Low-income transit plans aim to put the brakes on poverty

Low-income transit plans aim to put the brakes on poverty

Beginning this month, Seattle-area residents living below the poverty line pay less to ride public transit, as the city becomes thelatest to adopt a program pioneered in Calgary to address what has become an increasingly geographical divide between rich and poor.

The King County program gives transit riders with a household income less than double the federal poverty level a fare discount of up to 50 per cent. A single person who makes less than US$23,340 or a family of four with a household income less than US$47,700 qualify.

"Having a reliable, affordable transit system is more important than ever as housing costs rise and commutes get longer," Dow Constantine, board chairman of Sound Transit and King County executive, said in a statement.

King County transit users who qualify now pay $1.50 per ride. Other users pay a 25-cent fare increase to offset the cost.

Earlier this year, a Detroit Free Press story about one man’s 34-kilometre daily commute on foot made headlines around the world.

Throughout North America, the high cost of housing has pushed many low-income earners to seek shelter in the suburbs though their jobs and many services remain in the city.

Calgary’s decade-old program offers households that fall below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off a monthly pass for $44 a month, compared to $99 a month for a full-price pass. That cut-off is $24,328 for a single person, $45,206 for a family of four.

Ontario cities including Waterloo, Kingston, Hamilton and Windsor have similar affordable transit pass programs. Halifax approved a pilot project last year and Banff has set the bar with free transit to low-income residents and seniors.

But Canada’s largest and most expensive cities have yet to jump on board.

Metro Toronto council voted last July to study the possibility and a report is expected by the end of this year. If approved, a program could be in place in 2017.

“Transit affordability has been an ongoing concern for the city,” said a July 2014 briefing prepared for city council. “Transit expansion in Toronto is bringing thousands of low-income residents closer to high-quality public transit routes. But the economic and social value of investments in new transit infrastructure will not be fully realized if the services are too costly for residents to use.”

The British Columbia government was the first in Canada to offer discount transit fares for low-income seniors and people receiving disability assistance, but the discount does not extend to low-income residents. A regular adult monthly pass for Metro Vancouver commuters from suburbs such as Surrey and Maple Ridge costs $170 a month.

“We think you need a discounted transit pass based on income, because you live in poverty,” said Bonnie Pacaud, of Fair Fares Calgary, which has worked with the city on its program.

“People really struggle, especially families who are living in poverty and have no other means of getting around. It’s one less barrier to their day and makes things easier to be part of the community,” added her colleague, Colleen Huston.

They commend the City of Calgary for the pioneering discount fares. Now they’d like to see a sliding scale for both the fare amount and the income cut-off for qualifying.

The group has proposed a $54 a year fee for the lowest income residents.

“We’re hoping that everyone — those living in extreme poverty, the working poor — anyone that is living in poverty can qualify,” Pacaud said.

Calgary city council is set to discuss the sliding scale proposal in September.