Free transit isn’t the answer, say the experts

Free service is not the answer to improving Whitehorse's oft-criticized transit service, say international transit experts. "The evidence shows, time and time again, that it's better to invest in service than in eliminating

Free service is not the answer to improving Whitehorse’s oft-criticized transit service, say international transit experts.

“The evidence shows, time and time again, that it’s better to invest in service than in eliminating fares,” said Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto Cities Centre.

In early February, during a public hearing on the operations and maintenance budget, about a dozen citizens called for an end to transit fares, a measure that would each Whitehorse taxpayer about $70 a year.

“A pittance,” said attendee Michael Berman.

The Whitehorse transit system has been plagued by low ridership, but if council wants to get more people on buses, they “would be far better off keeping the fares where they are and investing that money in more buses, more bus routes, better bus stops,” said Michael Rochlau, president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

Far from a magic bullet for skyrocketing ridership, free fares typically only drive ridership up by 30 per cent, said Graham Currie, chair of public transport at Australia’s Monash University.

Since 1997, the Whitehorse transit system ridership has been consistently below expected levels, according to a city report. Subsidized to the tune of 71 per cent, transit already costs taxpayers $1.76 million.

Fares account for such a small portion of revenue it might be profitable to eliminate fares, get more people in the seats, and cover costs by selling more advertising, said Linda Bruce, mayor of Airdrie, Alberta.

Whitehorse city councilors have publicly mused about putting the question to a referendum.

“A referendum would give people who were against it the option to say no, so I think we should just have an increase in taxes,” responded one delegate.

With the recent cancellation of Whitehorse’s Friday night bus service due to low ridership (an average of 4.3 people per trip), evening transit service in the city has effectively ceased.

Transit users bemoan a lack of night buses as cutting them off from the city’s cultural and sporting events. Lack of general evening service has also been cited as an obstacle to youth employment.

“Evening services in a small city are difficult to maintain, unless you want to spend a tremendous amount of money running those buses empty,” said Miller.

The solution may lie in adopting a more flexible transit system.

“If you’re paying a driver to run an empty bus up and down a fixed route, you might as well be paying that driver to deviate the bus or go off route to pick up riders,” said Miller.

In Airdrie, Alberta, a city of 28,927 in south central Alberta, evening and Saturday services are provided by a “dial-a-bus” system. A rider simply calls to request pickup at a designated city bus stop.

Regina, Saskatchewan, became one of the world pioneers in demand-responsive transit when it debuted a “telebus” service in 1971. Telebuses would roam distant communities until they had picked up a full load of commuters. Then, commuters would be dropped off at a centralized waiting room where they would await pickup by fixed-route buses.

Even in 1971, Regina had a population six times that of Whitehorse today.

Geographically, Whitehorse has always been a transit nightmare. With a small population sprawled across a massive area with no clear transit corridors, providing efficient service can be near-impossible.

“Once you’ve built a town in a certain way, retrofitting transit is an uphill fight,” said Miller.

In scheduling, the Whitehorse system breaks one of transit’s golden rules: consistent arrival times.

Most transit systems operate on “clock-face headway,” a scheduling system that places arrival times at easily remembered frequencies, such as every hour or half hour.

Departure times for Whitehorse buses often vary by up to one hour.

Between 8:20 and 3:05, the Porter Creek/Crestview bus leaves six times – at intervals of 35 minutes, 90 minutes, 105 minutes, 70 minutes and 105 minutes.

“Having a consistent schedule is always easier for customers to understand,” said transit specialist Sean Rathwell, a former manager of service planning for the Ottawa transit system.

“And the easier it is for people to understand the transit system, the more likely they are to want to ride it,” he said.

Long intervals are fine, but it’s important to ensure that all routes come together at a single town bus stop where “if possible, there is a cafe or waiting area,” said Currie.

“If you’re not sure of the schedule, you don’t want to go and stand for a long time in the cold weather,” said Rathwell.

For major cultural and sporting events, Whitehorse may have success running specially tailored transit routes.

“Special events are always an opportunity for public transit, because you’ve got a lot of people going to the same place at the same time, which is really what public transportation is all about,” said Rochlau.

Certain cities have implemented partnership programs in which theatregoers pay extra on their tickets to cover a free transit service to ferry patrons to and from the event site.

Organizers of the Frostbite Music Festival campaigned for the city to provide special transit service to the music festival, which was held last weekend at Yukon College.

City council rejected the request due to time constraints.

Whitehorse ultimately seems to be caught in a vicious circle. The transit system won’t improve because there aren’t enough riders, and there aren’t enough riders because the system won’t improve.

“You break out of it by biting the bullet and investing in it and making it reliable and hoping people will come,” said Miller.

Municipalities have sometimes found success by establishing transit partnerships with local employers and universities. If students or employees agreed to take transit, they would be given bonuses or credits to their tuition.

Of course, with evening service ending by 6 p.m., taking an evening course at the college leaves students in the cold.

Whatever service is provided, the only way it will attract riders is if it’s a “good service,” said Bruce.

“It has to be clean, it has to be safe and it has to be on time,” she said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at