October 21, 2019

We are asleep at the wheel.

Car culture is degrading our health and steering us into environmental disaster.

Yet we continue to make public transit more expensive for the rare driver willing to trade in their ride for a fare card.

Conestoga College students returned this fall to find a transit pass costs $300 per semester — $8 more than last year.

Then, in another shakedown, the Region of Waterloo raised fares on Sept. 1.

Now, regional council has approved a low-income transit pass that is sure to do almost nothing to attract new users. They estimate 77 per cent of people who will be eligible for the pass already use public transit.

Spoke writer Patrick Spencer at an ION station in Waterloo, Ont., on Sept. 27, 2019. (Patrick Spencer / Spoke)

What gives?

Shouldn’t we be sweetening the deal for transit riders instead of plundering their pockets for loose change?

A report by the Canadian Urban Institute prepared for the City of Toronto earlier this year showed that when we take the bus or the train, good things happen.

For one, it makes us healthier.

“The greatest health benefit from public transit is increased physical exercise,” the report says. This is because people generally walk or cycle the last portion of their trip.

That means fewer visits to the hospital for illnesses brought on by sedentary lifestyles, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes. That means less cost to our health-care system.

The report also points out the danger of congested roadways. The more cars on our streets, the more traumatic injuries that members of our community will suffer.

Encouraging the switch to public transit can also chip away at the urgent problem of climate change.

As environmentalist David Suzuki noted in a letter to the Toronto Star earlier this month, scientists believe we have about 12 years before we face the worst effects of climate disruption, like drought and crop failure.

It’s a warning that deserves immediate action to reduce emissions. And serious investment in public transit by slashing or eliminating fares is just such an action.

“Unless taking transit is easier, faster and cheaper than taking a car for one’s daily commute, investments will not result in the desired emissions reductions,” warned a 2017 report from Canada’s Senate.

Our region’s transit is certainly easy and fast after investing more than $800 million on a light rail system. The ION is a marvel and the buses are reliable.

But it’s clearly not cheap enough to change our behaviour. Just try driving out of Conestoga College at 5 p.m. on a weekday if you don’t believe me.

Some might say free transit would be too costly. After all, the region expects to rake in close to $37 million in fares in 2019.

That’s a lot of moolah.

There might also be other unexpected costs associated with an increase in transit riders.

But it’s absurd to think that our continued experimentation with heating the planet, spurred on by our car-driving ways, won’t have its own enormous price down the line.

It’s time we tried a new, more worthy experiment. 

Power down the ticket machines and find the fare checkers new jobs.

Make transit free.

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