Victoria wants to eliminate public transit fares for everyone in the region to encourage more ridership and reduce the impacts of climate change.
Mayor Lisa Helps will bring a motion to the regional transit commission Monday, asking it to embrace a policy of phasing out user fees and expanding bus service to meet an anticipated increase in demand.
Councillor Ben Isitt, who introduced the motion that was passed Thursday by council, said it would begin with the elimination of fares for youth under 19 next year and the broader community would be phased in.
Mr. Isitt said there’s almost no more space in the city for expanding roads or parking.
“Driving is only going to get more challenging so I think as we make transit more convenient and cheaper, that provides a further incentive for people to leave their cars at home.”
The transit system currently depends on $40-million in annual revenue from fares but is primarily funded through taxation in the form of provincial subsidies, gas taxes and property taxes. Mr. Isitt said the proposal would see the fare revenue loss replaced with an expansion of the existing tax formula.
Similar policies have been adopted in jurisdictions like Luxembourg and Estonia’s capital city Tallinn.
Other places offer free fare for certain demographics or in geographic areas, like Madison, Wis., where fare is free in the city’s core.
In Toronto, children under 12 ride for free, and in Kingston, Ont., high schoolers can too. The City of Kingston said the objective of the program launched in 2012 was to expose students to the transit system, building habits they may continue after graduation.
Jeff Casello, a transportation professor at the University of Waterloo, said eliminating fares can encourage ridership, including for those who avoid public transit because they don’t know how the fee structure works.
“The idea of free public transport has been talked about in many cities,” he said. “What many public transport systems are trying to do is increase people’s accessibility.”
It can be an unpopular policy for municipalities that expect to recover operating costs. Aside from some exceptions like megacities in Asia, Mr. Casello said few public transit systems actually break even so every dollar counts.
In North America, user fares typically support between 40 and 60 per cent of the operating budget, he said.
Fare incentives also aren’t enough to make many people change their habits.
Those who already depend on transit will continue to use it and high-income earners who don’t use transit won’t be incentivized by a fare change from something like $2 to zero, he said.
There is a larger group in the middle that has some price sensitivity and can shift habits depending on fare, but price isn’t typically the most important factor, Mr. Casello said in an interview on Friday.
“It’s often the quality and the calibre of the public transport system. So in a city where I can drive and it will take me 10 minutes and I have hourly transit service that takes 30 minutes, reducing their fare is not going to change people’s habits, at least not those discretionary users,” Mr. Casello said.
But if transit is competitive and people are considering the option, then making it free can shift behaviours where it will generate new riders, he said.
In Victoria, Mr. Isitt said an important part of the proposal involves both electrifying the fleet and expanding bus routes and service to meet the anticipated demand. That would include more frequent buses, better routes and dedicated bus lanes to allow transit to move as efficiently as possible through gridlock, he said.