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.