On December 23, activists in London will be hosting a rally to make London Transit free. In the event page, there has been a polarizing reaction. Much of the opposition to making London Transit free has revolved around the cost. Hopefully, this will be able to clear up some of the questions around free public transit.
Free public transit, or more commonly referred to as fare-free public transit, originated in Commerce, California in the 1960s. Since then it has grown to over 100 cities and towns across the world. It should be noted that while fare-free transit may appear to be a socialist utopian vision, it has been endorsed and implemented by politicians from across the political spectrum.
For those who point that fare-free public transit is not free, of course there are still costs. Drivers will need to be paid, buses will need maintenance, and planning optimal routes will still have to occur. When we refer to fare-free public transit we are referring to a service that is paid through other means than at the time of use. We don’t pay at a revolving door to enter the library or a public park, both of which are public services, so why should we pay when we use public transit?
Even without federal or provincial help, London could become the first Canadian city to implement fare-free public transit. It is an ideal testing grounds to implement fare-free public transit as it already has a strong public transit system for a city its size, it is not bursting at the seams, and it already has two successful fare-free transit programs which could be built on (the 12 and under and student bus pass programs)
In 2018, the LTC brought in $80M, of which only $35.5M came from revenue, AKA fares. The rest came from the city and the provincial gas tax. To implement fare-free public transit without expanding the system, the city would have to find $35.5M. This may appear to be a lot, but in a city of 380,000 it would account to less than $100 per person each year. To put this into context, a monthly bus pass in January 2020 will cost $95 each month.
Even without federal or provincial funding, London could look to two models of paying for a fare-free public transit system. The first is to implement a system similar to that in France which has seen a spike in fare-free public transit implementation. In French cities with over 10,000 residents, companies with over eleven employees are charged the versement transport, in essence a transport tax that goes directly into the local transit administration. Introduced in the 1970s, the versement transport was meant to modernize local public transport. Today it is used to heavily subsidize or in many cases, make public transit free.
The second option to making transit fare-free is to expand the currently existing fare-free transit programs. Students at Western and Fanshawe already have a version of fare-free transit. It is an agreement between students and the LTC that if everyone buys into the bus system everyone can ride free at the time of use. This comes with a greatly reduced fee (aprox. $85/semester vs. $95/month) and a higher than average transit usage (students accounted for half of the ridership in 2018).While we could debate as to which method would be preferable, I suspect that some version of both models would be needed to make public transit fare-free in London.
As previously stated, London would need $35.5M to keep up current operating levels. When fare-free public transit is implemented it is accompanied with a surge in ridership. The rule of thumb is that with a 10% change in cost there is a 3% change in ridership. So making LTC fare-free would have an anticipated increase of approximately 30%. Some routes will be able to take the increase while others would not. Evidently, if London were to implement fare-free public transit, it should do so alongside a massive investment in operating hours. While $100/person would keep current operating levels, $150-$200/person would not only implement fare-free public transit, it could propel the LTC into one of the leading public transit systems in North America. For those who spend thousands of dollars a year on public transit or a second vehicle, fare-free public transit would be an opportunity to invest in other important areas of their lives.