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Calgary Transit’s Free Fare Zone: A history

Recently some cities around the world have been exploring the idea of introducing free transit fares to reduce the number of cars on the street, thereby reducing GHG emissions. 

Calgary has had a 2.5 km long Free Fare LRT Zone along downtown’s 7 Avenue Transit Corridor for decades.  It creates a convenient and efficient way for downtown workers, residents and tourists to get from one end of downtown to the other without the need to drive, take a cab or Uber.  

Downtown’s 7 Avenue became a ‘transit only street’ in the late 1970s in preparation for LRT, which opened in May 1981. In advance of LRT construction, many bus routes began using the 7 Avenue transit corridor to bypass traffic congestion on other downtown roads.

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Free service along 7 Avenue was introduced as a gesture to downtown businesses who paid high taxes and whose employees often needed to travel only a few blocks between offices and meetings in the downtown and for tourists to promote shopping.

Research showed that a high percentage of downtown employees were already transit pass holders so they could hop on and off transit anyway. It meant there wouldn’t be a huge loss of revenue by creating a free fare zone. The Free Fare Zone was also a good way to introduce downtown workers to LRT when it was first began operation.

LRT Fare Logistics

Another factor supporting the free fare zone was Calgary’s decision to adopt a proof-of-payment, barrier-free fare model, rather than have gated, staffed turnstiles at CTrain stations. The very narrow downtown platforms didn’t allow for any type of fare inspection area before boarding, which meant it would be virtually impossible to do fare collections and inspections at the 7 Avenue stations.

Ten Cent Bus Zone

Prior to LRT, 7 Avenue was a well-used free fare zone for buses. However, to raise additional revenue, a charge of $0.10 was introduced for travel along 7 Avenue (regular fare was $0.25 in the 1970s), which resulted in a ridership dropped to almost nothing. Most people were only going a couple of blocks.

There was a huge negative reaction (this is typical of anything that goes from being free to even a modest charge) so the $0.10 fare was eventually dropped. With the opening of the LRT, the free fare for buses along 7 Avenue was dropped as it was redundant.

Extending the Calgary Free Fare Zone

Over the years there have been many requests to extend the free fare zone beyond the current limits, especially to Stampede Park. However, because Calgary Transit is supposed to be at least 55 per cent funded by user fares, extending the free fare zone to a very popular transit destination like Stampede Park (Stampede, Calgary Flames games, concerts, conventions, trade shows), would result in a significant decrease in revenue income.

That would result in increased costs to the taxpayer.

Given the cost of parking and the convenience of the service between downtown and Stampede Park, Calgary Transit officials over the years have viewed the transit fare as good value for money. Extending the free fare zone would provide a marginal benefit to a few at a significant cost to the financial health of the system.

Here’s what Calgary Transit says…

Stephen Tauro with Calgary Transit recently said in an email “Our customer research indicates customers would prefer things like higher frequency on routes, better connections, more convenience and enhanced customer experience above lower fares.”

He added, “Offering free transit service is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. There would be funding issues, which would continue to grow over time, in order to maintain and expand on our existing service.”

Ultimately, Tauro and his colleagues at Calgary Transit feel, “Calgarians are currently receiving great value in the transit services that we provide today with several fare options for customers.”