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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Free public transit: It’s not about the money

You can pretend your opposition to free transit is purely economic, but these types of decisions are about race, class, and power.

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Last night, City Council in Thunder Bay announced they would look into proposals that the city make public transit (which means buses here) free. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many councillors were in favour of the idea in principle, and while it’s a little frustrating that they are skeptical of the timetable (free by 2023), some of the practical considerations they raise are in fact exactly the kind of questions a city council should ask before doing something like this. So … kudos to council, I guess?

But of course, there is the usual peanut gallery of vocal commenters who scream about their tax dollars any time the city has the temerity to talk about improving services on “their dime,” and this is why we can’t have nice things.

I am not going to make an economic argument for free public transit, nor will I try to convince you that this is a good use of your tax money. However, I want to examine more deeply why there are good reasons for our city to provide free public transit and encourage you to examine your biases. When it comes down to it, being in favour of free transit is about empathy.

For the record, I drive a car around Thunder Bay. I also pay property taxes. And I don’t think this correlation is all that surprising to anyone in Thunder Bay: our transit system is sharply divided along class lines. So people who gripe about the idea of their property taxes paying for transit are usually not the ones who are using that transit. Rather, “everyone should pay their fair share,” and if you aren’t ponying up property taxes, shouldn’t you need to pay in some other way?

Look, I don’t use a bunch of city facilities—can I opt out of spending my property taxes on those? Of course not. The whole point of taxes is that they are a common pot of revenue our elected officials then decide to spend on what services they think will benefit all people in the city—and it’s that all that is important. If you think that property tax money should only go to benefit landowners, then I suggest you move back to the nineteenth century where you belong.

I will also not shy away from the racist and classist assumptions that underlie a lot of the arguments people make against free transit. For instance, if we make transit free, buses will get more crowded. Ok, but you don’t care about that if you aren’t using transit—“crowded” is just a dog-whistle for feeling unsafe around bus terminals and bus stops because of racist stereotypes. Or, perhaps you are concerned unhoused people will spend all their time riding the buses for free to stay warm. To that point …

Regina George 'so you agree' meme: So you agree, our tax dollars should fight homelessness

This is where that empathy should kick in. When you hear “unhoused people are riding the buses all day,” think about your reaction. Is it, “Ugh, gross, get them off the buses!”? Or is it, “Oh wow, maybe we should fund more services to shelter and ultimately house these people?” When you consider that lower prices for transit might crowd buses, is your reaction, “Jack up that price to increase the barrier to riding the bus!”? Or is it, “Maybe we should improve the transit system as a whole, by adding buses, routes, etc.?”

This difference between reactive or proactive seems to me to be rooted in empathy, or lack thereof. In a belief that some people have that our success is attributed entirely to who we are as individuals, and never at all to luck or to social factors. So many opponents to free public transit speak from a place of “I got mine,” where they would prefer to ignore the struggles of low-income people, of Indigenous people, of seniors or people who can no longer drive, say due to health issues. “Can’t use a car? Not my problem!”

And look, I am not trying to paint all opponents to free transit with the same brush. But if you think your opposition to free transit is purely based on economy, think again. The idea that any decision our society makes is or should be purely an economical one is just not true. Decision-making is rooted in oppression and inequity—government tends to represent those with money and power—and economic arguments are merely used to sugarcoat the underlying motives. “We can’t afford it” is an easy refrain in the face of huge social problems—climate change, long-term care and an ageing population, etc.—but it is ultimately an abandonment of our responsibility to each other as human beings. It is a failure of empathy.

If you care about working against oppression, you should care about free transit. We must reduce the barriers to people’s mobility and free up their money to be better spent on what they need.

If you care about the environment, you should care about free transit. Fewer cars on the road is better for all of us.

If you care about making our city a better place, you should care about free transit. I am sick and tired of people in Thunder Bay saying “no” to everything good and progressive, to everything that could improve our city and the quality of life for everyone within it, because it is going to cost you too much money. Newsflash: you are absolutely right that everything costs money. The difference is that I want my tax money to be spent—take my moey!—but I want it to go to useful enterprises that benefit everyone, not, you know, gigantic signs on our waterfront.

Feel free to label me a silly idealist or entitled millennial who doesn’t know how the real world works. But the truth is that I’m 31 years old, I work a full-time job and pay taxes and a mortgage—I know how the world works. I am tired of being told I have to spend the rest of my life living in some neoliberal hellscape of a warmer planet because some people don’t want their tax dollars to help the poor and the environment. And yes, I still am an idealist in spite of knowing how our world works, because I can’t help but believe we can make a better one. No, I am not going to stop at free transit—there are so many more improvements to services our city could implement—but it’s a good place to start.

Will you join me?