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In January, 2015, just a few weeks after taking office as mayor of Toronto, John Tory broke a promise. During his campaign for mayor, he had pledged not to raise transit fares. Now he was reversing himself.

He said the Toronto Transit Commission had been “starved” under his predecessor, Rob Ford. It needed the money to restore service and reduce overcrowding. So, yes, fares would be rising after all. It was a foreshadowing of what happened just last December when he announced that, despite repeated promises over several years to keep property-tax increases within the rate of inflation, he was bringing in a big increase to pay for transit and affordable housing.

But for those who objected to the higher transit fares, there was a sweetener: Kids would ride for free. With a great flourish, Mr. Tory announced that children under the age of 13 would pay no fare at all. The change would encourage the little ones to learn the habit of riding the bus and it would give hard-pressed families a break – a break, mind you, that would cost the transit agency about $7-million a year in lost revenue. Gathered in a school library for the announcement, a boisterous bunch of kids cheered at the news. How much will your ride cost now, they were asked. “Free!” they hollered back.

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Only now, five years later, are we learning the true cost of that transparent attempt to distract voters. Using child cards to take transit rides has become a leading method of fare evasion. Adults get hold of the cards, tap them on card readers and ride for nothing. The TTC estimates that this accounts for a third of all fare evasion – even higher at the main entrances to subways. Considering that evasion costs it about $70-million a year over all, the loss is heavy.

Presentations to a TTC committee this week laid out the extent of the problem. Because most people tap in to ride, the TTC’s data crunchers have a good idea which kind of cards are being used where and when. They looked at two subway stations – Dundas and York University – with a high number of child-card taps. Neither, it notes, is likely to be used that much by actual kids in school. Dundas is right downtown, next to the Eaton Centre and Yonge-Dundas Square. York University is a new station out in the city’s north.

The times that card users tapped in was often suspicious, too. Travel during late hours and school hours is “not expected for children 0-12,” the TTC’s experts said dryly.

The TTC is struggling with what to do. It wants Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, to make transit-card readers emit a special light and sound when someone uses a child card. Another rather obvious idea is to make adult and child cards different colours.

The city’s Auditor General has recommended tougher controls on the way child cards are issued in the first place. A TTC report last week said that though the agency has stopped handing out promotional child cards, “they are still available through third-party vendors and online sales (i.e. Kijiji, Craigslist) that advertise Presto cards with ‘unlimited taps.’ ”

The same report includes another even more obvious option: Reintroduce the child fare. The ride-for-free program is only five years old. Many other Canadian cities still charge children to ride transit. The youth fare in Toronto before Mr. Tory abolished it was only 75 cents, not an impossible barrier to taking transit for most kids and families.

But it probably won’t happen. The trouble with handing out goodies the way Mr. Tory did is that it is very hard to take them back. Anyone who tries it would be branded an awful Scrooge. It is not hard to imagine the placards outside City Hall denouncing whoever dared to withdraw children’s fundamental right to ride the bus for nothing.

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At the least, though, Toronto should learn a lesson from this episode. Mr. Tory’s kids-ride-free announcement came out of the blue. It wasn’t debated during the election campaign. The mayor simply said, we’re doing it, and barely anyone raised a hand to object.

That sort of off-the-cuff, political decision is bound to produce unintended consequences.

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