We need more transit and it should be free

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I lived in the United Kingdom for nearly four years.  Since coming back to Canada two years ago, there have been a variety of minor adjustments to be made, re-learning the subtle differences we have in Canada, from toilet seats to light switches.

The one thing I am not readjusting to is our appalling lack of transit.

In the United Kingdom, I could hop on a train from London and be in Scotland in a few hours; I could travel from Cardiff to Gare du Nord in Paris; from Bristol to Oxford, all with ease.  All affordably

In Ontario, the idea of getting from Mississauga to Toronto is an adventure in hit-and-miss.  Meetings with a client in Stouffville involve at least three distinct modes of transit, and I still end up needing an Uber for the final 15 minutes of the trip — and double the time if I drove.

This is absurd.  It is impossible in this country not to own a car, unless you spend your entire life south of Bloor.

Worse still, it is often a difference of just a few dollars to Uber rather than take transit, and the additional dollars spent seem justified when factors such as access to a working cellphone, the ability to sit comfortably alone and, perhaps most critically, the reliability of not being routinely trapped underground — again without cell service — are factored into the equation.

Our transit system is crippled by two competing factors: it sucks and it’s too expensive.

We need more transit, transit that enables people to get to and from cities, particularly in the GTA but indeed across the province.

It also should be free.

Transit is the only public service that charges at the point of access; most of our roads are free, but transit costs as much as most people’s lunch.  Imagine if our schools or hospitals had turnstiles to collect your fare each morning?  They wouldn’t be the public services we rely upon.  Imagine if all our roads were tolled the way we toll transit?  There would be riots.

The arguments against free transit are the intellectual equivalent of the Americans arguing against universal health care, which is to say disingenuous, pusillanimous and myopic.  Saying we need more transit is no reason to say it should continue to be the only public service that has an entry fee.

The reality is we need more, better transit, and it needs to be free — just like our health care or education systems need to be better, without user fees.

Vehicular transportation is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions.  Public transit is a climate-change solution.  We need to get people onto trains and buses, and out of single-occupant vehicles.

Fares account for a minority fraction of transit funding; there are ways to replace fare revenue, particularly by redirecting corporate giveaways masquerading as a climate change plan.

The other beauty of a move towards fare-free transit is that the incremental transition that would likely be required can be used to nudge ridership patterns — the overcrowded Yonge subway line would probably be the last line in the province to be free, and rightly so.  In the interim, imagine people redirected to neighbouring GO train or bus lines, or to off-peak times; this could bring relief to the Yonge line long before a relief line could be built.

Transit should be a public service.  There should be far more of it, without fares as a barrier to usage, without poor service as a barrier to ridership.

This is not some utopia; other jurisdictions have reliable transit; other jurisdictions are moving towards fare-free models.

This country’s first major project was a coast-to-coast rail line.  In a week when building a pipeline has led to Indigenous peoples blockading rail lines, perhaps we can recognize the reality that part of the solution to climate change, to poverty and to quality of life in this country is in building transit pipelines.

Photo Credit: Global News

More from Jonathan Scott.   @J_Scott_

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