Why Vancouver Needs Free Transit

Dave Olson Dave Olsen (whoops, different Dave Olsen with an ‘e’) is writing an illuminating series of articles for The Tyee arguing for a fare-free transit system across the Lower Mainland:

Just seven years ago TransLink stated that their “market research” indicated that people wanted to pay when boarding the bus. But as Tania Wegwitz, senior transit planner in the Municipal Systems Program for BC Transit recently wrote: “Prepaid fares are better than cash fares, I don’t think there is anyone — passengers, municipalities, transit staff — who would disagree with you.”

I’m all for this idea in principle. Let’s raise AirCare fees and increase taxes associated with consumer vehicles to compensate. I also like London’s model of a congestion charge for entering and leaving the downtown core. I’d prefer not to punish commuters in suburbs where their transit options are limited. In short, I’ll take any reasonable option that punishes middle-class drivers and rewards transit users.

That said, I do hope Dave lays out a balanced case for and against free transit. I’d want to see a detailed, verifiable budgetary analysis of what the system costs, what savings you’d garner from eliminating fair collection, and where the money to pay for the free service would come from.

Plus I want to see more hyperlinks. Dave cites “Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute” who apparently says that “in 2000 the government subsidy to each private vehicle owner was about CAN $5,378.” I visited the Institute’s website and tried a few searches, but couldn’t find the applicable research.

UPDATE: Speaking of free public transport, John wrote about Dublin’s new free pedal-powered taxis. Apparently they’ll be funded through advertising? I’m not sure there’s enough money there, but what do I know? I’ll bet the best ad space would be on the back of the rider’s shirt.


  1. Thanks for pointing out the articles – they look like good reading.

    I’m also for a congestion charge for entering downtown with a vehicle, but my perception of sub-urb transit is that it’s pretty good – between the West Coast Express and Skytrain going east/southeast and the seeming abundance of busses traveling north-south, there always seem to be options. That said, I never go to the burbs by transit and may be way off.

    I was reflecting on Translink yesterday after some 6 or 7 years of its existence, and I can’t really point to many things about transportation in Vancouver that don’t suck more now than before. The roads are definitely more congested, their selection of bus designs never seems very good, the drivers are stressed, we have transit cops with firearms, and the fares keep going up without service improving.

    It’s not that Translink is particularly inept (though it has its moments). I just think its mandate of managing all transportation in the lower mainland is more than one agency can do well.

  2. Though i spend 3+ hours a day on transit and another hour ranting about Translink foibles each night, i am not the Dave “Olsen” who wrote (or is writing) the Tyee.ca article series.

    I did recently do a on-site testing of transit systems in NYC, London and San Jose (and documented bits and pieces for podcast to add to my collection os Seabus videos).

    Dave Olse/ons are taking over!

  3. I don’t know why people are so against transit increases, at least ones that keep up with inflation. Everything else got more expensive in the last few years – gas for busses, driver’s wages, etc. – so how can the price stay fixed?

    Pushing all the cost of transit onto the backs of car owners won’t work if you carry it to its logical conclusion, you’d have no one driving cars (and thus no AirCare or car tax revenue) and everyone riding a transit system that gets no funding. What to do then?

    (Disclaimer – I’m a transit user / walker and have never owned a car)

  4. Chris: I’m not sure your thesis is relevant, because practically speaking it’ll never happen. The trick, I think, is to keep the streets at an acceptable level of congestion and encourage more people to drive cars.

    This kind of social engineering is applied all the time, and it can work very effectively. To pick a random example, Dublin applied a 15 cent levy on plastic bags, and reduced usage by 90%. Obviously transit is a more sophisticated issue, but I imagine there’s plenty of room to disincentivize and foster transit use.

  5. Despite my default tendencies towards bomb-throwing anarcho-capitalism, I like this idea a lot.

    That said, I count maybe 5/17 of the Tyee’s reasons as having legitimacy or signifcance (1,2, and 5, plus probably 3 and 4).

    I also get a bit skeptical about car-subsidy figures, since they seem to assume there’s no benefit to non-drivers from deliveries made by road (which, for most retailers, is all of them).

    Where was I? The elephant in the room with such proposals is always the latent demand for transit services. Consider the example of the UPass, which has been a big hit among students at SFU and UBC, but which has also meant the transit system has faced big increases in the demand for services there.

    That’s good, if it can be funded, but the Simpson-Curtain rule Olsen cites apparently suggests a 30% increase [danger, pdf] in ridership if fares drop to zero.

    That same study I’m linking to says that fare-free services make much more sense in small transit systems than in big ones, because small systems generate almost no meaningful revenue out of their fare boxes.

    Skytrain, on the other hand, more or less pays for its operating costs out of the fare box (at-grade LRT plans must die!)

    Also, Olson gets the math wrong when he suggests that revenue goes down as fares go up. His example of a 10% increase in fares leading to a 4% drop in ridership equates to a 5.6% net revenue increase. Demand is both elastic and price-sensitive, so further increases in fares would likely have ever-more marginal revenue improvements, until they were eventually counterproductive.

    But on the other hand, your operating costs drop too!

    Ahem. If Vancouver did go fare-free, it would be the biggest transit jurisdiction in the world to do so, and I’m pretty sure it has far more potential to earn farebox revenue than any of the free-fare systems.

    There’s no such thing as a free ride,

  6. Darren, middle-class drivers are punished heavily via vehicle and petrol taxes as it is . Just becuase you don’t apparently like driving doesn’t mean that others don’t. Leave them be.

  7. At the risk of sounding like a complete snob, I would actually support paying a lot more for my transit ride if it meant not having to put up with all the crap from other riders that I’m now forced to deal with on a daily basis. I currently ride transit about 3 hours each day and if it’s not the really smelly guy with the bag of pop cans sitting next to you its the yelling teenagers swearing at each other across the bus.

    I think people take their cars so that they can have a bit of privacy and relative calm and to avoid being forced to snuggle up with other people they find annoying or repulsive.

    Take the Westcoast Express for example. It costs about double the amount of other forms of transit and, for the most part, the people are quiet and respectful. I know that Tyee readers would balk at this idea but I would totally support going back to some kind of class-based segregation on transit. A first class ticket could cost twice as much but with it, you get to sit only with other first class ticket holders. I’d bet if you did that, you would see a lot more people giving up their cars.

    Planes do it, trains do it, even BC Ferries now does it. Why not do it with Transit as well?

  8. The Latest Chris: I like your thinking. Hurray for segregation! Seriously, I know what you’re talking about. Most of my commuting has been either short or pleasant (there’s a minimum of smellies, crazies and teenagers on the SeaBus).

    Why not have a ‘free’ and a ‘premium’ section? I’m totally sold on the BC Ferries Lantern Lounge or whatever they call it. Now, if only they’d get wifi in there…

  9. Hey Darren,

    Thanks for picking up the series and chatting about it.

    I agree with your comment about the lack of links: the about the $5378 slipped by. But here it is and it is being included in the version that is about to be published on Alternet.org


    Let’s keep talking so we soon get the transit we all want!

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