Ottawa·Analysis

Fare-free transit doesn't give council a pass on LRT failings

A month of free transit offers commuters a chance to see whether or not the transit network can be relied upon. But that's about all it will do.

Free month will test transit network's reliability

‘It’s a first step:’ OC Transpo hoping to boost rider confidence with free transit in December

1 year ago
Duration 0:40
Renée Amilcar, general manager of OC Transpo, says she hopes the fare-free month will encourage riders to try the LRT and become more confident in the reliability of the system.

It's the first day of December, and this year, that marks the beginning of a first-ever full month of free transit in Ottawa.

The change offers commuters a chance to see whether or not light rail, ParaTranspo and other parts of the transit network can be relied upon. 

But it likely won't hide that the offer of free OC Transpo and ParaTranspo service was political from the get-go.

    The free month was approved back in mid-October, smack in the middle of a 54-day total LRT shutdown, when council had no idea when the trains would be running again — so from the start, the optics weren't great and had a certain whiff of distraction-ism about it.

    For supporters, including Mayor Jim Watson and transit commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley, providing free transit was a gesture of apology and a way to coax more people back onto transit.

    October ridership was at just 41 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, although some may have avoided transit while the LRT was down. 

    But for the six councillors who voted against it, the move was a gimmick. 

    To paraphrase Coun. Jeff Leiper, council could not put a price on the stress the struggling Confederation Line has caused riders in the past two years. And if you could put a price on it, it wouldn't be the price of a $122 monthly bus pass.

    Coun. Catherine McKenney would rather have seen fares frozen for the entirety of 2022, while Coun. Carol Anne Meehan wanted to see the $7.2 million free fares will cost go toward buying more buses for times when the LRT will, in her view, invariably go down again.

    WATCH | Rider group says reliability is the most important: 

    One month of free transit ‘not enough to re-establish confidence’ in LRT, advocate says

    1 year ago
    Duration 0:41
    Laura Shantz, who sits on the board of the Ottawa Transit Riders group, says only reliable, functional train service will restore public confidence in the LRT, not one free month of transit access.

    The mayor accused them all of having "motion envy" and said they were voting against the free month of transit because it wasn't their idea.

    Of course, Watson himself has voted against past suggestions of free fares when the idea was put forward by other councillors.

    Trillium Line update, final budget vote

    If the free month might be a balm to soothe the public's antagonism for the city's transit system, a meeting next week might reopen old wounds.

    The finance and economic development committee will finally hear an update on the schedule for the Trillium Line extension. The city is supposed to take possession of the line in August 2022. But back in January, SNC-Lavalin told the city it was running at least four months late, which only came to light in a CBC story.

    It's taken 10 months for the city's rail office to provide an update on the schedule, which will come Tuesday.

    Between what SNC-Lavalin already told the city almost a year ago, and COVID-19 related supply-chain and labour issues, Trillium Line Stage 2 is unlikely to be on schedule.

    And that could become a political problem, especially for members of council running in next fall's municipal election. With the public already frustrated over Line 1, politicians may find facing a delay on Line 2 hard to defend on the hustings.

    Free fares may have an upside

    There's nothing really wrong with offering riders free transit this month. Even McKenney, who voted against the measure, says it is a way for OC Transpo to look at how free fares affect how people travel.

    And there's no reason people shouldn't take advantage of it, if they can.

    WATCH | What a month of free transit could mean for the future: 

    Month of free transit may yield important ridership data, councillor says

    1 year ago
    Duration 0:54
    Coun. Catherine McKenney says the city should be studying ridership rates during the month of December, determining what effect free transit has on the way people travel.

    But council shouldn't expect it to repair a relationship with commuters damaged from two years of Confederation Line troubles, nor should they count on anyone forgetting city officials knew the LRT was unreliable before it took possession of it in 2019. A provincial inquiry starting next year will make sure of that.

    Because as council must surely know, in politics, there's no such thing as a free ride.

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