As of this fall, public transit will be free in Victoria for anyone under the age of 18, a plan the mayor hopes will create lifelong transit users.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps promised free youth transit as she sought a second term last fall and the measures, approved unanimously this week by the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, will be covered by Sunday parking fees on city streets.
In an interview Wednesday, Ms. Helps said the idea first arose at a campaign event. “I hosted a session in a backyard and all the parents were saying what they wanted and [a teenager] said, ‘I want free transit.’ I said, ‘Well. Let’s look at that.’”
Ms. Helps said free transit will allow youth the freedom to move while teaching transit use as a routine behaviour, thereby reducing the climate impact of individual vehicles. It will also reduce costs for Victoria families, she said.
Ms. Helps said the estimated annual cost for free transit is $850,000 in lost revenue but it will be replaced by new fees for parking in the city on Sundays. Those revenues are projected to be between $600,000 and $1-million.
“Through conversations with council and brainstorming, Sunday parking revenues was identified as a revenue source,” Ms. Helps said.
She said the program will start at some point in the fall, with the ID cards students receive at schools encoded with a transit pass, though the details are still being worked out.
The Victoria mayor said her city may offer an example to other communities on this issue: “There is nothing impossible about providing free transit to youth.”
TransLink, the Vancouver region transportation authority, said in a statement on Wednesday that it is aware of Victoria’s plan, but would give up between $40-million and $50-million in annual fare revenue by enacting free youth transit.
The agency now offers discounts of up to 70 per cent for youth, and looked at the idea of increasing those discounts in a fare review concluded in 2018.
“We are having conversations with senior levels of government to see how expanded transit discounts could be funded and implemented. TransLink needs support of senior government to bring in discounts like this,” Jill Drews said in the statement.
Kingston, a city of about 123,000 in Eastern Ontario, rolled out free transit for youth over several years starting in 2012, and was honoured in 2018 with a sustainable communities award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The cost is covered by a mix of city funding and funding from the school district.
Jeremy DaCosta, Kingston’s director of transit and fleet services, said the city has frequently received questions from other municipalities about how the program works.
He said he has one key point of advice. “Don’t think that just because it’s free that youth are going to start to use [transit]. You still need a transit system that provides a level of service that people are going to want to use. You can’t just make it free and assume that all of a sudden, you have got a service that is desirable,” he said.
Mr. DaCosta said Kingston has spent a lot of time on youth orientation around transit, with annual fall visits to every high school to issue passes to students, talk about using transit, covering etiquette and routes.
Amer Shalaby, a professor specializing in public transit planning and operations at the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, said opinion has been divided on the issue of free youth transit among transit planners.
Some say it could encourage unnecessary trips, leading to overcrowding on transit without generating revenues. However, there is also the argument that it could create lifelong transit users.
In an interview, Mr. Shalaby said he thinks free transit is a good idea for some individuals, notably youth and seniors, because it enables broad travel, engaging in productive activities such as after-school jobs, and accessing community centres.