What do we mean by Free and Accessible Transit?

Public transit should be a right for all. People shouldn’t have to pay fares for using subways, buses, streetcars and other forms of public transit in Toronto. Transit users are not ‘customers’. The transit is not a commodity to be bought and paid for by individual users. It should be an essential right, a public service like public education, libraries, water, firefighting, public safety, doctors and hospitals.

Transit should also be accessible to everyone. That means regardless of their income, which part of the city they live or work in, or if they are living with disabilities and have particular physical challenges. All of us should be able to travel anywhere within our city when we need or want to.

Imagine how empowering it would be to go where you need to be, when you need to be there, not just on an overpriced ride to and from work or the occasional appointment or family event – but where you need to be and who you need to be with, anytime of the day or evening?

Free and Accessible Transit would deliver more

  • It will provide an incentive to dramatically expand the use of public transit, creating jobs, improving the environment and reducing gridlock;
  • It will encourage the people of Toronto think about democratically planning the future of our communities;
  • It will help us move towards creating different kinds of housing, employment and new ways of combining cars, transit, walking and cycling.
  • It will make it easier to travel between neighbourhoods – not just routes to downtown


How would we pay for Fare-Free Transit?

As a result of cuts by the Harris Conservatives and the continued lack of funding by the provincial and federal governments, the TTC obtains almost 70% of its operating costs from fares. It is the least funded system in all of North America. For example, Montreal fares cover 56% of their costs (as of 2009), and for New York, the figure is 54% and Boston it is 42%.

According to transit expert Steve Munro’s reading of TTC documents for 2010 (it was written in 2009), there was a projected fare box revenue of $941.5 million and expenses of $1 billion, 429.1 million. That comes out to 65.88% of total expenses. Other non-subsidy revenues will bring in $58.7 million or 4.11% of the total. The remaining 30.01% of the revenue necessary to balance the budget will come from city-funded subsidies. (Steve Munro Blog).

Overall, if we were to eliminate fares, we would have to make up for the loss of the roughly $950 million to $1 billion in fare revenue and transform the basic funding structure of public transit

How might we do this? There are a number of viable options:

  • We could replace fares with stable funding from the city, provincial and federal governments. If public transit is a right of all people then it only makes sense to pay for it through some combination of funds that come from general tax revenues. Cities are the central focus of Canadian life. The federal and provincial governments have to pay for them to flourish and grow sustainably. Medicare is run by provincial governments, but is funded through grants from the Federal government. In the US, federal funding subsidizes the transit systems in a number of cities. Why not in Canada? Instead, the federal government has announced plans to spend $35 billion on new fighter jets and maintenance costs (useless for anything but participating in aggressive foreign occupations and wars, in service to the US war machine). Why couldn’t some of that money be used for free transit in Canada’s largest cities?
  • We could bring in a fair and progressive tax system. Rather than lowering corporate taxes – as most governments are doing – this would require the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share. For the last four years, governments have gradually reduced the corporate tax rate from 22% to 16.5%. Were we merely to go back to the original 22% rate, we would recoup $60 billion in lost revenue. We should re-introduce more tax brackets and lessen the reliance on taxes that hurt those with lower incomes and few assets, such as property taxes and value-added taxes. This would increase the revenue stream, which would make it easier for the Federal and Provincial governments to pay for public transit.
  • Even more important, if we want to generate revenue, we would have to create well-paying, rewarding and secure jobs for working people in our cities, producing useful and sustainable goods and services. This would provide a proper tax base to cover the collective needs of all of us. But it would require major changes in the way the economy is organized and structured.
  • Governments build and maintain roads and streets as part of their mandate. In many ways, this is a necessary subsidy to allow us to use sidewalks and cars, buses and other surface transit to get where we need to go. However, we have now reached the point where gridlock and traffic is so bad, that in order to maintain reasonable travel times – even with cars – more people have to move from private vehicle use to public transit. Better, fare-free and accessible public transit will also increase the flow of traffic for buses, surface transit and cars, as studies in New York City have shown. One way of both paying for public transit and encouraging its use, would be to place tolls on stretches of the 400 highway series, or congestion fees for vehicles coming into the central business district of the city. The Toronto City Summit Alliance Report: Time to Get Serious: Reliable Funding for GTHA Transit/Transportation Infrastructure argues that road tolls on the 400 highway series, a stable national federal-provincial transit strategy, congestion fees, regional taxing strategies in combination with other approaches could fund the costs of an expanded public transit and prevent increasing traffic gridlock. Theodore Kheel, the late American labour mediator noted that in New York City, congestion pricing could make up for most of the revenues lost by getting rid of fares (A Bolder Plan: Balancing Free Transit and Congestion Pricing in New York City, 2008.)
  • Fare free transit would be the most important move we could make in reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It would help clean up our air and reduce the costs to the healthcare system caused by pollution-related diseases.


How could we ever accommodate the increase in ridership that fare-free transit would create?

We would have to expand the capacity and reach of public transit. An expanded transportation system would allow us to create more jobs. A large part of the manufacturing infrastructure in Ontario and elsewhere has been made idle by the shift in private production to lower wage areas for higher profits. We can harness those capacities for the production of new and advanced mass transit vehicles, components, construction of routes and other parts of a new accessible transit system.

This means a shift towards more public ownership and regulation of manufacturing, more jobs and employees with more democratic input into the work that they do.

Just as the original subways, buses and streetcars were financed by issuing Ontario bonds, that can be done today – without burdening current and future generations with the need for huge profits to be paid out to private interests. New jobs will also expand the tax base.

Doing all of this would require a rebuilding of parts of the city. This would allow our city to become cleaner, less polluting and more people-friendly. It is an exciting prospect.


How would Free Transit contribute to the creation of democratic planning of our communities?

If a Free Transit system were to be created out of the current TTC, it would open up opportunities to move beyond current models of planning. Ordinary working people living across the city could be consulted about the particular transit needs of their communities. Would we best be served by light rapid surface lines or subways? Do we need community buses to move people throughout our neighbourhoods?

Future population growth and intensification of the city needs to be accommodated. (Predictions are that Toronto will grow by 25% in the next 25 years). We must make sure that this is done through a longer-term, democratic and participatory planning process, without the threat of austerity, without hysterical threats about the so-called “war against the car”.

We have to ask people about what kinds of affordable housing they want to live in, and what alternatives we could have to simply building more private condos. Expanding public transit – be it light rapid surface lines or subways – could encourage gentrification of neighbourhoods and make it too expensive for working people to enjoy the benefits of better transit. This could be addressed by rent controls and different forms of democratically planned, high density and affordable housing solutions, public, private and co-operatively owned.

We would have to consult people about the proper mix of subways and light rail that they would need. Democratic planning methods need to be used, rather than opportunistic calls to get rid of surface transit, or the worship of light rail. There needs to be a balance between subway and surface transit– one that takes into account the strengths and weaknesses and appropriateness of each for each community or group of communities.

Public transit solutions should avoid accepting the constraints and limits of private sector competitiveness and austerity – the idea that we need to tighten our belts, reduce our expectations and limit public programs and public sector workers. Instead, we need to argue in favour of figuring out what we need to accommodate growth, sustainability and accessibility, and pay for it together.


At a time where governments are starved for cash and people are hostile to paying higher taxes, how can you realistically call for Fare-Free transit?

Government revenues have declined for a number of reasons: the main one is the sluggishness of the economy brought on by the financial crisis (and that was caused by the operation of deregulated financial markets, not the actions of working people). It resulted in high unemployment rates and lower incomes for working people. This reduces tax revenues and forces governments to spend more on social programs. There are also the tax cuts given to the wealthy and corporations (even after receiving massive sums to prevent total economic collapse in 2008 and 2009). While Bay Street financial interests and business owners are raking in the profits once again, their gains are not being used to create jobs or to pay their fair share of taxes. Governments and business are now calling for austerity – massive cuts to public sector spending and social programs – to pay for the costs of crisis.

There are all kinds of reasons why many working people are open to the arguments of right-wing conservatives for tax and spending cuts. Many are stuck in jobs that don’t pay enough to live decently; others have to work more than one job to make ends meet; some have good jobs and worry that they could lose them tomorrow; others are without work, living on social assistance of various kinds. We are told that this is the best we can hope for, since we have to become competitive enough to attract private sector investment. Those that have unions that have been able to win decent pensions and benefits are often seen as somehow privileged – or at least portrayed that way by newspapers and media owned by wealthy corporations and investors.

Organizing for Free Transit will help us learn to challenge the myths that many of us live by today and address some of the underlying real concerns that encourage working people to choose right-wing explanations and solutions. We have to try to change peoples’ opinions and build this campaign. To back off from this, simply because people are currently listening to right-wing ideas, means that we will never win anything.


Would Free and Accessible Transit mean a “war against the car?

There is no war against cars. Anyone who has tried to commute in and out of Toronto knows that gridlock is common. Studies have shown that Toronto has worse traffic flows than Los Angeles or New York.

The Toronto City Summit Alliance Report cited above noted that: “Growing congestion reduced average peak period traffic speed by 17% (8% from 1986 to 2001); the average time spent commuting increased 16% (36% from 1986 to 2001).” The Toronto Board of Trade Report, Toronto as Global City: Scorecard on Prosperity – 2010, from May 2010, also stated: “With the highest average commute time, Toronto ranks last among the 19 metro areas for which data are available.”

Dramatically increasing public transit – through subways, light rapid transit and even dedicated bus lines – and bringing in fare free service, would improve the movement of cars and limit gridlock. Forms of public transit that operate above ground can easily be integrated with cars.

But there is another issue, an environmental one. Excessive reliance on private autos contributes to climate change and other forms of pollution. According to Evaluating the role of the automobile: A municipal strategy, by the Health Office, City of Toronto and technical work-group on traffic calming and vehicle emission reduction, “Recent studies show that chronic exposure to urban levels of air pollution affects health and life expectancy, and increases the incidence of cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and upper respiratory infections.”

If public transit was cheaper, faster and easier to access, it would encourage more people to park their cars more often and take transit, cycle, or even walk. This isn’t a “war”, but simple common sense.


Free Transit seems like a pretty long-term demand. Are there things we can fight for in the short run?

We demand that the TTC “Cut fares and increase service”. That means:

  • We argue for freezing and then steadily reducing fares. This could be accomplished by:
    • An across the board cut by one dollar ($1)
    • Reducing fares during off-peak hours, for seniors and youth, eliminating fares on high-pollution days and cold-emergency days;
    • Paying for this through increasing the provincial subsidy, or demanding a regular federal subsidy to public transit in the country’s largest city
  • We argue for making public transit accessible by:
    • Stopping and reversing all service cuts;
    • Immediately increasing service to under-serviced neighbourhoods, through van-pooling, community bus service or other short-term methods, while building publicly funded light rail and subways, and developing an open, democratic planning process to assess what we need to make the system fully accessible;
    • Making every subway station and surface transit accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Support the workers who run and maintain the transit system:
    • Support efforts of the TTC transit workers union to regain their right to strike;
    • Argue that improvements to the TTC and moves towards free and accessible transit enhance the jobs, wages, benefits and working conditions and employment levels of the system’s unionized workforce;
    • Build bridges between transit workers and users.
    • Fight efforts to privatize any aspects of Toronto’s public transit system


How do we relate to other people fighting to defend and expand public transit?

The Free and Accessible Transit campaign works with other movements organizing to make public transit accessible and more affordable. These allies currently include:

  • OCAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty)
  • The Fair-Fare campaign of Sistering
  • TTCriders


How can we defend public transit in the face of the attacks by Ford and his allies?

We oppose efforts of the Ford administration to attack the right of transit workers to legally strike. We also oppose the project of Ford and his allies to sponsor an “Underground 407” – a privately funded and run subway spur. We join with all of those who work to stop Ford’s plan and his demagogic opposition to all forms of surface transit.

We call for the development of a mix of surface and underground public transit, serving those in areas that will not get access to fast and convenient public transit. This requires open, democratic planning and a recognition of the need to raise public funds to pay for and operate it.