The BC government is facing growing calls to make public transit free, in a bid to give cash-strapped drivers, struggling with record-high gas prices, another transportation option.
But while the idea might have a certain appeal, the BC NDP government says it’s not going to happen.
“We’ve put substantial funding into (public transit) to both hold fares down for individuals, and ensure that the services they need are there so they will come back and use transit, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” says Environment Minister George Heyman, who is also the minister responsible for TransLink.
“We have no plans at the moment to change the practice,” adds Heyman. “But we have been giving huge support to ensure that those services are maintained.”
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Cost appears to be part of the issue. The government estimates it has put in almost $1 billion to help keep fares down and public transit solvent during COVID-19.
The Ministry of Transportation estimates it would cost another $250 million over the next four months to replace lost fare revenue if trips were made free for riders on TransLink and BC Transit.
Gas prices in parts of the Lower Mainland reached $2.339 a litre this week, the latest record in a series of price hikes in recent weeks.
The province has blamed supply instability problems caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – though it has struggled to explain why BC’s gas prices are consistently the highest in the country, and were already so prior to the Russian invasion.
The BC Greens called on the government Monday to make public transit free for the next four months to encourage people to get out of their cars during high gas prices and also reduction pollution.
“We know historically, that gas prices tend to be the highest in the summer-time, and that’s a combination of factors,” Green leader Sonia Furstenau said Tuesday.
“But the four months takes us through the summer, provides people with relief right now, and if you’re a monthly transit user, you can look at the $175 to $185 a month that you’ll be saving for four months and be able to use that in budgeting to address things like your rising food costs.”
Would free public transit would actually increase ridership?
TransLink spokesperson Tina Lovegreen said use of buses and SkyTrain has not increased dramatically since gas prices spiked, and the system has remained at a steady 70% of pre-COVID ridership.
“Other factors to consider are, the cost of transit is not the primary reason why people choose transit over driving,” Lovegreen told Daily Hive Urbanized.
“The main drivers are convenience, frequency of service and connections to where they are commuting to. The cost of owning and operating a vehicle is already substantially higher than using transit and research has found that when fares are removed, only a small number of people who previously travelled by car make the switch (it’s usually the people who already choose sustainable modes of transportation like biking and walking).”
“Free fares could also have a negative effect on commuters by causing overcrowding,” added Lovegreen.
One study, in the town of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, found that implementing free public transit in 2013 bumped up usage by around 8% but also caused the average length of a car journey to increase 31%, suggesting there were more, not fewer, cars on the road after the change.
There is, overall, little evidence free public transit reduces congestion and improves environmental benefits, according to a 2013 study in the International Journal of Transportation.
Nonetheless, Furstenau said she hoped government reconsidered its position, and said a move to free public transit should be accompanied but renewed investment in the transit system to improve service to rural and remote areas as well.
“Right now, this government is doubling down on a lot of status quo responses, and not recognizing that they need to make decisions now that actually create a different future,” she said.
“We have to shape a future that has transportation alternatives for people that are affordable, that are accessible, that are reliable. And to do that, they need to invest in that.”
Rob Shaw is Daily Hive’s Political Columnist, tackling the biggest political stories in BC. You can catch him on CHEK News as their on-air Political Correspondent.