Free transit would make city more livable

The following was published as an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette, on 2017-11-14:

I am excited by Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal’s election promise to improve public transportation in Montreal, and am sure that it will generate many excellent proposals.

Here’s one that deserves attention: free public transportation.

Let’s look at the benefits and costs.

On the plus side, free public transit (read: supported by taxpayer funding) would attract more riders, and to the extent that these riders choose it over using private vehicles, it reduces traffic congestion, delays, greenhouse gas emissions, noise and pollution.

On the minus side, more riders means more buses, more bus drivers and more métro trains, all of which increase both capital and operating costs; longer lineups at bus stops, more noise and pollution from buses, possibly fewer parking spaces to accommodate the longer articulated buses that will be needed, and of course, more crowding on métro platforms, longer lines at turnstiles, and so on. It could even become a safety issue!

But are these negatives really inevitable?

Yes, if one adopts a system that provides free transportation for only a subset of users, such as students or the elderly; or a system that limits free transportation to certain times of day.

To avoid many of the negatives listed above, the trick is to do away with any limits on who gets free transportation, or when. In other words, free transportation for everyone, residents, visitors, tourists, commuters, off-island users, students, seniors, those on welfare. No limitations! And, no restrictions on when: rush hours, weekends, holidays.

Why do this? Because when there are no restrictions, there is no necessity to check whether riders have tickets or passes or meet criteria such as student or senior status, or whether their transfer is still valid. No fare boxes on buses, no turnstiles on the métro, no need for ticket sellers or inspectors, no need for bus drivers to be distracted by dealing with fares and passes. Think of the cost savings!

But the real benefit of such an unrestricted approach comes with the speedups of bus operations. When there is no longer a need to have your transport pass or ticket verified when getting on, riders can enter much more quickly, in double file even, and will be able to get on using the rear doors. I remember the streetcars in Toronto when I was young, equipped with folding doors front and back, wide enough so that four people could enter or exit side by side.

Why is this important? Because if one can get riders on the bus more quickly, then a bus can cover the same distance in a shorter period of time. This means that on a given shift, one bus and driver can make more circuits, which means each bus can accommodate more trips. How many more? That’s an excellent question. Let’s suppose that one estimates a doubling of ridership by going to free transportation. Does that imply needing twice the number of buses and drivers? No, perhaps only a one-third or one-half increase. Maybe even less, because fewer private vehicles on the roads, especially during rush hours, means that buses will also be able to cover their routes faster. During rush hours, a full bus means dozens fewer automobiles on the road. Everyone benefits: drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and, of course, public transportation users who no longer pay, and get to their destinations faster!

I leave it as a challenge to enterprising computer experts to create models for this, because we need data-driven cost estimates that will convince our elected representatives, and voters, that a free for all, all of the time, public transportation system is the way to make our city more liveable and pleasant for all.

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