Monday, November 18, 2013

Universal Public Transit [MUt2]

OC Transpo's St. Laurent Station.


In my last post I discussed the merits of enjoying alcoholic beverages for their deliciousness rather than their psychoactivity.  Now, this indeed raises the issue of drinking and driving, which is a legitimate concern.  After just one standard alcoholic beverage, your reaction times are significantly diminished.  So what do you do?  Designated drivers are one solution, but it's rare that people want to be the designated driver.  As a brief aside, Schlag has been known to provide free soft drinks to the designate, because they are a class act and thoroughly wonderful.  Cabs are expensive, and public transit can at times be sporadic and unreliable.  But what if something were to be done about that?

The benefits of public transit include cleaner air, decreased fossil fuel consumption per rider, decreased traffic congestion, lower road maintenance costs per rider, et cetera.  As such, it's surprising that cities don't seem to be trying harder to encourage public transit and alternative modes of transportation.  Cycling is fantastic when you consider that it offers all of the above benefits as well as being almost a non-factor in road wear since it scales to the fourth power of weight.  Since the weight of a bicycle is an order of magnitude less than that of a car, we're talking on the order of ~10,000 times less road wear.  In fact, each bicycle trip saves the taxpayer a dollar or so because of this effect, but I digress.

In short, it is in the best interest of cities to promote methods of transportation other than single-occupant driving where possible.  Now, couple this with the idea of economies of scale.  When the University of Ottawa negotiated the universal bus pass with OC Transpo, the figure they ended on was roughly $350 for the normal eight month school year.  This was a deep discount over the already discounted student bus pass rate of $90/month simply because of the scale involved.  However, consider that the University comprises roughly 45,000 students in a city of almost one million.  When roughly five percent of the population collectively negotiated, the price of the service was less than halved.

Now, what if the whole city did it?

I am not an economist, and this is potentially a flight of fancy on my part, but what if instead of charging for transit based on single users, what if the entire city was involved and the price of the pass was built into property taxes?  I realise that there will be diminishing returns on the discount for increased pool sizes, but if 5% of the population can negotiate to less than half the original price, I feel one could reasonably assume the cost would come to at least about a quarter of what it is now.  Further, I cannot believe that an annual sum of $250 or less would be the deciding factor in whether or not someone could afford to live in a home.

With a system such as this in place, I would hypothesize (or perhaps "guess" would be a more appropriate term) that annual funding would be more stable than it is now, and planning would be easier because the distribution of potential usership [ideally] becomes that of a population density map.  I would also assume that usage frequency would dramatically increase because the cost of the trip is effectively "free," since one needn't go searching for bus tickets or spare change.  Also, it allows lower income individuals to travel to and from work without the financial burden of a more expensive bus pass, making it easier to get and keep a job.  I can tell you from experience that bus fares aren't financially negligible when you don't have a stable source of income.

I would also imagine that this would have spinoffs on tourism and other economic activity as well.  Not only can one easily/cheaply travel to and from work, but one could just as easily travel to that shop that's a few stops down the road, or a tourist could hop on a bus to go, well, anywhere really.  To be clear, I assume that this system would mean you could freely hop on a bus, meaning tourists would be free to do so as well.  Though I also assume allowing tourists to freely travel on the transit system would generate enough income that it would make the expense well worth it.  Further, would a tourist be more likely to travel to a city where they wouldn't have to rent a car and pay for parking?  I think it might be a consideration.

Other fringe benefits?  In a population that is generally regarded as overweight, it gets people involved in semi-active transport rather than driving, which is more or less completely sedentary.  I would imagine service improvements resulting from stable and increased funding would make the trips more pleasant and effective.  Another consideration is the cost of parking lots.  They're surprisingly expensive, a parking space costs hundreds to maintain if it's ground-based, and can get into the tens of thousands to maintain in a parking structure.  That's a cost that can be diminished with such a transit scheme.  And maybe, just maybe, after responsibly enjoying an alcoholic beverage or two, you and your family could simply hop on a bus/subway/LRT to get home rather than having to worry about the hassle of driving.



  1. Interesting concept, but I feel the transit system would be quite overwhelmed with ridership, beyond the point if keeping it efficient and reliable. I would liken it to a university campus rec center - you have the people who actually would pay for a recreation pass if it wasn't already a compulsory fee, but their experience is being hampered by those who go and hang out in the weight room over a spare period or two and use up a treadmill or press bench, when they aren't even half interested in being there in the first place.

    I think having an opt-in system of transit fare establishes and encourages responsible transit usage, as opposed to willy-nilly hop-on-hop-off ridership. Granted, as you had experienced, the downtown free fare zone is quite useful (heck, I take it four stops every morning and afternoon to get to and from work and it doesn't cost me anything).

  2. That's an excellent point, though my original thought, anyway, was that the increased revenue would allow for enough additional buses/trains/whatever to handle the load, though this could be way off. I mean, based on the OC Transpo model anyway, the stops near the University of Ottawa get pretty hairy pretty quickly during peak hours.

    Perhaps it would work better if using strictly subway or LRT models where there's not quite so much competition with traffic. I have to admit, when I found out about the fare-free zone, I was gobsmacked that such a project would exist in such a supposedly-conservative place as Calgary.