Laura Shantz’s youngest child turns six next year, the age cutoff for free bus and train rides in Ottawa. This means a roundtrip ride on Ottawa’s transit system will cost the mother and her two children $15. During a city council Finance and Economic Development Committee meeting last month, Shantz shared her concerns over Ottawa’s proposed 2.5% transit fare increase. 

“People are saying, I want free transit, I want this, I want that,” Mayor Jim Watson said later in the meeting, responding to Shantz’s and others’ concerns. “Well I’m sorry but someone has to pay for it.” 

A growing movement of activists in cities across Canada agrees that someone should indeed pay for it, but not the poorest. While acknowledging the costs of building transit infrastructure, they argue it must not fall on marginalized members of society, who often rely on public transit to access work and essential services. The Free Public Transit movement believes fares can be eliminated entirely and funded by progressive taxation measures that shift the burden to corporations and the most wealthy.

They’re already clocking small victories. Earlier this year the City of Victoria introduced a free transit pass for youth 18 and under. The City of Halifax made free transit passes available to anyone receiving income assistance. And in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, cities across Canada temporarily abolished transit fares for essential workers. 

Free public transit is often framed as an expensive, impractical proposition. But advocates say dependency on personal vehicles is even more expensive and impractical. Expanded, efficient, and free public transit could radically reduce the need for cars. Relying on a car to engage with city life commonly costs upwards of $10,000 a year. Any tax increase associated with free public transit would pale in comparison.