Milton did it. Ottawa won't do it. Halifax does it in the summer. Calgary does it all the time, at least downtown. Hamilton keeps flirting with it. More and more cities in Canada are getting the free transit itch, and at least some of them are scratching—or at least sniffing. The idea of free public transit is not a new one, but there have been relatively few adopters, and none in Canada until recently.
Milton, Ontario, conducted an 8-month pilot project instituting free fares. During the summer months of 2007, ridership in Milton doubled over the same period in 2006. Free fares do encourage more ridership. They also mean that any system that institutes free fares must simultaneously plan on building capacity, otherwise commuters complain of overcrowding, and the system defeats itself.
Milton had a population of 53,939 in in 2006 (predicted to be 75,000 in 2007). Some of the other communities that have implemented free public transit have similar populations. Chapel Hill, N.C. has a population of 52,000. Hasselt, Belgium has a population of 70,000.
We don't really have good studies of large cities or metropolises offering across the board free transit. The Toronto Star published a piece on the potential benefits of moving the TTC to a free (or at least nominal) fare system. Austin, TX offered free transit, but then retracted it, due to complaints of vandalism and increased incidence of violence. Nominal fares can curb vandalism, but collecting fares can constitute 22% of the costs of the system. CCTV cameras are thought to dissuade assaults, but also raise worries about their widespread proliferation.
Free transit clearly increases use. An important, unanswered, question is whether it encourages a substantial number of car-drivers to use public transit in situations where they would have otherwise have used their car. Some thought would have to be given to other measures (comfort, speed, safety, reliability) to woo these drivers.
As with Milton, if a large city were to consider such a move, it would likely start with a trial period. If that went well, it could look to more commitment. With some smart design, and observable benefits (clearer skies and roads, and more money in the pocket—even with increased taxes), this might just be a love affair between a population and its transit built to last.
Inside and Outside photos: Mark Tovey