There are questions that need answers around free transit
What would happen if Whitehorse Transit provided free service?
The simple answer is, we don’t know but we should find out.
Thanks to the editor of the Yukon News for asking this question and proposing some arguments for and against free ridership. It’s a discussion that we need to have.
I have been on a committee studying the concept of “fair entry” for the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition (YAPC). We have been pondering questions around offering reduced transit fares for low income households and realize that there are no easy answers.
As the editor pointed out, though, it would be timely for council and city staff to consider various options to make our transit more accessible.
One of our questions when considering a reduced fare for low income households would also apply to discussing free transit: Would it increase ridership? Again, the simple answer is, we don’t know but it’s worth finding out.
Kansas City in the U.S. does not have an answer either, but its city council is willing to find one. They approved free transit recently and they should know within a year if ridership will increase. Their transit service has problems similar to Whitehorse. Service is infrequent and transit routes are widespread. It won’t matter that service is free if it is not available when and where it is needed.
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador is also looking for an answer. The city recently announced a two-year pilot project for free transit passes for low income residents. It starts this spring.
Our committee doesn’t know if cost is the most critical barrier for using transit in Whitehorse. We’ve heard there are other service barriers that may affect low income riders:
– Lack of Sunday service – many people work on Sundays and transportation needs are the same every day of the week
– Lack of early morning service – many jobs start at 7am and the first bus in most neighbourhoods is around 7am or shortly after.
– Frequency – the scheduled times may not work well for many potential riders, either too late or too early or transfer time that requires a long commute
– Lack of personal mobility – many homes within the transit service area are 100m or more from the closest bus stop
– Lack of inclusiveness – there is anecdotal evidence that riders have been treated disrespectfully when loaded down with groceries or taking extra time to board the bus.
There are also cultural barriers that affect all riders regardless of income level:
– We like our cars and regardless of income, most families want to own a car in Whitehorse. If you own a car, you want to use it.
– Our culture now has three or four generations with an attitude that says, my car is a right, gasoline should be cheap, why walk when I can drive? A personal vehicle is part of our identity, not just a mode of transportation.
Free transit could begin to solve these problems. An open discussion about how transit can meet the needs of all Whitehorse residents may provide a direction and some ideas to try. Any discussion will require accurate information about transit revenue and expenses and the impact on the city budget.