Monday, November 7, 2011

What if transit were free?


November 07, 2011

As sure as the arrival of the ice and snow, this time of year always brings unpleasant news about how much the city plans to jack up bus fares.

This year, Winnipeg Transit is asking for a five-cent increase to the basic fare, taking it up to $2.45 for a one-way trip. Passes and tickets will go up accordingly.

If approved, this will mean that fares have gone up about 36 per cent since Mayor Katz took office in 2004, or about two and a half times the rate of inflation over that period.

Amazingly, ridership has actually increased despite the rate hikes. While transit officials credit service improvements, it’s far more likely that rising fuel costs, rising awareness of environmental issues and changing commuting patterns are really the cause. And even with several years of growth, ridership is just now back up to what it was 20 years ago.

Politicians and policy makers like to roll out expensive plans to build rapid transit to attract even more riders, but I have to wonder why no one is talking about the one surefire way to boost transit use.

What if it were free?

Now, I can already hear drivers howling in outrage about the idea of transit users getting a “free ride.” But the reality is that drivers have been getting their own free ride for years.

This city spends tens of millions on planning, building and maintaining roads every year, primarily for the benefit of private automobile owners.

The new Transportation Master Plan calls for $2.1 billion in new roads and bridges to be built over the next 20 years. Billions more will be needed to maintain our existing crumbling streets.

But we could potentially save much of that expense if we could simply get more people out of their cars and on to transit.

It wouldn’t be cheap; we’d need more buses, more drivers and more public-operating subsidies. But the benefits are clear. It would reduce traffic congestion, speed up everyone’s commute and eliminate the need for more road capacity. It would benefit the environment, encourage more compact development and enhance mobility for people who can’t drive or afford a car.

Sure, this might be a bold (or crazy) idea, but it would be nice to see a few more of those from city hall rather than just a nickel-and-dime approach to running essential services.

– Colin Fast is a corporate communicator who blogs about life in Winnipeg at

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