Fare-free public transit wasn’t on the City of Whitehorse’s wishlist when Premier Ranj Pillai and Yukon NDP Leader Kate White announced Jan. 31 a stipulation in the renewed Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement that seeks to eventually make public transit fare-free.
In the agreement, the Yukon government pledges to provide funding to the City of Whitehorse to replace revenue from fares and make public transit free of charge in Whitehorse.
“The city was surprised when we heard this announcement,” Mayor Laura Cabott said.
“If somebody over at the Yukon government had consulted with us, and listened to that, they would have maybe come up with something that was a little bit more targeted and useful for us.”
In the Feb. 3 interview, Cabott said the city wasn’t consulted at the political or administrative levels on eliminating fares for the city’s bus service.
“We’re very appreciative that the [Yukon] government is supportive of transit, and that they want to assist with financial assistance, but we’re not at that stage where we know for sure that free transit is going to increase our ridership,” Cabott said.
Council has already put in its $58-million capital budget, which includes a study on fare-free transit, for this year.
“The goal of this council is not necessarily to provide something free, but how do we increase ridership, because that’s going to then target reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to target getting drivers off the road, so less congestion,” she said.
“In some other cities, free transit works. In other cities, that hasn’t worked because it doesn’t get to the root cause of why people are not riding your buses.”
Cabott said the city may need to start by making its transit system better to entice people to leave their vehicles at home and ride the bus in the first place.
“We’re not there yet,” she said.
Based on the wording in the agreement, Cabott said the cost of providing free public transit remains unclear. While fares and other revenue agreements with, for example, the department of Education rack up about $1.5 million, Cabott said making public transit fare-free could mean spending $6 million.
“Going forward, I am hopeful that we’ll be able to have some discussions with the government” on how the city can “gratefully accept a financial contribution, but put it to where the city really, really needs and where its citizens need,” Cabott said.
She indicated some transit riders appear to be confused about the news and arguing with bus drivers about paying fare.
“You still must pay for transit, and we’re a long way out to getting to some sort of an agreement on this,” Cabott said.
She indicated the city is focused on providing more convenient transit service.
“We rolled out a new transit schedule and routing schedule, timing schedule in the spring to try and increase ridership. It was based on an extensive study and the feedback that we got from people was they didn’t really like it because it changed their routes, etc.,” she said.
Cabott said she heard that people want a more convenient ride, not a free ride.
“Nobody was really complaining about the fare. What they wanted was convenience. What they wanted was more direct routes. What they wanted was a bus to come to their bus stop more frequently. That’s what we heard from our ridership,” she said.
Contact Dana Hatherly at email@example.com