Refuting False Assumptions regarding Free Transit

The case for free transit (or “fare-free” as I prefer to put it) is often met with skepticism and opposition from politicians and policy wonks on the grounds that it is not financially feasible nor effective in addressing transportation planning objectives. Here are some common assumptions made by critics of fare-free transit, followed by my rebuttals, at least from a Canadian context.

It Is not financially feasible.

Most transit services in Canada are highly subsidized to begin with, given their relatively low fare recovery. For example, only about 36% of Durham Region’s transit budget is covered by fare revenue. Typically, the majority of transit funding comes from provincial or municipal contributions, whereas fare revenue tends to account for very little. As such, paying for fare-free transit is a matter of boosting these contributions that have been made for many years. As well, transit authorities can continue to generate revenue through other means like advertising and real estate.

People may start using transit for non-mobility purposes, such as shelter, thus making it less attractive to the “desired” clientele (ie. daily commuters).

If you’re a compassionate person, that’s completely fine. Everybody needs a warm place to sleep without dying of hypothermia, even if they smell a little funny! :). I would even advocate for the provision of benches at stations, just like the public parks. Consider the fact that many of us encounter homeless people on public sidewalks everyday. Does that necessarily prevent us from walking outside?

The lack of gate-keeping makes it easy for pick picketers and other criminals to enter the system, which again drives away the target demographics – literally, they may “drive” away.

Well, think of it this way: Security personnel can now watch for real crime rather than being pre-occupied chasing fare evaders.

People will ride the bus all day because they have nothing better to do.

Well, anybody who has been on a transcontinental flight or a day-long bus ride knows that it is brutal! There are only so many movies and playlists you can have on your tablet or phone. Who in their right mind would do that if they don’t have to go somewhere?

The bus will become too crowded, which will just reinforce the desire to drive in a private car.

Many Canadian jurisdictions, such as the 905 municipalities surrounding Toronto, currently have very low transit ridership, unfortunately, due to decades of low density, auto-oriented land use planning and a preference for travelling in a single-occupant vehicle. Before we even consider transit capacity, let’s first get people out of their cars.

Commuters will become too lazy to walk or cycle.

It is often assumed that active transportation and public transit are in competition with each other. However, they have been known to mutually support one another. Walking and cycling would remain important first/last mile connections regardless of the price of the fare.

What exactly is “paratransit”?

In my experience working in the transportation industry, I have heard my professional colleagues use the term “paratransit” in reference to specialized door-to-door transit services for people with disabilities, such as Wheel-Trans. At one time, I ignorantly assumed that the prefix “para” is short for “parallel”, meaning that it operates parallel to conventional transit services, much like how the Paralympics occur parallel to the “regular” Olympics. Alf Savage, the general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) between 1981 and 1987, used this erroneous way of thinking to defend the lack of accessibility at Toronto’s subway stations during his time. He said, “Can you imagine a wheelchair in the rush hour at Bloor and Yonge? That’s why we have a parallel system for disabled with WheelTrans” (Bateman, 2013).To people like Savage, there is a separate transit service for disabled people, while so-called “able-bodied” people ride the conventional system. In contrast, others have used “paratransit” as an umbrella term that includes a wider range of flexible transit services that do not operate on fixed routes or schedules. Robert Cervero (1997) defines paratransit as “a type of service which relies on small vehicles which are frequently privately owned and operated, and which may not work on a schedule.” So basically, UberPool, Bridj,and RideCo can all be considered paratransit. Likewise,Wheel-Trans is simply another first/last mile solution connecting commuters from their door to a higher order transit station. It does not give us a cop-out for failing to make conventional transit universally accessible. Fortunalely, the TTC has since come a long way. It now offers the Family of services, which encourages Wheel-Trans riders to make multi-modal trips by transferring to conventional transit services at accessible bus stops or subway stations. This more recent approach treats paratransit as a means of accessing conventional transit rather than segregating it from the rest of the system. It just puts greater importance on making our conventional transit system fully accessible pursuant to the AODA, as planned. The world has moved on from people like Alf Savage. Maybe it’s time we rethink our language too.

Note: I am cognizant that there will always be those who require door-to-door transit services due to the nature of their disabilities that prevent them from using conventional transit services without putting their safety at risk. As such, I am not in any way implying that all users of specialized door to door services should be forced to use conventional transit or Family of Services.

Bateman (2013). A brief history of the Scarborough RT. BlogTO. Retrieved August 2019 from

Cervero, Robort (1997). Paratransit in America: Redefining Mass Transportation. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Press.