Ottawa·Analysis

Why do seniors get a bigger break on bus fare than the poor? They just do

The city sets aside $6.8 million in transit fare discounts for seniors, and just $2.7 million to fund the low-income EquiPass. Why are we subsidizing a public service based on age alone?

OC Transpo dedicates $6.8M in discounts to senior, but just $2.7M to low-income riders

Tina Ford is constantly wearing out her shoes. She walks everywhere because she can't afford a bus pass. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Tina Ford can't afford a bus pass, so she walks everywhere. Now she can't afford to keep herself in running shoes, either.

"They just tear up, I walk so much every day," Ford said of her well-worn shoes. "They get really worn out and it hurts your feet."

The farthest she's walked in recent memory was from her Ottawa Community Housing apartment in Sandy Hill to Bayshore Shopping Centre for a job interview. She didn't get it.

After losing her job almost two years ago, Ford received Ontario Works assistance, which included money for a bus pass. But when that temporary allowance ran out, she found she could no longer afford an OC Transpo pass — not even the low-income EquiPass, priced at $57.

"I think $57 is way too much," said Ford. "I think it should be 40-something."
Last year low-income transit pass advocates called for the EquiPass to cost about $42. Instead, the city set the price at $57. Like other fares, it's increasing by 2.5 per cent in 2018. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Poor pay more

Ford is not alone in that belief.

Even before the EquiPass was approved last year, advocates for low-income riders pointed out that people receiving disability assistance and seniors paid about $42 and $43 a month respectively. The EquiPass costs roughly $15 more, and like most OC Transpo fares is set to increase by 2.5 per cent in January.

That the EquiPass has been woefully under-subscribed since being made available earlier this year is proof for advocates that it's too expensive. 

But the city has said that without financial help from the province, it cannot offer a deeper discount for low-income fares. It's not that the city doesn't want to help — it just can't.

How then can the city afford to give seniors — a large and growing segment of the population — such a good deal? 

Seniors get to ride free on Wednesdays, a program that appears to be unique to Ottawa. That weekly freebie is valued at $1 million per year. A monthly seniors' pass, at $43.25 instead of $113.75, is discounted by a whopping 62 per cent.

With about 6,900 senior passes sold each month, the value for the discount for the 65-plus crowd is $5.8 million. If we include free Wednesdays, it's $6.8 million. 

The city only set aside $2.7 million to fund the EquiPass, for which the city estimates as many as 8,800 residents are eligible.

Or look at it this way: the discount for the seniors' passes comes out of the transit budget. But the money to pay for the EquiPass comes from the community and protective services budget. Why is one group deserving of transit-dollar subsidies, while another is not?

Seniors 'deserve recognition'

There are two main reasons to offer discounts. 

Some subsidies are meant to offer incentives to take transit, such as the free parking at OC Transpo's suburban park and rides. Others are meant to help those who need a hand, including low-income people and, yes, many seniors. (The city estimates that 2,900 — or 40 per cent — of senior pass holders live under the low-income cut-off.)

But in an era of limited resources, it's difficult to see the logic of subsidising a public service based on age alone.

Instead, seniors receive discounts because, well, they just do.
Transit commission chair Stephen Blais said he doesn't support any changes to seniors fares. (CBC News)

"I think age-based discounts are common in the marketplace today, and I think OC Transpo acts as many businesses in marketplace act," said Coun. Stephen Blais, who chairs the transit commission. "And at the moment it's the policy of city council to offer that discount to seniors."

But a public transit system is hardly analogous to, say, Shoppers Drug Mart. 

There's also the notion that seniors have earned a break.

"One of the reasons why councillors have given a seniors' discount, besides the fact that it's politically attractive, is the fact that seniors have contributed over their working period to the quality of life to the city and deserve some recognition," said former transit chair Alex Cullen, who's now with seniors' advocacy group The Council on Aging of Ottawa.

Political force

Officials from the City of Kingston have recently mused about doing away with seniors' passes and instead moving to a means test.

Good luck to them.

Because perhaps the most powerful incentive for hanging onto seniors' discounts is politics. Seniors vote more than other age groups, and they form a powerful lobby.

That's why it's almost certain no one on Ottawa council will mount a serious campaign to challenge the way fares are discounted; not with an election on the horizon.

Blais virtually dared his council colleagues to try it.

"It's not something I support today," he said, "But if someone wants to increase the cost for seniors to ride the bus, I look forward to them bringing that to the table."

Wrong argument

But some advocates say we're having the wrong argument when we pit seniors against the poor.

Trevor Haché is a transit advocate with the Healthy Transportation Coalition. During last year's debate over fares, he found himself suggesting the city would find money to lower the EquiPass by siphoning money from the subsidy that makes the seniors' discount possible.

"I think it's important to note that we would never suggest that seniors aren't worthy of a discount," said Haché. "The only reason why we even forced into thinking about that is the city's claim that they didn't have the money in their budget to pay for further discounts for low-income people."

Haché has offered a number of ideas for how to raise revenue to keep fares low, but most would have an impact on motorists. So far, there are no takers for his suggestions.

He's also lobbied for an increase in property taxes tied to transit, but council has vowed to keep the transit levy increase to 2.5 per cent.
OC Transpo fares are on track to rise by 2.5 per cent every year for decades. (CBC)

Transit on track to cost more

The city's plan to be able to pay for LRT and other transit services relies on an across-the-board fare to increase of 2.5 per cent a year for decades

In the meantime, Tina Ford still walks everywhere.

She recently secured a temporary part-time contract answering the phones overnight at a social service agency. On those rare occasions when she takes the bus, she pays a single fare.

She looks forward to taking advantage of the $1.75 single-ride EquiFare that's set to launch next June.

Still, the lack of a monthly pass means she doesn't go to as many community events and social outings as she'd like. 

"I don't go if I don't necessarily have to go."

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.