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Public transit should be free, Victoria council says

Victoria city council wants to see free public transit for everyone in the capital region.
Riders board a transit bus on Douglas Street. Victoria council recently decided to start charging for downtown parking on Sundays to pay for free bus passes for children and youth.

Victoria city council wants to see free public transit for everyone in the capital region.

Councillors passed a motion Thursday at the committee of the whole urging the regional transit commission to begin phasing out bus fares as a way to build ridership, get people out of their cars and fight climate change.

The motion called on the commission to kickstart the process with a pilot project in 2020 that would allow everyone under 19 to ride for free.

Coun. Ben Isitt, who put forward the motion with Coun. Sharmarke Dubow, said lost revenue from fares could be replaced with money from provincial subsidies, property taxes or the gas tax. “It’s a bold proposal to the extent that it does propose a shift in the financing of the transit system from the fare box to the tax system,” he said.

“But personally, as a resident and taxpayer in the city of Victoria, I would be happy to pay for access to transit through my taxes rather than at the fare box.”

Isitt said transportation accounts for more than half the region’s community-based carbon emissions. “So shifting from private vehicles to public transit has the potential to make the biggest impact,” he said.

In addition to phasing out bus fares, the motion calls for improved service levels and more buses — particularly electric buses — to meet increased demand.

Coun. Jeremy Loveday said additional investments in the transit system are as crucial as eliminating fares.

“I’ve heard from many people who say their biggest barrier to accessing public transit is the fact that the bus doesn’t go to where they live, or doesn’t go to where they work, or it doesn’t come at the right time, either early enough in the morning or late enough at night, or that the bus is stuck in traffic with the cars,” he said.

“I think there are a lot of investments that need to be made in terms of making sure we have rapid transit, making sure we are extending service hours and into different neighbourhoods, and making sure that taking a bus, or public transit more generally, is more convenient than taking a car.”

Coun. Geoff Young said he supports getting people out of single-occupancy vehicles. But he argued that Isitt’s motion goes too far by urging the elimination of transit fares.

“I think while we want to move people toward transit, we don’t want to suggest that travel in the ultimate should be free,” he said.

Transit riders currently pay $2.50 per ride, $22.50 for 10 tickets, $5 for a daypass or $85 for a monthly bus pass. People under 19 or over 64 can purchase a discounted bus pass for $45.

Isitt said the motion to phase out bus fares builds on Victoria council’s decision to use money from new on-street Sunday parking fees to offer free bus passes to children and youth beginning in September.

He noted that other jurisdictions, such as Luxembourg, have announced plans to eliminate transit user fees as a way to increase ridership, fight climate change and ensure access to transit for people of all income levels.

Isitt added that council’s motion will provide guidance to transit commission members, including Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Dubow, when they begin strategic planning next week to shape the 2020 budget.

“Ultimately, it’s an advocacy motion to another public body, which has authority over transit service levels and transit fares,” he said.

Helps said she will carry the motion “valiantly” to the commission’s meeting on Monday.

“This is the direction we need to go,” she said. “We won’t be the first in the world. But I don’t think that there’s too many people who would disagree with the fact that when you provide a cost-effective, alluring, enticing transportation option, that that will transform people’s behaviour.”

Helps said the Capital Regional District has declared a climate emergency and that many of the same people who supported that stance sit on the transit commission.

“So I think this will go well and I’m proud to see it coming here from our table,” she said.

Victoria council plans to forward the motion to the transit commission and local governments to seek resolutions of support.