Should Thunder Bay residents be able to ride transit for free?

The city halted fare collection in the face of COVID-19. Now a local advocacy coalition wants council to make no-cost travel permanent
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jan 15, 2021
A demonstration in favour of bus rides proportionate to income that took place in Thunder Bay on December 11. (Courtesy of Paul Berger)

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Like many other public-transit operators in Ontario during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thunder Bay Transit stopped collecting fares. “That meant so much to people, for their mental health, their well-being,” says Tracey MacKinnon, a member of Poverty Free Thunder Bay.

Now, MacKinnon and other members of the local advocacy coalition want Thunder Bay to permanently adopt a free-public-transit model. Last month, the group presented a fare-free-transit proposal to city council asking to lower the cost of fares — currently it costs $3 per ride — by $1 per year, meaning that transit would be completely free for riders as of 2023. City councillors voted unanimously to study the proposal, and the administration is expected to report back on its findings within the next few weeks.

If adopted, it would be a landmark decision, suggests Paul Berger, a member of Poverty Free Thunder Bay’s fare-free-transit working group. “There’s no city the size of Thunder Bay, or anywhere near that in Canada, that has done this,” says Berger, also a professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University. He adds that Canmore, Alberta, offers fare-free transportation on a single route and funds the service via parking fees.

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According to Berger, free transit makes a city safer and more equitable. In addition to putting more money in transit users’ pockets, it increases ridership, which in turn reduces the number of cars on the road, cutting down on greenhouse-gas emissions. (Research by Joel Volinski, a public-transportation consultant in Florida, suggests that fare-free transit also reduces the need for parking and results in fewer impaired drivers on the road.) Berger believes free transit could also have an impact on tourism and immigration in the city. “People would start to think about moving to Thunder Bay,” he says.

A small study conducted by Poverty Free Thunder Bay suggests that free rides had significant benefits for transit users: 63 per cent of respondents reported a positive impact on their lives — some noted they had more money to spend on food, and others said it contributed positively to their mental health, as increased mobility led to less isolation. “[Bus fare is] something as small as pocket change for some people, yet it’s our way of getting from point A to point B, and hopefully back,” says MacKinnon, who is also a community cultural consultant with the Green Party of Canada.

In 2019, 4.3 million trips were taken on Thunder Bay Transit. Since 2017, the city has spent more than $11 million annually on transit-operating costs. This year, the city is proposing a gross transit-operating budget of $12.3 million

During Poverty Free Thunder Bay’s deputation to council, Kelly Robertson, the general manager of community services, explained that “Thunder Bay Transit relies on a contribution of $7 million in user fees to help offset the cost of service.” Going fare-free would eliminate that revenue, and if the municipality were to foot the bill, it would “result in a 3.5 per cent increase in property taxes, or roughly $140 per household in Thunder Bay, on average,” Robertson said.

Poverty Free Thunder Bay’s proposal also recommends transit improvements, a priority the city has cited in its 2019 Transportation Master Plan. As Berger points out, a trip across town “that would take you 11 minutes in a car … could take you an hour and 15 minutes” on the bus. Normally, Thunder Bay Transit operates 17 routes, 18 hours a day; many routes operate at 15- to 30-minute intervals. Fluctuating ridership due to the pandemic means that most bus routes currently operate only every 40 to 45 minutes.

The biggest drawback of fare-free transit, according to Livio Di Matteo, an economist and professor of economics at Lakehead University, is that it’s not actually free. “Even though you call it free public transit, it’s technically not free. Someone does pay for it,” he says. “So the question is, who should pay for free public transit?”

Berger knows that, in a city with the province’s second-highest property-tax rate, year-round free transit could be a tough sell. During the deputation, Councillor Shelby Ch’ng said that, while she supports free transit for everyone, she doesn’t want to pit “homeowners against those living in poverty” and suggested the advocacy group lobby higher levels of government for support.

Asked whether the province would support a fare-free-transit model in Thunder Bay, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation said in a statement that “while the province provides funding to Ontario municipalities to support public transit … any decisions on public transit fares are the responsibility of the municipality.”

While Berger would’ve liked to see fare-free transit begin on January 1, 2021, as per Poverty Free Thunder Bay’s proposal, he says he’s “completely thrilled that it’s on the radar,” and he expects council to support the proposal in some way, perhaps by implementing a small-scale pilot project that would see one fare-free transit day per month.

In the meantime, Berger says, Poverty Free Thunder Bay is going to appeal to the federal and provincial governments for support for their proposal: “I think there’s a space in this country to have a demonstration city. To have some place where something really quite different is tried.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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