Free transit in Calgary? Maybe not as crazy as it sounds.

Posted on February 23, 2018

Last week, international media were reporting that some German cities are planning to offer free transit as a means of reducing air pollution and clear traffic gridlock. The theory is that by eliminating transit fares, people will opt not to drive and will instead ride on mass transit.
Could this concept work in Calgary? That’s hard to say for sure, but it’s worth a look.
In Europe, some opponents of the proposal are arguing that transit systems are already subsidized by local governments, and by removing all revenue from the ridership it would create significant losses for communities. But is that really true? Without the gridlock in traffic, municipal workers who are paid hourly will spend less time in traffic – thereby increasing efficiencies and reducing labour and operational costs. There would also be savings on infrastructure – Calgary recently invested $78 million on the interchange at MacLeod Trail and 162nd Avenue and our budgets are staring down a few more large roadwork projects in the coming years. Consumer trends show declining vehicle ownership versus just a decade ago – could a blend of shifting consumer behavior and accessible transit options eliminate the need for these interchanges and projects?
Then there is the social benefit – by removing all economic barriers to transit, cities are empowering all citizens to explore, to engage, and to contribute. This has the potential to increase your tax base.
And the health benefits – respiratory illnesses due to pollution are common even here in Canada, especially in communities where the single-occupant car is . By eliminating gridlock, there is the potential that health care costs in our single payer system would be reduced. We would also increase overall productivity by decreasing the number of sick days due to illnesses related to pollution. That has a big impact on our local economy.
The more I sit and consider this wild idea, the more I like it. What do you think?
I’m not an economist –  if you are, I’d welcome the opportunity to dive into the numbers with you and discuss the actual feasibility of this type of climate action program in our city.
Thanks for reading, be well,
Conor Tapp
Executive Director, Green Calgary