The PEN Insider: The Campaign for Free and Accessible Transit

Posted July 23, 2018

Who should be able to move freely through the city?
Those who are able to drive, and can pay to run a vehicle? Those who can always afford bus fare? Those who are the most physically mobile? Those who aren’t afraid to venture out alone at night? Or do we all have the right to mobility?
You can see a city’s answers to these questions in the quality of its transit system. Is taking transit - especially outside of commuter hours - an expensive, time-consuming, demoralizing and even frightening experience? Or is transit affordable to all, clean, safe and uncrowded, quickly taking people where they need to go at all times? This is the kind of equitable transit system that the new Campaign for Free and Accessible Transit wants to see in Ottawa.
Affordable transit = freedom
It starts with affordability. “If your transit isn’t affordable, then you can’t volunteer, go out, go to meetings and appointments, do your errands, do what you want,” says Kathleen Fortin, a member of Ottawa ACORN. “It can affect your mental health because you’re isolated. You can become depressed.” Fortin sits on the Ottawa board of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and is Chair of the Hintonburg/Mechanicsville Committee. ACORN Canada is an independent national organization of low-and moderate-income families with 113,000 members across the country. Fortin is also a seasoned transit activist with lived experience of the deficiencies of the Ottawa system.)
Kathleen Fortin was on the front lines of two recent major transit victories: the Equipass, which gives eligible low-income residents a 50% reduction in the price of a transit pass, and the Equifare, which reduces the price of a single ticket to $1.75. But she says there’s much more to be done.
“It’s great that we got the Equipass for $57, but it’s still too expensive,” she says. “Transit fares are going up 2.5% every year until 2048.”
She’d like to see the Equipass immediately reduced to around $40. She’s also concerned about the City’s plan to steadily increase transit fares.
The highest fares in Canada
“Ottawa fares are basically the highest in the country,” says Donald Swartz, co-chair of the Campaign for Free and Accessible Transit.
And there’s no relief in sight: an increase of 2.5% every year means a two-way transit trip will cost $14.62 in 2048. Transit already can’t compete with the city’s artificially low parking rates and new “ride-sharing companies,” whose services can be cheaper than the bus. But there is another way, says Swartz.
“We can afford to abolish transit fees—the question is for who, and how.”
We can afford free transit
Fares currently bring in about $150 million. “For the city to cover that would require a four percent increase in property taxes,” says Swartz. “That’s a lot, but not unaffordable, and there are other potential sources of revenue.”
For one, the city can increase parking rates. On-street parking rates haven’t budged in the past decade, while the price of an adult transit pass has increased by $32, according to a recent analysis by the Healthy Transportation Coalition, a partner in the Campaign.
A second option would be to look at getting more money from development charges, particularly near the LRT stations, to fund an expansion of public transit. A third option is to divert money currently earmarked for roads. Swartz also notes that “Since the sources of revenue available to cities are so limited, we also need access to provincial and federal funds.”
A modal shift: transit and climate change
Lowering transit fares won’t be enough if you’re looking to address climate change by getting people to shift from driving to transit, according to Swartz.
“Lowering fares in and of itself doesn’t lead many people to abandon their cars for public transit,” he says. “When you make it free at the point of use, then you have significant impacts.” Ridership can increase by 50% or more when fares are eliminated, according to the book Free Public Transit: Or Why We Don’t Pay to Ride in Elevators. With its focus on both transportation equity and climate change, the Campaign has brought together environmental and social justice activists. It started in the Eco-Justice Committee of Solidarity Ottawa, which is a grassroots activist organization.
“If we are going to really address climate change, we’re going to have to change the way we live,” says Swartz, “and we live in cities. The whole way cities are organized needs to be reimagined if the goal is to make public transit the dominant mode of motorized transportation in the city.”
A transit city
What does a city that prioritizes transit look like? It is accessible, which to Swartz includes not only meeting the needs of people with disabilities, but meeting everyone’s needs.
“Right now, the public transit system is designed to get people to and from work at nineto-five jobs. It’s not set up to enable people to do their shopping, get to meetings or to cultural events, especially at night,” says Swartz. “The connections are lousy; there are huge gaps.” He agrees that a significant expansion of the system is required. Overcrowding and the safety of passengers and drivers also need to be addressed, says Swartz.
A transit city also wouldn’t allow the daily indignities that have become a normal part of taking transit in Ottawa. It would meet the needs of everyone, including people like Kathleen Fortin, who uses both a wheelchair and a walker, and who tries to restrict her use of the regular bus during peak hours because of the overcrowding.
“The regular bus is often crowded, particularly before nine o’clock,” says Fortin. “Usually I don’t go out during that time but sometimes I don’t have a choice: I might have a doctor’s appointment early in the morning.” She also has a volunteer job that requires travelling during rush hour.
A transit city would also look at what happens on the way to and from the bus stop. Fortin says she is conscious of her personal safety when using transit at night, especially in the winter when it can get dark so early. She also finds the timing for many crosswalk too short, which is “dangerous, because you take a chance of getting hit.” A lack of consideration of all users during construction is also a problem. A failure to properly lay asphalt at a relocated bus stop left Fortin’s wheelchair stuck in the mud last spring.
“I got off the bus and sank into the mud. I was stuck there,” she says. She had to get out of her wheelchair, and two people had to get off the bus and push her wheelchair out of the mud. To avoid getting stuck again, she started getting off at a less-convenient stop, father away.
A cultural shift
Prioritizing transit over driving requires a cultural shift, says Swartz. It’s about building a more social culture. “There has to be a shift back to funding collective consumption as opposed to individual consumption.” With many sources putting the cost of keeping an average car on the road at more than $5,000 per year,  free public transit offers individuals huge savings, he says, even if half of that savings went to expanding public transit (in the form of increased property taxes). Swartz says we also need to think about a just transition, including what happens to people who rely on the auto sector for a living. “One has to think about how those specific people won’t pay the price.”
A transit riders union for Ottawa
“Ottawa lacks a transit users’ organization, like the TTC riders in Toronto or the bus riders’ unions in San Francisco or Los Angeles, that would work on a whole range of transit issues,” says Swartz. Setting up such an organization in Ottawa is a next step for the campaign. Work started this June with a transit riders’ forum held in Vanier, and Swartz hopes to hold a series of these forums in different parts of the city. This work is being funded by a micro-grant from the Healthy Transportation Coalition. The Campaign is also thinking about how it might have a positive influence on Ottawa’s upcoming municipal elections. 
Article by Michelle Perry for The PEN Insider