Free public transport?

Justine McIntyre says:
“I had the opportunity to study free public transit in depth for an economics project at HEC. Although my colleagues and I were initially favourably biased towards free transit, our study led us to conclude against it. Here’s why.”

Justine McIntyre from Montreal, Quebec via Twitter

This was in response to a post advocating free services:

“More people would use public transit if it was free, and it would be a major financial relief for the poorest among us. The environmental impact would be considerable as well, which is what should be motivating us more than anything.” @TaylorNoakes

$30 per month: the cost of free public transit in Montreal
Free public transit in Montreal would be eminently more affordable than terminal climate change — only $30 a month. Refer:

Here’s Justine’s response:

  1. Modal transfer. Based on research from cities where free public transit was implemented, modal transfer is often quite low for drivers (20%) and higher for active transit users, like pedestrians and cyclists, many of whom are already occasional transit users.
  2. Problem misidentification. In fact, the obstacles to transit most mentioned by transit users or would-be users is not cost, rather: crowding, lack of frequency, and service interruptions. All of which risk being exacerbated by free transit.
  3. Social receptivity to taxation. The money to fund transit has to come from somewhere. Residents are extremely reticent (= they hate) being stuck with a new “transit tax” whereas transit users are already in the habit of paying to ride, as long as the cost remains reasonable.
  4. Rebound effect. In the short term, there may be a rush to “try out” free transit, creating temporary de-congestion on roads. Perversely, this could create an incentive for drivers to get back in their cars.
  5. In conclusion: Yes, we need to get more people taking public transit. Making it free isn’t the way to do it. Making it efficient, frequent, accessible, safe and clean is.

But where Justine and I agree with @TaylorNoakes, and appreciate his article on this topic, is that we’re going to need to be a LOT more ambitious, and start seriously considering ideas that up until now have been considered too risky / marginal.

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