'Buck-a-ride' for transit in Ontario: Liberal promise broke through noise of election campaign, but could it happen?

'Buck-a-ride' for transit in Ontario: Liberal promise broke through noise of election campaign, but could it happen?
·5 min read

Following the Ontario Liberals’ May 2 election promise that their government would cut transit fares to $1 per ride across the province, a heightened focus has been cast on transit issues.

If elected, the Liberals say their “buck-a-ride” fare reduction would apply to all transit systems, including municipal transit like the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), GO Transit and Ontario Northland. They aim to have the provincial government fully replace lost revenue to the transit systems.

Shelagh Pizey-Allen is the Executive Director of TTCRiders, a GTA-based transit riders’ activist group. She told Yahoo News Canada that many people have shared positive first impressions of the promise in question.

“We're really glad that transit affordability is an election issue, because transit users need fair relief,” she said. “Many people in Toronto cannot afford to pay for TTC. Even people who are eligible for the low-income discount can't afford to pay that fare. We know this because we talked to hundreds and hundreds of transit users regularly.”

Pizey-Allen mentioned that those riding transit right now include “essential workers, racialized people, people with disabilities, people earning lower income. So it’s really important that people get fair relief.”

The announcement has resulted in heightened public visibility, according to Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “It's interesting how this announcement is one that has cut through the noise of an election campaign, and everything else that's going on right now,” he said.

Siemiatycki told Yahoo News Canada that what drew increased attention to the announcement was its simplicity. “Transportation policy can be very complicated and we can sometimes get lost in the details.”

What will it take to deliver “buck-a-ride” service?

However, the positive initial responses are accompanied by deeper questions. Siemiatycki mentions several other considerations that come alongside affordability, including operating costs and service quality,

“Even through the pandemic, even when ridership was down significantly, there was still crowding on some routes, and in particular in the inner suburbs,” he stated. “So there's also the question of service quality, and making sure that there's enough service.”

The Liberals have estimated a total cost of approximately $1.8 billion between 2022-24 in order to carry out the plan. They have also promised to dedicate an additional $375 million in operating funding, intended to support more routes, extended hours, and other service needs.

Pizey-Allen asked if the $375 million commitment is going to be enough, given the increased ridership that lower costs will bring: “If we see many more people attracted to take transit with lower fares — if there's not more service — service will actually get worse and more crowded.”

Additional questions arise from the plan’s January 2024 end date, and what comes next for transit riders.

“This is a promise that will only be in place for one and a half years,” said Pizey-Allen. “If fares skyrocket after that point, we'll still end up with a broken funding model that relies on transit users to pay for most of the operating costs.”

“With transit in particular, it's really important that you have a long term sustainable funding plan,” said Siemiatycki. “We've seen this in various contexts where the funding yo-yos — it sometimes goes up and you see big increases, and then the political wind shifts and you see these dramatic cuts.”

He stated that if cuts come in the aftermath without a sustainable plan, service levels and maintenance become vulnerable.

Pizey-Allen noted that Toronto has had one of the lowest operating subsidies in all of North America, referring to the portion covered by the government. This, she said, is why the pandemic significantly compromised the transit system — due to its budget relying mainly on rider fares, resulting in shortfalls.

For this reason, she said TTCRiders asks candidates to commit to operating funding for transit systems as a “top issue.”

Pizey-Allen said that while the Liberals’ “buck-a-ride” announcement is initially promising, when it comes to operating costs the group has seen more information from the NDP and Green parties so far: “If you look at the dollar amount, it is less than what the Green Party and NDP are promising.”

Beyond the cost of fares

While the “buck-a-ride” announcement has drawn attention to the cost of transit fares, other transit issues remain on the table.

TTCRiders hosted a rally on May 7, at which they invited provincial candidates and called for transit improvements. One major issue on the table was the Scarborough RT, a rapid transit line set to close in 2023.

Pizey-Allen said the closure will impact 35,000 commuters a day, leaving them to take replacement buses for “at least seven years.” To solve issues like this, she highlights the need for increased operating funding, dedicated bus lanes, and rapid transit expansion.

“Attracting new people to use transit is really important,” said Pizey-Allen. “Affordability is one side of that, but so is more service. If people can afford to drive right now, a lower fare isn't going to attract them.”

Beyond fare cost, Pizey-Allen said that what will attract more people to using public transit is “frequent, reliable service.”