Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?

Mayors are considering waiving fares for bus service as a way to fight inequality and lower carbon emissions. Critics wonder who will pay for it.Image result for nyt: Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?

Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Dionisia Ramos gets on the 37 bus twice a day, rooting through her handbag to dig out the fare and drop it into the slot, so it came as a shock several months ago when the bus driver reached out his hand to stop her.

“You don’t have to pay,” he said. “It’s free for the next two years.”

Ms. Ramos had never heard of anything like this: Someone was paying her bus fare? At 55, she lives on a monthly unemployment check for $235. So saving $2.40 a day, for her trip to and from community college, past the hulking mills of Lawrence’s industrial past — that meant something.

Since a pilot program began in September, use of the buses has grown by 24 percent, and the only criticism Ms. Ramos has of the Massachusetts city’s experiment with fare-free transit is that it is not permanent.

“Transportation should be free,” she said. “It’s a basic need.

The City Council in Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, expressed strong support last week for waiving fares for its buses, a move that would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year in lost fares. And fare-free transit is the splashiest policy recommendation of Michelle Wu, a Boston City Council member who is expected by many to run for mayor in 2021.

Larger experiments are underway in other parts of the country. The cities of Kansas City, Mo., and Olympia, Wash., both declared that their buses would become fare-free this year.

The argument against fare-free transit is a simple one: Who is going to pay for it?

In communities where ridership has been falling, the cost of waiving fares may be less than expected.

Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Ms. Wu speak about fare-free transit, asked his regional transit authority how much was collected on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. The answer was such a small amount — $225,000 — that he could offset it from the city’s surplus cash reserves.“What I like is the doability of this, the simplicity of it,” Mr. Rivera said. “We are already subsidizing this mode of transportation, so the final mile is very short. It isn’t a service people need to pay for; it’s a public good.”

Around 100 cities in the world offer free public transit, the vast majority of them in Europe, especially France and Poland.

A handful of experiments in the United States in recent decades, including the cities of Denver and Austin, were viewed as unsuccessful because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; new riders tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But in another sense, they were successful: They increased ridership right away, with rises between 20 and 60 percent in the first few months. That statistic accounts for its revival among a new wave of urban progressives, who see transit as a key factor in social and racial inequality.

“Think about who is using our buses: It’s black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty,” said Kim Janey, who was sworn in last week as the president of Boston’s City Council and has proposed waiving fares on a key route through some of the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

“I know what it’s like to stand on the bus, all cramped up, so I won’t be late to work,” she said. “When I say more representation matters, that’s why it matters. We will bring new ideas like free buses.”

The idea also appeals to moderates in places like Worcester, which is struggling to persuade residents to use its buses. Ridership has dropped by 23 percent since 2016, and the buses now run half-empty, according to a report released in May by the Worcester Research Bureau, a nonpartisan policy group.

At a City Council meeting last week, a parade of citizens lined up to express support for a proposal to make Worcester’s buses free for three years, as a pilot program. Revenue from bus fares is so low, and the cost of collecting them so high, that it could be replaced by an infusion of $2 million to $3 million a year.

“When I heard the news I sat bolt upright and said, ‘That’s a good idea!’” said Howard Fain, a public-school teacher, who said he often saw people struggling to dig out coins on the 7 bus.

“Even people who can afford to pay for dinner love a free buffet,” he said. “Open up a cash bar and see what happens. We can draw people to public transit because people like free.”

In Boston, the idea has run into resistance from officials who say the cost would be exorbitant.

“We have to have that conversation,” said Mayor Marty Walsh, who was pressed for his position in an interview on WGBH, a Boston public radio station. “It’s easy to throw ideas out there. But when you put ideas out there, we have to back it up with how do we actually pay for it. And that’s going to be the key point to this.”

Brian Kane, deputy director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which oversees expenditures on Boston’s public transit system, said bus fares in Boston brought in $109 million in 2019 and $117 million in 2018.

“There’s no such thing as free,” Mr. Kane said. “Someone has to pay. Boston has the highest-paid bus drivers in the country. They’re not going to work for free. The fuelers, the mechanics — they’re not going to work for free.” Advocates of free transit have suggested that the cost could be offset by a gas tax increase; but replacing $109 million would mean raising the gas tax by 3 and a half cents, Mr. Kane said. And all the while, he said, the system is straining to cope with the current demands.

“I hate to be the guy who says, ‘eat your peas,’” he said. “But that’s where we are.”

Proponents of the idea argue that Mr. Kane’s numbers are inflated and that the true replacement cost would be closer to $36 million. That gap, they say, could be covered by a 2-cent rise in the gas tax.

“That’s where something controversial or impossible a few years ago now seems possible,” said Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation research group.

The Boston Globe editorial board, which endorsed the idea of making Boston’s buses fare-free this month, suggested the cost could by covered by philanthropy.

Scott MacLaughlin, a ticket agent for the Merrimack Valley Transit Authority, which serves Lawrence, is already worrying about what happens when Mayor Rivera’s two-year experiment in free transit ends, in 2021.

“You’re going to take it away after two years?” he said. “When you give someone something for free and then you take it away, that’s always going to be an issue.”

And that, Mayor Rivera said with a smile, was exactly the point.

“To me, it’s not a pilot,” he said. “I want people to get used to it.”

SOURCE

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NDP links environment with economic justice to head off Green challenge

Jagmeet Singh. Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

The NDP has released its full set of election campaign commitments early, in the hope that voters will take the time to absorb them, and that those policy proposals will become a key part of the national conversation leading up to the October vote.

The media took notice — at least for a day or two.

Some reporters and commentators focused on the big differences between Jagmeet Singh’s ambitious proposals and Tom Mulcair’s constrained and modest platform last time around. In 2015, the party tied its own hands with a base promise to achieve a balanced budget within a first mandate.

Other commentators took note of the progressive hue of the 2019 platform, and decreed that the NDP has gone back to, as a National Post headline put it, “interventionism, protectionism and fiscal insanity.”

In fact, the NDP’s platform is not radical.

On the revenue side, the 2019 NDP calls for restoration of the corporate tax to its former 2010 rate, and for a modest increase in taxes on the highest income earners, notably in the form of a wealth tax on total assets of over $20 million. It also proposes an increase from 50 to 75 per cent on the taxable amount of capital gains.

In terms of programs, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP emphasizes affordability.

Its platform pledges to deliver: truly universal healthcare, which would include eye care, mental health and, of course, prescription drugs; a half million units of affordable housing over 10 years; expanded employment insurance; a cap on cell phone fees; and measures to increase the number of child care spaces while reducing their cost for parents.

The environment also occupies a big place in the NDP’s plans.

The party pledges to eliminate oil and gas subsidies and invest that money in renewables. It will also invest in low carbon transportation, especially public transit. And it even promises to work with jurisdictions that want it to provide free public transit.

These and other key promises all fall within the mainstream policy framework of most developed countries, with the notable exception of the United States. The NDP’s policy proposals are designed to humanize and rationalize Canada’s private enterprise, market-based economy, not limit or undermine it. MORE

NDP Environment Plan: A clean economy that works better for people

Let’s build a fairer society  where everyone is included.


NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh presents the party’s plan for climate change in Montreal on Friday, May 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Creating good jobs across the country. Creating at least 300,000 new jobs building the clean energy future that will support families and bring local work to communities across the country – and providing the training and supports that workers need.

Kickstarting clean energy by stopping fossil fuel subsidies. Canadians are paying the price while big polluters profit. Ending oil and gas company subsidies means we can invest in renewable energy, and get Canada powered by net carbon-free electricity by 2030.

Saving you money while building for the future.By making all new buildings in Canada energy efficient by 2030, and retrofitting existing buildings by 2050, we can make a big dent in climate change and save families $900 or more every year.

Setting targets and meeting them. Revising Canada’s pollution targets so they’re in line with what scientists say is needed to stop dangerous climate change – and then holding ourselves to hitting them.

Cheaper, cleaner, more convenient transit.Changing the way we get around by moving to 100% electric transit and free public transit, investing in high speed rail, and bringing back critical rural and northern transit routes.

Zero-emission vehicles. We’ll make it easier to get and use Canadian-made zero-emission vehicles by making them more affordable, and build a network of charging stations across the country so nothing will slow you down.

Protecting our communities by investing in our communities. Extreme weather conditions like floods and forest fires are threatening people’s homes and jobs. From farming to forestry, supporting community climate action and energy projects will protect families and boost local economies.

No more single-use plastic. Plastic pollution threatens our oceans, our wildlife, and our health. It’s time to make plastic bags, cutlery, and other one-use items a thing of the past. SOURCE

Ottawa takes first step with climate emergency declaration, bold action must follow

Prince Edward Council has not declared a climate emergency. Why not? Do they really expect citizens to avoid climate change? Climate leadership is conspicuously missing.

How does this motion measure up to Extinction Rebellion’s core demands?

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Twitter
On April 24, Ottawa City Council voted in favour of an eight-point motion to declare a climate emergency.

Extinction Rebellion, an international grassroots climate justice group, argues that governments must declare climate and ecological emergencies, and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change. The Ottawa motion lacks language about communicating the urgency for change to the federal and provincial governments, as well as to city residents.

The group also demands that governments act immediately to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Ottawa’s motion only calls for the city to adopt a target of a 45 per cent reduction in 2010 levels by 2030.

Extinction Rebellion’s third core demand is the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to lead decision-making and inform the government on climate and ecological justice. While the Ottawa motion calls for the establishment of a Council Sponsors Group, there is no clear indication of how the broader public would be able to meaningfully participate in this process.

What should the Council Sponsors Group, as created by the Ottawa motion, demand?

  1. The City of Ottawa should commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, a key demand made by Extinction Rebellion.
  2. The City of Ottawa should commit (as the City of Vancouver is considering) to a target of two-thirds of trips in the city to be taken by walking, cycling, and public transit by 2030.
  3. Given that transportation accounts for more than 30 per cent of Ontario’s carbon footprint, the City of Ottawa should commit to improving public transportation across the city and piloting free public transit (as has been considered in other international cities, including Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen, and Mannheim).
  4. Given Ontario Premier Doug Ford has just cancelled the 50 Million tree planting program, the City of Ottawa should commit to an ambitious tree planting program. Paris committed to planting 20,000 trees between 2014 and 2020.
  5. The City of Ottawa should endorse (as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and numerous other cities have already done) the international Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration that pledges to enact regulations and/or planning policy to ensure new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings by 2050.
  6. The City of Ottawa should explore innovative ideas being pursued by other cities including: green streets and pocket parks to catch and absorb excess rainwater (Copenhagen), initiatives to support energy-efficient retrofits (Melbourne), and the promotion of local food production (Quito has set a goal of producing 30-40 per cent of its food locally).
  7. To pay for some of this, the City of Ottawa should send a climate accountability letter to Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and other fossil fuel corporations to demand they pay their fair share of the costs that cities are incurring because of climate change. The City of Victoria’s motion on this (passed in October 2017) called on other municipalities across Canada to pass similar resolutions.

It is also vital that the City of Ottawa find its voice on the issue of the approval and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. MORE