Free HSR Fares Not The Way To Go

By Adrian Duyzer
Published July 16, 2008

Councillor Sam Merulla's recent suggestion that public transit in Hamilton ought to be free would risk making transit an economically and politically unsustainable venture for the city.

Transit should not be a handout. Public funding is necessary, but riders should pay so that a large portion of the cost of providing the service is carried by those who use it.

Certainly, lower fares would be beneficial to boost ridership and ensure that poorer citizens aren't priced out of it. But the long-term future of public transit in this city would be put in jeopardy if transit suddenly turned into a huge money sink for the city. It gives way too many excuses to narrow-minded councillors to cut it.

It also gives the wrong impression of transit users, namely, that they are a segment of the population that requires a handout (read "welfare bums" from the perspective of non-transit-using voters) as opposed to economically significant, productive members of society, giving further ammunition to those sectors of the city opposed to meaningful progress on urban revitalization issues.

Nor does this proposal attract the kind of riders that the city wants: people who normally drive. These people already pay large sums of money for transportation, and even paying the current fares would be a huge money saver for them. Do they really need free fares?

None of the cities I've traveled to that had incredible public transit systems had free fares. If you want to ride for free in these cities, you have to jump the turnstile. Hamilton should be no different.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz


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By fpteditors (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 09:33:33

Handout? The carbon and auto companies have profited for years while their products dump CO2 into the atmosphere. Who will pay the damages? We are already paying for roads, parking, congestion, drainage problems, and oil wars.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 09:39:34

I look forward to reading the discussion on this topic. I don't know what to think on this issue. On one hand I agree with the principle of transit being treated as necessary and important as roads. On the other hand, it takes money to develop a good transit system or road network. Perhaps road tolls would be the better way to balance the inequality instead of free transit.

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By haaa (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 09:52:47

Why does this sound like the arguments against free public libraries 150 years ago? I can't imagine anyone who would doubt the civic duty to provide books freely to the entire population. Why is transit so different?

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By adrian (registered) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 10:11:30

I think the argument that public transit ought to be free or very cheap because taxpayers fully fund the construction of roads a is weak one.

The argument seems to be that people who drive their cars on roads are getting a free ride, while transit users or cyclists are not.

I do agree that certain highways should have tolls, however, the need for roads and their public utility was apparent long before the automobile existed. The Romans built roads centuries ago because they are needed for most forms of transportation, for carrying goods we all rely on, and for quickly accessing distant locations (i.e. keeping the "empire" together). Even if we had no cars, we would still have roads.

As well, public transit users and cyclists DO use roads. The argument that car drivers are getting a free ride only makes sense if their vehicles were purchased by taxpayers. However, car drivers have to purchase a car out of their own pockets.

Paying a fare to ride the bus is like paying a very small part of a lease on that bus, plus part of the driver's wages.

As far as a comparison to public libraries goes, I think the question haaa raises, "Why is transit so different?" has many obvious answers, almost too obvious for me to get into, for example: it isn't possible for the average person to afford to compile a personal library of thousands of books, but the average person can easily afford public transit; borrowing a book has a negligible impact on its longevity but buses burn fuel that someone has to pay for.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 11:14:01

and the Roman roads were beauties. lol. Also, nobody HAS to buy a car. people choose to. Should we start a new tax where we all chip in to help people pay their mortgage?? Compared to cyclists and transit users, car drivers are getting a free ride. Their infrastructure costs trillions. How much is spent in Canda on bike lanes?? The costs to provide transit and transit vehicles per person is also astronomically lower than highway/road space per car driver.

I'm still not convinced that free transit is the answer, but nor is our current system working.

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By haaa (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 12:29:28

The first "public" libraries were subscription based, ie the members paid a fee every year to maintain the infrastructure. It wasn't until the 1850s that the modern free library began to be institutionalized.

Aside from perhaps a question of scale (transit costs more than libraries, and the cost per transaction is higher), I see no other real difference between transit and other city services that are offered without user fees.

Why is transit so different? I am not expected to fund the librarian's salary every time I borrow a book, why should users personally subsidize the bus driver? I don't see the obvious differences you mention.

The benefit to the disenfranchised in this community would greatly outweigh the costs.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 13:33:47

haaa, re. "The benefit to the disenfranchised in this community would greatly outweigh the costs", I agree with you that free transit would benefit economically marginalized citizens.

However, I think the key question on this issue is not whether free transit benefits Hamilton's citizens, so much as whether free transit benefits Hamilton's transit system.

A transit system that is hobbled by poor public funding, subject to greatly increased criticism from narrow-minded councilors and citizens from sparsely populated areas, is a transit system that is in trouble. A transit system that is in trouble is bad for everybody, including Hamilton's poorer citizens.

jason, re. "Their infrastructure costs trillions", I think you're missing just how much you rely on that road network, even if you don't drive on it. Every product you buy, save those that are manufactured on the spot (e.g. baked goods) is transported to you by road.

My point about the Roman roads is that long before the automobile, the need for high quality roads was apparent (and they were high quality - the success of Christianity is in large part due to the ease with which its evangelists traveled throughout the Roman empire on those roads, and of course, the relative peacefulness inside that empire).

I do think tolls are appropriate on highways.

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By adam1 (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 15:27:11

Might sound obvious but anyway... the auto and gas companies give the government kick-backs for building roads. Plus the government taxes gas at a very high rate and makes money that way...

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted July 17, 2008 at 16:36:30

Folks - this is way too much analysis!

To me the free transit debate is pretty simple. The question is a. what do we want more of and b. what do we want less of? Given that the answer is obviously a. mass transit and b. cars then how do we redress this balance? Simple - we encourage one behaviour and discourage the other. The easiest way to do this is through the pocket book.

This debate as to roads versus transit, libraries versis transit is not really relevant in my opinion. We've gone beyond the point of debating whether mass transit is beneficial, whether it's something we need to build, whether it is something that benefits the public good...that is all a given (at least it should be) The debate is really: How do we encourage more people to use transit?

Also, these arguments around maintaining security and pride in our transit infrastructure don't wash with me. The idea that transit will be less secure or subject to deterioration if we don't pay for it don't appear to be based on much, and such problems, if they did occur, could be rectified.

The solution is, of course, two-fold: Provide free or cheap transit, and invest heavily in it's expansion and efficiency improvements. In short, do whatever you can to make it more user friendly.



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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 17, 2008 at 20:13:30

"I think you're missing just how much you rely on that road network, even if you don't drive on it. Every product you buy, save those that are manufactured on the spot (e.g. baked goods) is transported to you by road. "

To help your argument, the raw materials for those baked goods are also transported largely by roads ;-) but that is all part of the problem with our system.

We should be transporting more goods by rail. But because rail relies on private ownership and maintenance of the lines, it comes out as more expensive for many types of transport.

The level of public subsidy dumped into roads is astronomical. And it is entirely imbalanced. Yes, trucks need roads. And non car owners need roads. But take this example: Six continuous lanes, plus three lanes worth of paved shoulder, built, maintained, ploughed, resurfaced, and for what? For two waves of traffic each weekday that is comprised mainly of single occupancy vehicles. It is absolutely unnecessary for this scale of infrastructure to be built for cyclists, buses and transport. This ridiculous outlay of cash is to serve the almighty right to drive by yourself to and from work. How about this? An extreme case but not uncommon in North america. And this is in our back yard (and stretches for quite a few kilometres through toronto): SIXTEEN LANES! Is this necessary to get lettuce to our supermarkets?

Yes, we all use the roads but there is no doubt that the public expenditure is skewed heavily in favour of private automobile drivers.

How about parking? Public land is "rented" to drivers for parking at a ridiculously small rate per square foot. Businesses that provide free parking to customers and employees spend an awful lot on providing that land, costs passed on in higher prices and lower wages - spread evenly across even the non-driving members of their teams of employees and shoppers - again the transit/pedestrian/cyclist contingent pays more than their fare share for that lettuce.

Here's another small part: EMS services. Providing help to injured parties in motor vehicle accidents is not cheap, and we all bear that burden whether we drive or not.

Keeping automobile prices within reach is possible because of tax incentives and bail outs of large auto manufacturers.

Car users pay gas tax - but non automobile users pay gas tax in a roundabout way, the same way they need roads in a roundabout way: prices paid for goods include cost of transportation just as they inherently include a need for transportation infrastructure.

So, yes we all use roads and need roads but the cost of the infrastructure balloons when you have to build it to support single occupancy vehicles. If we only had to build to support buses, bikes and feet, the cost would be significantly different.

This is not to say I agree with free transit, but I do believe that it is an essential public service and as such should be subsidized in a similar manner to any other essential service. Ideally, we'd re-structure the tax system to account for the imbalance slightly better. So how do we do this? Do we increase the cost of car ownership through special taxes? or do we decrease the cost of alternative modes of transportation? Either way, the majority of road users will scream bloody murder because they are losing their invisible subsidies...

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By councilwatch (anonymous) | Posted July 17, 2008 at 22:23:49

The City of Seattle in the State of Washington does provide free transit to and from the downtown sections.

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By Buckatrip (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2008 at 11:26:57

Kudos to Councillor Sam for raising the issue and keeping transit use up front in the public forum, but I don't think free riding is the way to go all the time. There's a tendency, perhaps a by-produce of capitalistm, to value things by the price asked for them. In the long haul all free transit could lead to declining use and certainly would be open to devaluation by public officials looking to trim budgets.

However, the recent day-pass system tied to discounted community facilities is a winning idea, long overdue. Maintaining a day-to-day fare, perhaps even higher than the one we have now, with extra discounts for special events, health considerations, family-day passes, buck-a-trip promotions, special transit to special locations, use your imagination, occasional freebies and other imaginative promotions all encourage transit use while maintaining perceived value.

One of the things I'd like to see is "rounded fares" of an even twonie with unexpected, last-minute summer-fun loonie days just for the fun of it. Put a few local clowns on the bus and charge a buck.

That's my 100 cents worth.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted July 18, 2008 at 20:29:52

Buckaride; you should be amyor.

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By kevin (registered) | Posted July 18, 2008 at 20:30:38


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By jason (registered) | Posted July 19, 2008 at 15:58:03

I'm not trying to suggest that roads are important. they are. But all the 'goods we buy' won't have any reason to be shipping here if people can't easily travel about to buy them. Why is a car owner more important than a transit rider or walker?

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By Dabsweetie (anonymous) | Posted July 21, 2008 at 11:07:23

The real issue here is what do riders want? Most people who use cars now are not really concerned about the bus fares as much as travel time - mind you they don't want to be gouged. At the moment - the buses in Hamilton cannot compete - we don't have a significant amount of traffic congestion and so riding the much slower (and crowded) bus is not attractive - Buses themselves are not attractive. Until we have a system (think LRT) that is fast, efficient and fairly glamourous, don't bet that you'll increase transit ridership by luring those who normally drive. I personally wouldn't use the bus anymore if it were free - I would be tempted to ride on a train. Be cautious about using the word free as well - no matter what, we'll ending up paying for it - and far more than projected figures. It would be nice to offer free transit but how practical is it really? Why would it be fair that Torontonians or people from any other city in Ontario/Canada/the world could ride our system for free yet we have to pay to use their systems. If the province or Feds are kicking in a huge protion of the operating costs than it makes more sense. It wouldn't take long for this to be shot right out of the water once your average, working Hamiltonian realizes that they're paying for anyone at all to ride the buses/trains. I'd like to be able to do that in Toronto where it costs almost $3 one way. How unfair it that? Free transit will never be a reality as long as there are inequities - like the public library system - it's going to have to be free in every city - and perhaps it will require a "transit card", much like a library card, that identifies you as a resident of the city with a permanent address and "user" rights.

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By CRH (anonymous) | Posted July 22, 2008 at 18:06:31

It all comes down to money!

If public transportation is made cheaper or free, the city is going to have to susidize that cost. That ends up coming out of our pockets as tax payers. Heck, they may even create new taxes (look at whats happening with the recycling fee for electronics). Not only that, but the more people that use public transportation, the less vehicle/gas sales and people paying for insurance. It stands to a. harm many industries and b. significantly reduce the income the government receives from taxes of these products/services.

I think at this point in time it is really a balancing act for the government. They want to get cars off the road (because of the environment etc.) but it just costs so much money.

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By HSRWife (anonymous) | Posted July 30, 2008 at 15:04:43

Free Fares?!?

The stress my husband deals with on a daily basis as a HSR Bus Driver, will be unbearable if this is approved. We are already committed to him resigning if this is passed.

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By Kat (anonymous) | Posted August 06, 2008 at 15:00:17

No matter what, this is not going to be free. For me, the question that arises is who should pay for it? Some would argue that those who use it should pay for it, which is partially how the current system works. However, the current system works under the assumption that all riders are equal, and all have equal incomes. This, as any Hamiltonian knows, is not the case. 70 dollars a month means a lot more to some people than it does to others. Someone who is barely above the poverty line, for example, may not be able to afford 70 dollars a month. However, they may be in a situation where their employment is not within walking distance to their home, in which case, transit is a necessity, but a necessity that is not available to them. Is it not, therefore, right that the rest of Hamilton help them, through higher taxes, so that there can be a reduced fare? Increased camraderie can do nothing but help--if we help that person to get to work, they earn an income, which is in turn taxed, as well as enabling them to independantly contribute to the city, benefitting us all. (Setting aside considerations of what type of employment/living wage etc.). Reduced or free transit is an investment that we all can benefit from.

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