 at 11:09:04 in reply to Comment 108390

Like the fairy tale world where drivers pay for roads? Because in this world, roads are heavily subsidized from general taxes but I don't hear many "capitalists" complaining about that.

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By osborne (registered) | Posted January 27, 2015 at 10:58:27

As I read this article, the question that came back to me is where do people who do not live along a transit line or outside of that area put their cars to get to the free transit? Metrolinks is a good development. Stop being parochial Sean. Think intercity transportation. Roads are used for more than transporting people from one town.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted January 29, 2015 at 12:00:04

Heres an interesting article from slate that gives a counterpoint:


From the article:

Free subway rides entice people who would otherwise walk, not people who would otherwise drive.


The lure of "free," the report implied, attracted the "wrong" crowd—the "right" crowd, of course, being wealthier people with cars, who aren't very sensitive to price changes.

I think free transit sounds good for those who have trouble affording the fares, but it doesn't seem to accomplish the true goal that transit should aspire to, which is to be a competitive option that makes sense for most people.

I would also say that without doing the actual work of improving transit, its not that great to offer it free for the benefit of those who can't afford it. "here, this thing is really shitty and doesn't help you, but you can have it for free" is not that inspiring. Build a really great transit system and offer them that, and you'll have made a much bigger impact.

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