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Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca speaks during a campaign stop in Toronto, on May 4.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Imagine the utopia that would be the province of Ontario if political leaders came together to make all of their gimmicky campaign promises come true. Friends would hop into vehicles that sport fresh, free, new licence-plate registration stickers and cruise along the new Highway 413 to meet up with the gang for buck-a-beers. After drinking one too many, they’d opt for public transit to get home and pay just $1 each for the full ride back to their front doors.

In this post-election utopia, gas would be affordable because Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford reduced the provincial tax by five cents, and the streets would be safe because Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca banned legal handguns. No one would worry about how we’d pay for all of these campaign-time promises, because no one actually sees the $13-billion Ontario is spending annually just to service its debt.

To Mr. Del Duca’s credit, his pledge to reduce public transit fares to $1 is at least a more serious policy proposal than Mr. Ford’s previous campaign vow to slash the cost of beer. The promise comes with some actual goals – more consequential than simply getting sloshed for cheap – but it still reeks of a campaign gimmick, rather than an earnest effort to improve the way we approach transportation and accessibility.

In the abstract, significantly reducing one barrier to public transit use should be a net social good. We know that healthy cities have robust, accessible public transit systems, and reducing the cost for riders – especially at a time when the price of just about everything else has gone up – should theoretically entice greater usage.

But Mr. Del Duca’s promise is a temporary one – reduced fares only until 2024 – which may not be enough to change transportation behaviours in a sustainable way. One fifth of Canadians are still working exclusively from home, while a growing proportion are starting hybrid work arrangements. And price isn’t the only factor that acts as a barrier to public transportation usage; if service is too slow, or infrequent, or unreliable, or if the train doesn’t work in the cold (sorry, Ottawa), people will stick with their cars, even if it costs more. A $1 trip isn’t worth 45 extra minutes of travel, especially if it means two buses and a train to get home.

Mr. Del Duca has claimed that his buck-a-fare plan could see 400,000 vehicles taken off the road, but research doesn’t generally back that presumption. Studies of transit systems where fares have been abolished altogether, such as in Templin, Germany, have found that the switch doesn’t translate to significantly fewer cars on the road simply because cost isn’t a major factor in drivers choosing to use their own vehicles. These studies have found that eliminating fees does result in substantial increases in usage over time, but that the new riders tend to be people who would have otherwise walked or cycled, which doesn’t do much to reduce vehicular traffic – not in the short term, at least.

The difference here is that the Liberals aren’t promising to make fares free – just significantly cheaper – which paradoxically could be the more expensive option for public coffers. Removing fares altogether comes with other significant cost savings through the elimination of ticket and payment systems, the need for fewer employees to process fares and so on. But reducing fares temporarily means those systems will still have to be maintained, all while transit systems lose a significant chunk of their operating revenue (in 2019, fares made up 58 per cent of the Toronto Transit Commission’s revenue).

Mr. Del Duca has said that the province will make up the difference, but his cost projection – $710-million in the first year and $1.1-billion in the second – seems awfully low if we do some back-of-the-napkin math. If ridership in Toronto climbs to 75 per cent of prepandemic levels, the province will be on the hook for the equivalent of $2.25 for roughly 390 million rides, or more than $877-million – and that’s just for Toronto. This doesn’t account for fares that are already discounted, but still, it’s clear that the province will be on the hook for substantially more than Mr. Del Duca’s estimates.

It’s hard to see, then, why any of this is worth it. The promise will temporarily reduce fares for those who use public transit (including those who can easily afford a few bucks each ride), but it won’t improve service nor likely change behaviours permanently, and it will come at enormous cost to the government, meaning we all pay for it anyway. It’s a buck-a-beer promise, dressed up to look like serious policy. But if you scratch the surface, it’s just another cheap campaign ploy.

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