How Free Public Transit Can Save Montreal
By Dante Ventulieri
For Nonfiction Writing with Prof. Jeff Gandell
It’s a warm August morning in Montreal’s East End, still too early for the sunlight to be hitting the black asphalt of Boulevard Metropolitain Est. Over the hood of Danny Rinaldi’s car, red brake lights shine for miles. A Honda Civic cuts him off. To one side, an STM bus comes to a halt. To the other, a row of cars appears stagnant. Danny Rinaldi is stuck in classic Montreal traffic. It’s an everyday occurrence at this point but today is different. Rinaldi takes out his phone and yells, “It just freaks me out, there’s no way of fixing it […] anywhere you go, it’s fucking traffic!” His phone fixates on the image, the bus, stuck in traffic, juxtaposed with a Honda dealership to its left and a Volvo dealership to its right.
It’s not just Rinaldi; traffic in Montreal has been getting worse every year. Not only that, driving in Montreal has also become increasingly more expensive, with new carbon pricing initiatives only expected to raise the cost even more. We’ve known the answer for a while: put Rinaldi and those other drivers on that bus. Ok, let’s stop calling Rinaldi out at this point. If a majority of commuters used public transit, congestion would decrease and cost-savings would increase.
To understand the heightened need for public transit, it’s imperative to understand the drawbacks of car dependency. Montreal grew into a car-dependent city over the course of the 20th century. The removal of trams downtown and the subsequent development of the 720, the 15 and the 40 encouraged car usage at the expense of mass transit and walkability (Linteau). Today in Quebec, the transportation sector is responsible for more carbon emissions than any other sector (NEB).
Beyond emissions, cars create visual and auditory pollution. The need for parking, specifically the expectation of free parking, hurts our city’s development and has many unseen costs. Parking reduces available real estate that could be converted into terraces, separated bike lanes, or widened sidewalks; not to mention that free parking encourages unhealthy amounts of car ridership in packed downtown cores (Shoup 110-182).
Public transit investment offers some of the greatest returns for a city’s wellbeing.
Solving Montreal’s traffic woes has been on the forefront of nearly every mayoral race. The discussion often gets so big that federal and provincial politicians step in and offer their Hail-Mary five-year plans. Many of these plans, including the most recent CAQ plan, have been to widen and extend highways in order to carry more cars (CBC). What these politicians fail to realise is that extra lanes and highway extensions do not offer long-term solutions; instead, any reduction in traffic is offset by increased car usage, known as induced demand (Duranton & Turner 2616). There’s a joke for this in urban planning circles, adding lanes to cure congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.
What has become increasingly apparent in recent years is that investments in public transit offer some of the greatest returns for a city’s well-being. Before getting more entrenched in the topic of public transit, it is important to dispel a few myths that exist.
First, public transit encompasses more than just the bus and metro in Montreal and extends beyond the STM. Public transit includes bike-sharing programs such as BIXI and local train networks such as the EXO lines.
Second, public transit is not slower than using the car. Over the past few years, I have made it an effort to use public transit to compete with people traveling by car. I have found that during rush hour especially, public transit is faster than taking the car downtown from numerous suburbs. While many people see that driving is faster than transit on apps like Google Maps, their failure to acknowledge the time looking for parking or the need to fill up for gas on the way illustrates the unaccounted-for delays of driving.
Third, mass transit is unsuitable for families. It is true that some suburban families who are engaged in sports such as football or hockey might benefit from the practicality of a car, the vast majority of families however, could easily use transit for many of their daily needs such as going to school, shopping for groceries, and visiting other family members and friends. Internationally renowned urban planner Brent Toderian has been documenting his family’s main use of transit and has highlighted the rarity of hiccoughs his family has experienced as a result. When the family has to go visit relatives on the other end of town or go shopping, transit or biking are the go-to. For those relatively few times when they need to haul, car sharing comes in.
If the mass transit network is so capable, why do so many people opt not to use it in Montreal? It boils down to a few factors. Reach, frequency, and reliability play a key role in determining transit adoption rates (Beirão & Cabral 482). However, Montreal’s new Blue Line extension connecting the East-end of the island, the new light-rail line connecting the South Shore, North Shore, West Island, and Airport to downtown, the new bus-rapid transit line on Pie-IX, the STM’s bus network redesign, the STM’s real-time bus tracking, and the spread of BIXIs to new boroughs will address these problems in the coming years (STM). In terms of accessibility, Projet Montréal and the STM have committed to adding elevators to more metro stations within the upcoming years (STM).
The next category is comfort (Beirão & Cabral 482). The entire network is to be connected with cell service by 2022, meaning you can text-and-ride, not text-and-drive. In addition, the STM and the government of Montreal have been working to improve passenger comfort. New Azur trains and hybrid buses with air conditioning, ventilation, and power outlets provide new levels of comfort. But there are those who will say, as I’ve heard so many times, “I don’t want to be sitting next to some smelly guy for an hour.” However, new initiatives such as ventilation, combined with STM ads promoting transit etiquette mean that this rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. For future reference, count the number of times the person next to you is actually so pungent that it’s painful compared with the number of times where you smell sewage while driving or the amount of times your Subaru Legacy badunks on potholes. Comfort, at the very least, is tied between the two.
There is only one issue that has not been addressed in recent years, the individual cost of using public transit. Cost plays an important role in discouraging public transit use. Many families cannot afford or are not willing to spend on public transit passes, opting instead to use their car or stay in their area. Also, the idea of finding exact change to ride the bus is often discouraging enough that infrequent users will drive to their destination (Sasaki 109). All I can remember is my co-worker asking the office for a toonie so he could take the bus to the baseball game so he wouldn’t have to drive. After his efforts failed, he still didn’t have 3.25$ in his pocket but he did have his car keys, so the latter it was.
Fares could be discounted as much as possible; any cost is a barrier.
With quality, comfort, reliability, and accessibility all seeing significant investments, why should it be that lowering transit fares has not seen similar investments? In fact, STM ticket prices have been steadily increasing over recent years and are set to increase in the coming months (St-Pierre). Montreal, in following suit with other cities in the world such as Dunkirk (France) and Tallinn (Estonia), should adopt a system of fare free public transit (FFPT).
The obvious concerns linger at this point: Will my taxes go up? Wouldn’t the same number of people use it even though it’s free? Isn’t fixing potholes more important? Will we lose money? Will service be compromised to be austere? Will Opus card scanners be replaced with a gumball machine? The answers in short are no, no, no, no, no, and hopefully.
How powerful is the word “free” anyway? As behavioural economist Dan Ariely points out, “free” has an incredibly strong lure. Ariely conducted a study, offering people a Lindt truffle for 15 cents and a Hershey’s kiss for one cent. With these prices, 73% chose the truffle. When both chocolates were discounted one cent, the Lindt becoming 14 cents and the Hershey’s kiss becoming free, only 31% of people chose the truffle (Ariely). In the urban landscape, the truffle is a car and the Hershey’s kiss is public transit, while transit is the cheaper option, it is not until something is free that it becomes compelling. Ariely concluded that when something is free, there is no risk or fear of loss. Fares could be discounted as much as possible, but any cost is a barrier. FFPT, just like all free things, means that the value is unbeatable because users are not losing anything by opting for public transit. If theoretical examples were not enough, Tallinn has seen a 14% jump in transit usage after it adopted its FFPT system in 2014 (Cats, Susilo, & Reimal 1083).
The truth is, besides increased ridership, there are many benefits to public transit usage that many people fail to recognise at first glance. Let’s start with the most unanticipated advantage. Increased public transit usage can save governments money in four main sectors: healthcare, road maintenance, reduced congestion-caused opportunity costs, and environmental upkeep (Cats, Susilo, & Reimal 1101).
Traffic congestion costs the economy 3000$ per driver per year.
Public healthcare spending will see savings since there is less likelihood of accidents when there are fewer cars on the roads (Litman 4). In addition, fumes, brake wear pollutants, and exhaust particulate from cars increase the risk of asthma and other diseases in the city, especially downtown. With less driving and less airborne particulate matter and gasses compromising people’s health, there will be fewer hospital visits (Litman 4). Finally, public transit often encourages short and low intensity exercise (Litman 20). With BIXIs being fare free, even stronger healthcare benefits could be realised as commuters might opt to bike short-medium distances. Just ten to sixty minutes of exercise per week leads to an 18% drop in all-cause mortality. People often reach the required ten minutes simply walking to the bus or taking the stairs in the metro (Zhao, Veeranki, Li, & al.). Not to mention, there are moral and ethical advantages of having a healthy, safe, and living population.
Weirdly overlooked, congestion and traffic pose serious economic detriments to a city’s economy. Due to lost productivity time, gasoline consumed while idling in traffic, and higher road transportation and shipping costs, traffic congestion costs the economy nearly 3000$ per driver per year (INRIX).
With all these hidden costs taken into account and the increased desire to travel within the city and spend at stores and restaurants, it becomes obvious why Tallinn has not lost money, but had actually saved twenty million dollars last year (Shearlaw). Governments could not only fund FFPT without raising taxes for Montrealers, it could also experience significant cost savings like those in Tallinn.
Besides financial gain, Montreal could achieve its environmental goals to lower carbon emissions. Geoffrey Pearce, the Head of the Department of Geography at Dawson College, stated that free public transit is the right step forward in creating a “livable, energy-efficient ecosystem”. While “electric cars are a better alternative to fuel-based cars, any car poses similar harms […] if everyone is using electric cars, congestion and energy demand will go up” according to Pearce. The dilemma falls in line with Jevons paradox, if the efficiency of a good increases, the increased demand will offset any potential environmental benefits. In addition, the adoption of electric cars is not concrete and the drop in oil prices has slowed down electric car growth. The STM, however, has a concrete plan to not emit any GHGs by 2040 (STM).
Saving the most obvious benefit for last, individuals, especially low-income families, will be saving money. As of 2019, a monthly STM pass costs 51$ for students and youth while adults pay 85$ per month (STM). A family of five could expect to spend over 3200$ per year on Opus passes, taking away from medication, daycare, and housing expenses. In Tallinn, not only did citizens have more disposable income, low-income mobility income also increased as a result of FFPT (Cats, Susilo, & Reimal 1102).
During the Formula-E electric grand prix in Montreal, many streets were closed and the city decided to offer free public transit for the weekend of the tournament. Under a system of FFPT, Montreal and the provincial government will be able to carry out more projects that deprioritise cars since they maintain a mechanism to ensure mobility for all. Projects like the pedestrianization of Sainte-Catherine or the removal of parking lot requirements could face less opposition as citizens now possess a free alternative mode of transport.
It’s been obvious for a while now: car dependency is unsustainable. Getting people on transit is the logical solution and with the barriers of reach, frequency, comfort, and accessibility being addressed, only one barrier remains. Instituting free public transit will save Montreal time, lives, and money. Free transit would save low-income households thousands of dollars every year and increase their mobility. As a whole, fare-free transit provides a mechanism for Montreal to institute further progressive change. At no cost, the narrative around transit can shift. In Tallinn, transit is beginning to feel like any provided service such as garbage collection or sewage treatment. The goal is to get people using the transit network and hopping on BIXIs without ever giving it second thought. For all the Rinaldis who are stuck in traffic every day, maybe it’d be logical to try the metro; they’d literally have nothing to lose. In the end, this is a hard concept for many to agree with, people simply don’t see enough demand to feel it reasonable, but to quote Brent Toderian, “it’s hard to justify a bridge by the number of people swimming across a river”.
Ariely, Dan. “The End of Rational Economics”. Harvard Business Review, 2009.
Beirão, Gabriela, and J.A. Sarsfield Cabral. “Understanding Attitudes Towards Public Transport and Private Car: A Qualitative Study”. Transport Policy, vol 14, no. 6, 2007, pp. 478-489. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.tranpol.2007.04.009.
Cats, Oded et al. “The Prospects of Fare-Free Public Transport: Evidence from Tallinn”. Transportation, vol 44, no. 5, 2016, pp. 1083-1104. Springer Nature, doi:10.1007/s11116-016-9695-5.
CBC. “Where Quebec’s Parties Stand on The Issues That Matter Most to You”. CBC, 2019,https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/campaign-platforms-quebec-election-2018-1.4781370.
Duranton, Gilles, and Matthew a Turner. “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities”. American Economic Review, vol 101, no. 6, 2011, pp. 2616-2652. American Economic Association, doi:10.1257/aer.101.6.2616.
INRIX. “Montreal, QC’s Scorecard Report”. INRIX, 2019, http://inrix.com/scorecard-city/?city=Montreal%2C%20QC&index=34.
Linteau, Paul-André. “Montreal”. Thecanadianencyclopedia.Ca, 2009,https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/montreal.
Litman, Todd. “Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits”. Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2010, pp. 1-32.
National Energy Board of Canada. Provincial and Territorial Energy Profiles – Quebec. National Energy Board, Ottawa, 2018.
Sasaki, Yasuo. “Optimal Choices of Fare Collection Systems for Public Transportations: Barrier Versus Barrier-Free”. Transportation Research Part B: Methodological, vol 60, no. 1, 2014, pp. 107-114. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.trb.2013.12.005.
Shearlaw, Maeve. “The Tallinn Experiment: What Happens When A City Makes Public Transport Free?”. The Guardian, 2019,https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/11/tallinn-experiment-estonia-public-transport-free-cities.
Shoup, Donald C. The High Cost of Free Parking. 2nd ed., American Planning Association, 2011.
St-Pierre, Fanie. “Public Transit: Fare Increase Effective July 1, 2018”. Société De Transport De Montréal, 2019, http://www.stm.info/en/press/press-releases/2018/public-transit–fare-increase-effective-july-1–2018.
STM. “Major Projects”. Société De Transport De Montréal, 2019, http://www.stm.info/en/about/major_projects.
Toderian, Brent. “Brent Toderian”. Twitter.Com, 2019, https://twitter.com/BrentToderian.
Zhao, Min et al. “Beneficial Associations of Low and Large Doses of Leisure Time Physical Activity with All-Cause, Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer Mortality: A National Cohort Study Of 88,140 US Adults”. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2019, pp. bjsports-2018-099254. BMJ, doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099254.