Should Transit Be Free?

Policy Frog has a good post on Hydro’s subsidy for sprawl and CO2. Every blogger in town seems to like commenting on his posts, probably because they are often well-thought out and lead to good discussions. (And probably because they like generating hits through his site)

In the discussions, I considered the costs and benefits of Hydro subsidizing monthly bus passes and/or parking. I wrote:

“One problem here (among many) is the other subsidies in the system, such as no user fees for additional road use but user fees transit use. If I choose to ride the bus instead of my car, for example, I reduce the costs to the city/economy in terms of roads wearing down, congestion, smog, etc. But, I need to pay the city in order to save them money. Although eventually – through taxes – they will charge me for my “choice” of more expensive transportation, I don’t see that cost at the time of choosing. Choosing the most economically and environmentally efficient means of transport depends on the marginal costs and benefits at that moment and whether I can know those costs/benefits at that moment.

“Furthermore, the subsidising of parking represents an increase of demand for parking, which only inflates its cost for other users. But, subsidising transit has no such inflationary pressure. In fact, that subsidy would reduce the costs to the city to pay for transit which would either reduce taxes, free funds for other programs, or give more money to improve transit.

“Subsidizing the Hydro worker’s bus passes can be a good way to reduce costs to the people of Winnipeg – in terms of air quality, congestion, road repairs, accident claims, and costs of operating transit. Subsidizing the Hydro worker’s parking increases costs to the city, reduces transit income, harms air quality, creates more accidents and accident claims against MPI, and drives up the price of parking in the downtown.”

This raises a question: Should Transit be free for all citizens of Winnipeg? We would still pay for it, one way or the other. But, increased usage would reduce costs to the city in other areas such as road maintenance and expansion to meet self-generated demand; decrease pressure for sprawl (a further hidden cost to the taxpayers); reduce noise, air, and CO2 pollution; reduce accidents; and dramatically increase convenience.

I have not yet formed a definite opinion on this one. Anyone have anything to say on it?

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10 responses to “Should Transit Be Free?

  1. An interesting concept, but almost impossible to form an opinion about without detailed financial estimates.

    The current transit system is subsidized roughly 50% by the city and province. Free transit would no doubt lead to buses that are more full, which would improve operating efficiency.

    However, it would also necessitate a massive investment in new buses, bigger transit stops, more park & rides and more drivers.

    Then again, those costs would be partially offset by savings on other transportation infrastructure.

    The financial modeling required to figure out the net effect of all this is beyond my capabilities.

    However, I do think having crown corps and the provincial government participate in the Eco-Pass program in a significant way would be a positive move. Hydro is apparently doing so, and the province is surveying employees to determine interest levels right now.

  2. Hi Frog,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I agree that the idea is interesting, but would require serious research to back it up. I’m wondering, though, if this has ever been done for a major city. Surely this question has been asked by planners once or twice?

    “The financial modeling required to figure out the net effect of all this is beyond my capabilities.”

    No doubt. It’s well beyond my ability to answer the question posed without a multi-year study. I was hopeful that someone somewhere has done the research on the idea.

    Anyway, we agree on the smaller Hydro-Transit issue it seems. Still, I can’t blame employees of Hydro for wanting a parking subsidy. Many people are trained by years of driving to want only car transport and can’t imagine living differently.

  3. Heck, I don’t blame the employees at all. But Hydro has definitely missed an opportunity to convert several hundred drivers into regular transit users.

  4. the thing I would be concerned about is the “get what you pay for” mentality.

    Public transit is not exactly the darling of city hall. A loss of most of Transit’s income would likely not be followed by multi-year, huge additional investments in capital and operating costs from city coffers.

    The system could very well grind to a halt.

  5. You can have free transit if thats what the populace wants. Serve it up at election time, see what happens. I think it was mentioned in the last municipal election.

  6. Thats true. Last campaign(or was it the mayoral by election prior to that) it was free transit for seniors. That never panned out.

  7. These things never pan out because we are still operating as 15 little burgs, each sending their “mayor ” to City Hall.

    Welcome to Transcona, Welcome to Charleswood, Welcome to St,.. Norbert, Welcome to St. James, Welcome to Maples……etceterah.

    Is there a Welcome to Point Douglas or Welcome to River Heights or Waverley Heights sign or Tuxedo or North End …pretty sure i saw a Welcome to St. boniface sign I’m confused, I thought it was Welcome to Winnipeg.

    Maybe one of the photog buffs will take the time to photograph all the welcomes.

  8. I like the idea of studying this issue further. However, the issue strikes me as exceedingly complex… but I’m not expert here. Do we study what would happen if we offered free transit at current standards (which are marginal, at best in some areas… 20+ minute waits in -30 degrees doesn’t cut it).

    But for the sake of argument, let’s say we offer free service at current standards. Demand will go up by some amount ranging from marginal to significant. Will this increase in demand necessitate more frequent buses, thus driving demand up even further. At what point does this virtuous cycle plateau? Finally, what is the overall cost/benefit to the city versus other possible ridership incentives?

    Perhaps this is best left to a campaign issue, as Sigh suggests. Or, perhaps we do need a study. Or both?

  9. Free Transit is a funding issue. If the populace thinks it should be free, then we absorb all costs for the system we have in place.

    Of course, boneheaded decisions like Waverly West and a BRT to the U of M would hit the bottom line for an ever enlarging system.

    Personally, I think its getting to a point where its too late for a Free Transit system. But I am sure , some of those soccer players trudging to the U of M would like to see it.

  10. There was a very good article in today’s Globe and Mail about Detroit. To quote one excerpt regarding transit: “By failing to establish a good inner-city transportation system, Detroit became a model of social destabilization.” (Page B5).

    Although subsidizing employees to use the bus for their commute from the suburbs would definitely take cars off the road which is good for numerous reasons as we all know, it would continue to reinforce the suburb-centric transit planning of the past few decades.

    While suburbs have a place and role in any city, not everyone is adapted to the urban life, I think it would be better to focus transit improvement on the core.

    Thus I would propose instead, to create a free transit zone in the core of the city. For example: a 2 km radius (roughly) from Portage and Main, adjusted for neighbourhood boundaries etc. Not only would this get people out of cars, it would encourage them to move closer to the core.

    Winnipeg would get the triple bang for it’s buck of:

    1) Better Air
    2) Less Congestion
    3) Urban Renewal.

    It’s something to think about.

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