Report on Alliance Against Poverty's Community Forum on Free Transit

     Report on the AAP Transit Forum of June 3, 2017 (by Richard Walsh, AAP member) 
               The AAP Free-Transit Forum was held on June 3
rd in the accessible church hall of Historic St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Queen St. So., Kitchener. The purpose was to launch a political strategy to establish free public transit for low-income individuals in Waterloo Region. Approximately 50 people participated in the event beyond AAP members and volunteers.

 After some brief introductory remarks from AAP member Richard Walsh as the event moderator, two speakers set the moral tone for the Forum: AAP member Regan Brussé shared her personal experience as a mother of three in trying to manage transportation for necessities. By way of precedents, she noted at least two Canadian cities have introduced drastically reduced (Calgary) or free public transit (Kingston). Then Joe Mancini of the Working Centre in Kitchener underscored the importance of affordable public transit for all in the Region.

Next, in five groups participants first discussed what they thought of the AAP proposal to make public transit free for low-income people. Each group then elected a member to report to the whole group what their group had discussed before moving to the second issue, namely, their views on what political action should be taken to achieve this goal.

Views on the Proposal for Free Transit

Some participants reported that given the escalating cost of living and the low rates of public assistance, transit costs make it difficult to get out into the community and to “access social amenities.” Many agreed that this is a common experience that worsens individuals’ mental health. Some said the reverse is also true: Affordable transit enhances social inclusion, which makes people feel part of the community.

Others noted that, with many of the social agencies in the region being located outside of core areas, affordable transit is a necessity. In fact, two groups stressed that affordable transit is a human right. As a matter of social justice, other participants added, the Region has already invested billions in the LRT, so it’s only right that everyone, regardless of income, can use it and the buses. In addition, some people noted the environmental benefits of free transit: Increased reliance on public transit that is made much more affordable by reducing or eliminating fares also reduces per capita pollutants and carbon emissions.

Many participants noted the practical benefits to the Region of introducing free public transit. Some said that ultimately the cost of providing the service will decrease for several reasons: [1] Free transit will fill up half empty buses, which are running anyway. [2] It will enable people to access downtown businesses more easily and will reduce traffic congestion by taking cars off the streets. [3] Increased ridership could increase the frequency of transit service.

Some suggested instituting free transit in two steps: free for people living below the poverty line, then free for everyone. Others said a nominal fee for each trip should be charged, because a social stigma would be associated with “free” transit for just one group. Practically, one participant recommended GRT should use fare boxes that receive reloadable transit cards.

Views on What Political Action to Take

In the second discussion, participants addressed what a Political Action Group should do to press for free public transit politically so that everyone trying to survive on low income can access the community. Again, each group elected a member to report to the whole group what their group discussed regarding this second question. Although participants were also asked to consider how willing they were to join such a campaign for free transit, no group addressed this matter. Rather, at the end of the Forum roughly a dozen people, including two AAP members, gathered informally to exchange contact points so they could arrange an initial meeting.

            The groups urged making the struggle for free transit a social movement in cooperation with the bus drivers’ union, anti-poverty groups, faith communities, environmental groups, health and mental health providers and agencies, social service agencies, local businesses, and the general public. Some suggested researching and publicizing what the cost of introducing free transit is against not doing it, identifying the “plusses” and “minuses.” Other participants recommended working on shifting the language used to support the idea of free transit from costs vs. benefits to a moral issue: accessible public transit is a human right, therefore an essential social service. In addition, groups stressed that a campaign for free transit should secure as much support as possible from city and Regional councilors, mayors, and MPPs as well as GRT staff, inasmuch as the Region looks to them for guidance.

            Practically, participants suggested the following actions (organized in progression):

[1] Research and publicize what the cost of introducing free transit is against not doing it, identifying the “plusses” and “minuses.”

[2] Obtain specific information on what other jurisdictions (e.g., Calgary and Kingston) are doing to make transit affordable or free.

 [3] Tell the personal stories of riders directly affected by costly transit in letters-to-editors to socially engage the community and the public in supporting a local campaign for free transit.

[4] Employ social media to also build public support.

[5] Form an alliance with the bus drivers’ union, anti-poverty groups, faith communities, environmental groups, health and mental health providers and agencies, social service agencies, and local businesses to support the campaign.

[6] High school students seeking volunteer placements could serve as campaign advocates.

[7] Target individual Regional councillors with a calling campaign.

Conclusion

             As of this writing [July 7th], the Political Action Group has held one meeting and will launch its campaign in the coming weeks. If you wish to join this group, please notify us and we’ll notify the contact persons to get you involved.

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