Flirtation with free fares

streetcar_inside.jpgMilton 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


I was thinking about this the other day. There is a way to encourage ridership by making it part-free, and the transit authorities won't need to do anything. In Ottawa, riders receive a Proof of Payment (POP) receipt, which remains valid until the time shown on the receipt (1.5 hours). There's nothing to stop riders that have completed a journey from handing their POP on to others. I'd like to see something like a small box at a major hub, like Rideau, where people could drop the POP. If it's still valid, someone else could pick it up and use it.

Would there be any benefits? We could gain a little more social capital, greater ridership, encouragement to use transit, and ridership opportunities for people that perhaps can't afford it. Better a full bus than an empty one, if the bus is going to run anyway.

Posted by: cam on July 23, 2008 2:47 PM

Very interesting. I've witnessed a system like this operating informally, and openly. I'm not sure if the particular transit system approved or not, but if Ottawa, or some other transit system, gave its blessing to such a practice, it would be predicated on the assumption that the minutes in transfers are transferable, as long as only one person is using the transfer at a time.

And you're absolutely right—this could work in a POP system because transit authorities wouldn't have any worries about the same receipt being double-dipped by two different people at the same moment in time (handed back through turnstiles, ala Toronto, for instance). Either you had the ticket on you when the transit checkers came by, or you didn't.

Posted by: Mark Tovey on July 30, 2008 2:37 PM

I am aware of a Toronto-based study (back from the 80's) that modelled the travel behaviour of individual trip makers. Of the factors believed to influence mode choice (auto, transit, walk, etc), parking cost was found to have a greater effect on mode choice than transit cost, dollar for dollar. To put it another way, a driver faced with either a dollar parking cost hike or a dollar transit fare reduction would be more likely to make the switch to transit under the parking cost hike.

This is not to dismiss the free transit notion; perhaps there is more recent and comprehensive research that suggests otherwise. In moving towards the objective of modal shift to transit, policy makers have a variety of tools at hand (some carrots, some sticks)...depending on the specific situation, free transit may or may not deliver the greatest bang for the buck.

Posted by: Marcus Williams on August 1, 2008 4:07 PM