How about totally free public transit?

March 11, 2011

CALGARY, AB, Mar. 11, 2011/ Troy Media/ – I have been driving for 25 years, which, while longer than some but less than others is a fairly long observational period. I feel pretty confident when I say that the problem with getting around a typical large city in Canada is that there are too many cars for the roads we have built. This is attested to by the fact that it is usually quite easy to get around at 3:00 am in the morning when the traffic is light.

I once heard someone say that our solution to this (more roads) is like buying an overeater bigger pants. The problem is eased temporarily, but the root issue remains. Hence, you keep needing bigger and bigger pants or, in the case of traffic congestion, bigger roads. More roads, however, are both expensive and not always feasible because someone went and built a nice little neighbourhood or left a natural area in the way! O the humanity!

Eureka moment came while stuck in a traffic jam

So what do we do? It came to me while sitting in a traffic jam: why not make public transit free while providing a whole lot more of it?

Before you stop reading or call the guys in the white coats to come get me, hear me out.

The more people who currently drive that we can get out of their cars and into busses and trains, the easier it will be to get around our roads for those of us who choose to keep driving (or have no other choice but to drive). Fiddling around with a few extra bus routes or a new train line is not going to make a big enough difference. We need radical change or those traffic jams will just get worse and worse and worse.

The first step is to send a strong signal to people by making hopping on a bus or train absolutely free. Cost is not a deciding factor for a lot of people, but it is for some and, more importantly, anything that makes it easier and more attractive to take transit should be adopted.

The second step is to dramatically increase the places transit goes and how often it goes there. Don’t think you are making a big difference by adding a new leg to a light rail system when you really need a dozen new short and long legs that cover a city like a web. We need busses going up and down major streets every five minutes at all hours of the day. It has to be easy to jump on transit and easy to get to all sorts of places from anywhere in the city.

The third step is to build related infrastructure such as multi-level car parks at train stations, pedestrian tunnels and bridges, and express bus terminals.

Do all this, and people who don’t currently take transit will start taking it.

Logistics is not a major barrier here, but money is. A city will need more busses, more drivers, and, ideally, more subways and more light rail lines snaking under and through key areas (think hospitals, recreation areas, schools, business centres, stadiums, shopping malls, airports, underserviced industrial areas, and so on).

Only an extra $2,400 per year in taxes

So, who the heck is going to pay for this transit utopia? Unfortunately, there is no one else to pay for it but you and I (i.e., taxpayers). Personally, I would be willing to pay, let’s say, an extra $2,400 per year ($200 per month) in taxes to go toward expanding the transit system. Some of us would get a portion of this back by taking free transit, some of us would see our gas bill go down as traffic flow improves, some of us may be able to get rid of the second car and its costs, and most of us would save money on the alcohol, psychotherapy, marriage counseling, massages and whatever else we need to deal with the stress caused by clogged roads. Bottom line, quality of life would go up and our cities would be way more efficient.

If the extra tax money (in a city with 250,000 tax filers each paying an extra $2,400 would add $600 million to the annual transit budget) is added to what is spent on new roads and interchanges (plus their ongoing maintenance), there would be a pretty large pile of money that could be used to fund transit each year.

What’s that? You don’t have $2,400 or you are unwilling to pay it? Well, I guess I will see you in traffic.

Robert Roach has an MA in political science from the University of Calgary. He has worked on a broad array of public policy topics including economic development, local government, demographic trends, the non-profit sector, public opinion, regional cooperation, environmental policy, democratic reform, and public finance. He has been President of the Economics Society of Calgary, is a Course Director and Instructor in the University of Alberta/Dalhousie University National Advanced Certificate in Local Authority Administration, and is the Vice Chair of the Calgary Arts.