Car rates

Free public transit during high gas prices probably won’t get people out of cars

Analysis: Studies of ridership in cities where public transit is free reveal that it does not reduce car use

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British Columbia’s environment minister slammed the door on BC Green land to make public transit free for four months to relieve drivers of soaring gas prices and reduce vehicle emissions .

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But would such a plan actually encourage people to ditch their cars in favor of a bus or a SkyTrain?

Evidence from cities around the world has shown that free public transport may not be enough to get drivers out of their cars, especially if public transport options are limited because they are outside of urban centers of British Columbia.

As gas prices hit a record high of 233.9 cents per liter in Metro Vancouver, both opposition parties are pleading with the NDP government to do something to ease the pain at the pumps.

Last week, the Liberals said the province should follow Alberta’s lead and temporarily waive the provincial gas tax of 8.5 cents per litre.

The government has repeatedly ruled out a petrol tax exemption and on Tuesday Environment Minister George Heyman rejected the idea of ​​free public transport.

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“We have no plans at this time” to eliminate tariffs, Heyman told reporters. He said the province and federal government have spent $820 million over the past two years to keep fares low and prevent transit authorities from cutting routes due to low ridership during the pandemic.

Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said she was disappointed the government had already rejected the idea.

With monthly transit passes priced between $85 and $181, Furstenau said free transit will save riders up to $724 each over the next four months.

Freedom must also be accompanied by spending on public transit infrastructure across the province, Furstenau said, “especially in underserved areas to ensure people have an alternative to driving their cars.” .

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“We need to shape a future that offers affordable, accessible, reliable transport alternatives, and to do that, (the government) needs to invest in them,” she said.

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TransLink, which serves Metro Vancouver, said such a plan would be costly and ineffective in reducing car traffic.

That would mean $160 million in lost revenue over four months, TransLink spokeswoman Tina Lovgreen said. This figure would be even higher if the BC Bus Pass program for low-income seniors and people with disabilities and the BC U-Pass program for students were also suspended.

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For BC Transit, which serves Vancouver Island and communities outside Metro Vancouver, free fares for four months would cost $20.8 million in lost revenue.

“The cost of public transit isn’t the main reason people choose public transit over driving,” Lovgreen said. “The main drivers are convenience, frequency of service and connections to the destinations they travel to.”

In 2013, the Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics conducted an analysis of free public transport systems in cities across Europe. He found that while free public transit stimulates ridership, it primarily attracts people who walk or cycle.

“The effects on car traffic levels are marginal and usually offset…after a few years of traffic growth,” the report said.

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TransLink did not experience an increase in ridership due to high gas prices. Transit service ridership in recent weeks is about 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

“If gas prices were to cause a spike, we would likely see a higher recovery than expected,” Lovgreen said.

The British Columbia branch of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives has asked TransLink in Metro Vancouver to make public transit free for everyone under 18 and tie transit passes to income .

Calgary has a sliding-scale transit pass, which means residents with the lowest incomes pay $5.30 a month, according to a report by CCPA senior economist Marc Lee. In Halifax, low-income monthly passes are available for half the price of the regular adult fare. Seattle both offers a discounted pass for low-income earners and also voted in 2018 to offer high school students free bus passes.

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Alex Hemingway, another senior economist at CACP’s BC office, said cheaper public transit must be paired with dramatically improved services to successfully persuade people to take the bus instead of driving. .

“At this time, when we know we are facing a very serious and urgent climate change crisis, we want to throw everything we can at this problem,” Hemingway said. “That’s probably one of the obvious things we could do, both to increase transit service and reduce costs.”

When Furstenau asked Premier John Horgan during Question Period on Monday whether the government would make public transit free, he said the government has already made public transit free for children under 12.

The government continues to look for ways to expand BC’s public transit system to meet the province’s greenhouse gas emissions targets, Horgan said.

“You can’t do this by snapping your fingers,” he said. “We’ve been working on this since day one, and we’re going to continue to work on this to uplift all British Columbians, wherever they live.”

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