Championing the ‘Transit Captives’

Yesterday I joined several other seniors to fight for our proposed reform of seniors transit fares.  It is tough to explain the point that seniors should pay less because we cost OC Transpo less, rather than the usual point that seniors need a break financially.

Seniors, as people who avoid rush-hour and whose limited incomes, failing senses, smaller households, and lower travel demand make car-ownership less practical, are at the core of what Transit planers call “transit captive,” those who don’t have a car to use and have little choice but to use transit.  (Younger ‘captives’ might have the choices of walking and cycling, but seniors who can walk to transit stops often can’t walk as far as younger people to displace transit trips).  Seniors avoid rush-hour transit service, although free to travel at any time, to ensure getting a choice seat and avoid the frantic crowd at those times, which often translates into “toe mashing” of those seated in what is now called “cooperative seating,” the centre-facing seats that are exempted from the first-come, first-served seating rule.

Facing us was Mayor Jim Watson, a man who religiously attends public events and prides himself on knowing the grassroots of the community, especially seniors.  He had championed a different senior-transit idea in his campaign — expanding the Ride-Free Wednesdays, a program that that we, the Ottawa Seniors Transportation Committee and the City’s own Seniors Advisory Committee, had campaigned for two years earlier to two additional partial weekdays.  We had seen the ride-free-Wednesday as nice, but wanted the next improvement to be half-price ticket and cash fares. Our two groups had successfully shepharded the half-fare through the Transit Commitee and Council the previous Fall. Mayor Jim Watson, though is a newcomer (returning to local politics after seven years in the provincial cabinet).

What happened yesterday must have been disconcerting to the mayor, as all five presenters who mentioned the seniors’ issue squarely supported our (and the previous council’s) plan — to cut seniors’ cash and ticket fares in half all the time but keep Ride-Free Wednesdays — while the committee had received a motion, obviously worked out in advance, to support the mayor’s approach of expanding ride-free Wednesdays to the period after noon on Mondays and Fridays.  The concession in the motion was that the expanded free hours would be only a one-year program, to be done in consultation with seniors and analyzed before it would be made permanent or any other changes made in it.

As it turned out, the staff did their job of providing numbers, but only the bottom-line relative costs.  They said our fare-halving proposal was going to cost $4 million on an annualized basis, vs. less than a third of that for the expanded ride-free proposal.

The first presenter was the chair of the SAC, and he clearly pointed out that Council had already made a decision the previous fall, and that staff’s response had been positive or at least muted at that time.  Now, five months later, staff’s cost estimates had climbed three-fold and the alternative from the mayor’s campaign was seen as far cheaper.   No response from staff (as delegations cannot directly address staff)  but the mayor was not shy about explaining the facts of political life to the audience: “the election” caused the political will to change, and the old Transit Committee chair was defeated.

The second presenter was the OSTC delegate, who referred to the committee’s research that showed that the ticket and cash fares paid by seniors was the highest in the country.  She also made the point that the half-fares proposal gave seniors more freedom of when to ride.  The mayor replied that free rides, as well as the monthly passes, gave them even more freedom of the financial kind.

The Mayor at this point showed his consternation at this second group lining up against his campaign-tested idea.  “Who do you represent,” he demanded.  She started to answer, but then deferred to me, sitting at a mike near her, “on deck.”  I explained that is was about 10 seniors in the urban and rural parts of the city, plus representatives of 10-12 agencies that service seniors and had a stake in improving transportation for their clients.  I also pointed out that we were part of the venerable Council on Aging of Ottawa.

I followed with the self-assigned task of putting it into a wider context.  Although I know that the die was cast in the pre-meeting negotiations over the wording of motions entered into the record before the delegations were heard, I forged ahead, knowing that at least I had submitted my comments in advance so the councillors could see them before the meeting started, but I knew I would have to ad lib, as they were too long to fit into my five-minute allotment, and I had rethought some points after hearing other points raised.  (It is sad that the four citizen members yet to be named in March or early April, were not a factor, made more significant since none of the councillors  represents the older urban suburban where most of the short-ride, off-peak users live.)

I started out referring to the route optimization process that staff were asking the commission to endorse with the  budget to save almost $18 million a year.  It includes the standard that at least 90 percent of users of peak-hour routes should live within a five-minute walk of the closest stop, compared with a ten-minute-walk of off-peak routes.  Staff ‘optimization’ plan takes the “at least” to mean “no more than”.   In other words, those seniors lucky enough to live close to their closest off-peak service may find it eliminated or rerouted to a street further away.

One councillor asked staff if their optimization changes would double walking distances for seniors, and they said no, even though two of their three examples given eight days earlier for route ‘optimization’ (where more than 90 percent were within a 10-minute walk) were doing just that (route 18 in Overbrook had its ‘kinks’ removed, and route 148 along Pleasant Park in Alta Vista would be elminated, sending users to either Smyth or Kilborn).  In any case, I was referring to the existing standard, not a new one.

I pointed out that OC Transpo’s website shows that the average ride distance is 10 kms an hour.  I suggested that off-peak trips were far shorter, probably around 5 kms, compared to what guessed was about 15 kms for the average peak-hour trip, since commutes are considerably longer than trips to shopping and for recreation, especially in the suburbs, where most “choice” transit riders live: owning both a car and an unlimited-use transit pass.

And yet fares were the same.  I added this injustice to the fact that peak routes offered both higher frequencies and higher average speeds (transitway’s lack of mixed traffic, faster speed limits, and longer distances between stops).  And finally, there was the fact that off-peak trips usually facilitate trips of shorter duration than a full workday, reducing the amount of effort travelers feel the trip is worth.  In sum, off-peak users, are expected to walk twice as far, to a route that run slower and with less frequency, to make trips that have less intrinsic value.  All this for the same cash fare (although a majority of peak users get a discount by using passes).  Not really a fair fare.

I pointed out that the vaunted seniors pass, priced at 40 percent of what the Adult pass costs, did not really constitute a fare reduction but only a recognition that seniors, when the pass was first created, travelled only 40 percent as often in a month and thus would not buy passes unless it was based on a break-even point close to the reality: 17 rides vs. 38 rides a month.  Even with that price adjustment, the passes still don’t overcome a problem that seniors have: our monthly demand for transit varies month-to-month in a non-predictable way — in contrast to what full-time workers have.  How many seniors have bought one for a month that turned out to involve little transit use?

I then tried to explain why the expanded free-rides plan would cost more than staff have predicted.  I suggested that seniors had exceptional flexibility as to when to ride, along with a good nose for savings, thanks to growing up during the Depression and war/post-war periods, and would simply ‘steer’ their use of the system to the 1/3 of the week the mayor’s proposal would make free.  Voila!  OC Transpo would not get any revenue from these people.  And a good number of habitual pass buyers, who would realize that their, soon-to-be $37 pass (a 13.8 % rice increase over two year since ride-free days started) would be devalued by 33% by the 2 1/3 days of free access a week.

I compared it with my compromise: a pure half-fare system — one that dropped the existing Ride-free Wednesdays, which I considered suffering from the same problems as the expansion to Mondays and Fridays — and suggested that OC Transpo would get more revenue without trying to manipulate  seniors times-of-travel — presumably to to fit the agency’s times of demand shortfall.  A senior could get half fares with the mayor’s plan by simply moving half of his or her trips to the free days.  But, once one has caught on to this manipulation, why stop there?

I concluded with the point that seniors have worked a lifetime to earn the freedom from rushing and having to follow schedules (except for taking pills and getting to medical appointments).  We naturally favour the freedom of the half-fare plan to the lack of freedom and contrivance of the having 1/3 of the week offer a ‘free ride.’  What other user group has to watch time of day, and day of week?  I don’t think very many seniors, who are also emphatically tax-payers, believe there is any such thing.  It’s very simple: our trips cost less to provide, so we should be charged less.  The per-trip fare system ignores wide variations in distance and time-of-day/week demand.

Maybe the mayor’s contacts with seniors at shopping malls and assisted-care residences brings him in contact with different seniors than us more ‘active’ seniors.  At the same time, I am willing to concede that we need to expand our membership base, if we want to be able to speak authotatively of the wide range of seniors’ travel needs separate from the mayor.  I for one, am a senior living 75 metres from a main street with stops for 7 bus routes and stores for most conveniences within easy walking distance for me.  Getting to hospitals and big-box stores is what I use the transit system for.  I may believe in aging at home, but I see a clear value in ensuring that that home has plenty of ‘location efficiency” (see www. walkscore.com), specifically a score of 83 out of 100.

 

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