Grassroots group wants public transit in Edmonton to be free

An organization of educators, students and climate organizers wants the city to look at doing away with fares and monthly passes.

'We're seeing success in cities that make it a priority overall'

Municipalities are in dire need of financial aid from Ottawa and provinces to get through pandemic, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says.
In mid-March, the city announced that transit would be fare-free. That ended on June 15. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

A grassroots organization wants the City of Edmonton to look at making public transit fare-free. 

"We're not asking for immediate 'Next day fares are gone, totally removed,'" Danika McConnell with Free Transit Edmonton, a group made up of educators, students and climate organizers, told Edmonton AM on Thursday.

"We want to see it looked at from the overall 'How we fund the city? How we build [transit]?'" 

Transit fares in Edmonton were reinstated last week after being suspended in March in part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Having to pay for a ticket or monthly pass creates "barriers to access" for those who can't afford the fare, McConnell said.

She points to Kansas City, Mo., as well as some cities in Europe who have made the move to fare-free public transit systems. 

"We're seeing success in cities that make it a priority overall," she said. 

Cost of Edmonton transit

It currently costs $3.50 for a single adult transit ticket, while a monthly pass for adults aged 25-64 sells for $97. 

The city does have some fare-subsidy programs, including Providing Accessible Transit Here, which provides free monthly transit passes to individuals who are homeless.

The Ride Transit program offers eligible low-income Edmontonians a subsidized rate of $34 or $48.50 per month.

City councillors have discussed the idea of free transit after Coun. Aaron Paquette introduced a motion in 2018. 

A transit audit released in August 2019 made a series of recommendations to address fares, fare revenue and the growing cost of transit.

In 2018, fare revenues brought in $118 million, roughly 36 per cent of the ETS operating cost.

The city now collects about $130-million annually in transit revenue, according to the 2019-2022 city operating budget.

The cost to operate transit keeps growing too.

In 2018, providing transit service cost $327 million, up from $105 million in 2000, said a city report.

The city was losing $10 million each month that transit was fare-free during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Don Iveson said last month. 

McConnell said if the city were to go fare-free, it would need help from the provincial and federal governments.

"It's not about these new capital projects that federal and provincial governments like to fund, it's about ensuring the foundation of our transit system is something we can continue to build on in a good way that's serving everyone."