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Canada missing golden transit opportunity

Trails U.S. in both public funding, ridership growth

By Joseph Hall
Commuter Corner

For transit in Canada, the news last week was both good and a little embarrassing.

The good news was that, for the third year in a row, transit use was up across the country.

The embarrassing news? Our ridership increases lagged far behind those in the United States, where billions upon billions of federal dollars are opening up vast new tracts of transit infrastructure.

Figures released last week by the Canadian Urban Transit Association showed 1999 ridership grew some 1.8 per cent in Canada to almost 1.43 billion passenger trips.

Those increases were fairly uniform across the land, with 75 per cent of the country’s systems reporting gains.

It's not just big cities or small cities, it's right across the country,'' says association president Michael Roschlau.But it was much lower than the gains that were seen in the U.S., where their transit systems are expanding capacity like we just have not been able to do here.”

U.S. figures released in April show transit use grew by some 4.5 per cent in 1999 to a 40-year high of 9 billion rides. This came in the the wake of $5.4 billion in 1999 federal transit funding.

The government spending, which helped buy thousands of new trains, buses and streetcars across the country, is just part of a six-year federal package that will pump $42 billion into U.S. transit systems.

Ottawa puts no money into municipal transit and, as of last year, neither does Queen’s Park.

Ontario is home to the only transit systems in North America that receive no money from senior levels of government, which makes our healthy TTC ridership increases seem something of a miracle.

Toronto Transit Commission usage grew from 388 million rides in 1998 to 393 million last year. This year, the system is on track to host 405 million rides.

In both the United States and Canada, such increases can be attributed largely to a strong - and in some regions, booming - economy. But the Americans are taking advantage of this increased economic need to travel by turning more people on to transit.

Canadian and American studies have shown convenience, speed and reliability are transit’s biggest selling points. The relatively low cost of transit is a distant thought in the minds of most potential riders, who would far rather get somewhere quickly than cheaply.

By spending huge amounts of money to make systems faster and run more frequently, Washington allows transit to take advantage of the economy and create what may well be lifelong converts.

And converts are being created. The same economic boom that boosted transit usage by 4.5 per cent last year created a mere 2 per cent increase in motor-vehicle travel.

In its attempt to curb massive congestion and pollution problems, Washington has done more than pour money into the nation’s transit infrastructure; it has created a major tax incentive to pull people through the turnstiles.

As of 1998, employees who purchase transit vouchers from their employers can claim up to $65 a month as a tax deduction. Employers who give the vouchers to employees can keep the deduction themselves.

A proposal to allow Canadian employers to give employees transit passes as a tax-free benefit - a meagre break by comparison - was rebuffed by Ottawa last year.

One reason the United States is spending so much on transit is that many of its large cities had let their systems slip badly over the past half century.

In Canada, cities such as Toronto and Montreal became North American transit icons. Today the federal government, and especially Queen’s Park, seem intent on reversing the situation.

At the very least, both governments are missing a golden opportunity to boost transit.