Free Transit: three Reasons it is an Idea whose Time has come

Published on Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 969, by Michael Laxer, April 18, 2014.

On January 1, 2013, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, became the largest city in the world to make mass transit free for its residents. While the effects of having done this are, of course, specific to the context of the city itself, it has shown that a major city can do it and that it has been widely popular with its residents. It has also focused attention on a growing international movement of groups, activists and parties who feel that free mass transit in major urban areas is an important social and environmental goal to be worked toward in the near future.  

In a culture such as ours, where cars are very deeply entwined with notions of personal identity and freedom, and where the right has convinced people (falsely) that government can afford to do nothing of any significance, free transit seems at first, no doubt, like utopian nonsense to many. But given the enormous amount government invests in subsidizing the infrastructure and gas that cars rely on, and given the environmental and social equality issues involved, this is not the case at all.

Free transit is an idea whose time has come and there are three truly significant reasons it needs to be front and centre as an ultimate objective in any left municipal agenda in Canada.

The Environment and Fighting Car Culture: … //

… Social Inclusion: … //

… Income Inequality and Economic Justice:

Free transit has a real role to play in issues of economic justice and income inequality. As we have already seen, our government spends vast sums of money to subsidize fossil fuels and car usage. This does not even include the money that must be spent by municipalities and governments on the infrastructure cars require.

These subsidies are made at the expense of those on lower incomes and those living in poverty. Directly. They use government funds that could be utilized by transit and any number of other programs to fund and facilitate a lifestyle choice that is of far greater benefit to the middle class, the upper middle class and the wealthy. In this sense they represent a redistribution of government revenue from those of lower incomes to those of higher ones.

Even the International Monetary Fund noted that “subsidies were expensive for governments, and that, instead of helping consumers, they detracted from increased investment in infrastructure, education and health care, which would help the poor more directly.”

One way that those on lower incomes and living in poverty can be more directly helped is free transit! As one Tallinn resident put it, “I live on a tight budget since I don’t have too much work right now. I need to save money wherever I can, so I’m very happy with the free public transit scheme. This is a good thing for the common person.”

Transit fares, for those who have work, cut into these often substandard, poverty wages themselves in the daily commute to work. Free transit would facilitate the search for better jobs (or a job at all) outside of local neighbourhoods and would allow all of those using public transit to keep more of their income by choosing free public transit as opposed to driving or having to pay daily or monthly fares. It would be especially beneficial for those on fixed incomes or relying on social assistance. We should not underestimate the impact that this can have on the daily lives of millions of people.

It is also an issue of basic fairness. For many decades urban residents who could not afford to or who chose not to commute by car have been subsidizing those who did. They have been made to pay higher and higher fares on in many cases inadequate and overcrowded transit infrastructure while the priority has been given to cars, even in spite of the environmental repercussions of this. Most Canadian governments and municipalities have shied away from the use of tolls or the imposition of car pooling lanes, essentially facilitating the singularly destructive act of driving wherever one wants, whenever one wants, on one’s own. This has to change.

There are other reasons free transit makes sense. It would end the need to police fares and the daily confrontations between transit workers doing their jobs and some transit riders. It would signal a shift in our society’s priorities. It would also, like free health care, be inspiring and transformative of how many look at the role of government and it would be very hard for even reactionaries to fully reverse once put in place in major cities.

Very recently the Coalition of Progressive Electors in Vancouver, one the country’s largest municipal political formations, voted at a policy conference to make free transit a plank of their upcoming municipal campaigns. By doing so they have taken an important idea out of the ‘fringes’ and put it into the civic discourse of the country’s third largest city.

Hopefully this indicates a shift in thinking that will ripple through left-wing and progressive parties and municipal candidates from Calgary to Toronto to Montreal and to Halifax. A shift that will help to begin to make free transit the priority for our movements that it needs to be.

(full text).

(Michael Laxer is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the New Democratic Party (Canada) NDP, and is on the executive of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ontario. He is running for Toronto City Council in Ward 6 in the upcoming municipal elections. This article first appeared on the website).


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