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No fare is no fair?

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A motion spearheaded by Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson, the #AllOnBoard campaign, was recently accepted by Vancouver city hall. The campaign calls for youth 18 and under to receive free rides on public transit. Other features of the proposal include monthly pass fees based on income and an end to ticketing of minors for fare evasion. The fine for fare-jumping is $173.

New Westminster and Port Moody had already declared their support for the motion, and Swanson and her supporters hope to convince other municipalities in the Lower Mainland to sign on. Toronto already allows youth 12 and under to ride for free, and the city of Seattle recently started providing free transit passes to high school students. In Vancouver, the current cost of a one zone transfer for youth is $1.90, while a monthly pass costs $54 for minors.

Swanson argued that “Kids between 12 and 18 still don’t have much money and need to be able to ride the bus … and sometimes they’re the ones most likely to be out at night and most likely to be in a dangerous situation and really need the transit,” according to a recent CBC News article. She also said, “If you’re a family of five it would take about $20 of transit fares to go from East Van to the beach, for example, and [a] lot of people don’t have that kind of money.”

In my opinion, Swanson raises good points. The great majority of people under the age of 18 cannot drive and have no income. Even if their family owns a car (not guaranteed), in this age of the two-income household, it may not be available when they need a ride. For many young people, public transit is their only means of travelling long distances. Not to mention that scrounging up the exact change for bus fare gets troublesome after a while when the fee is not a round number. It seems unfair and unnecessary to force them to pay out of pocket when someone else will usually be paying anyway, either directly or indirectly. The only difference is whether that will be the parents/guardians, or the taxpayer.

Unfortunately, the question of “How will it be paid for, and by whom?” rears its ugly head, as it too often does. Would letting youth ride for free make that much of a dent in the transit budget? Youth already get a discount, but $1.90 per rider can add up over time; $0 never can. The possibility that a budget shortfall might cause transit services to stagnate or worse, be cut is a terrifying prospect. Drivers might also balk at having to foot more of the bill for funding public transit while they themselves have to pay the costs of owning a car (fuel, insurance, maintenance, and the vehicle itself) as well.

City councillors debating the matter in Greater Vancouver speak from a place of privilege, where public transit is already well-developed. As one gets farther from the urban core, public transport services become increasingly few and far between. Swanson says that unaffordable public transit is a barrier to youth accessing public services and jobs, and engaging with the community. However, the same is true in places where there is little or no public transport and where very little is within walking distance, for adults without cars as well as minors. Allowing youth to ride free would mean nothing if there is nothing for them to ride, or if the service is so infrequent and/or unreliable as to be useless.

Even so, I am not convinced that free service for under-18s will seriously damage the company’s bottom line. In Chilliwack, the local bus service gets by with charging adults only $2. On the other hand, as I have noted before, Chilliwack’s transit services are substandard in my opinion. If I were forced to choose, I would prefer a system that is extensive, frequent, and reliable, even if people have to pay more in fares. However, I do not think it would come to that, and reliability at least is not something dependent on funding. In the end, what matters most is enabling everyone to go where and when they need to, regardless of income, ability, or age.

Image: David Myles/The Cascade

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