FREE RIDES FOR SENIORS? NEXT STOP: SILLINESS
If tech magnate Terry Matthews cared to hop the No. 64 bus from his Brookstreet Hotel to his Wesley Clover stables, he’d pay less for the OC Transpo trip than a part-time Walmart clerk does to get to and from work.The fact he’s 75 matters more than his billions, a loopy situation that Jim Watson proposes to worsen with more free transit for senior citizens.The pledge is just tossed into Watson’s latest (and probably last) set of election promises: “Provide no-charge transit service to seniors on Sundays, in addition to Wednesdays.” There’s no rationale or explanation.OC Transpo already has discount fares for seniors.At $44.50, a monthly pass costs almost two-thirds less than the $116.50 a standard adult pass does. Only the pass for people on government disability support is cheaper, and only by $1.25 a month. This is just a taste of how rococo the fare table is.Cash and Presto account fares for seniors are about one-third off. Wednesdays are already free-ride days, which the city estimates costs $1 million a year. That started with free rides for seniors only on Wednesday mornings, so the trend is for the city to keep expanding it.Meanwhile, OC Transpo frets about expanding service because it’s constantly skint.Clive Doucet, Watson’s strongest challenger for mayor, offers little protest on OC Transpo’s fare table. He wants cheaper transit generally, but also more free-ride times for seniors.We structure some social programs for universality, like health care, or near-universality, like Old Age Security. We don’t structure transit that way. We slice and dice the fare schedule to help certain groups and, in consequence, hinder others. In this case, we treat seniors as if they’re all poverty-stricken, relying on their children to keep them out of penury during the few years they have between working and limping into the grave.“Senior” isn’t a synonym for “poor” and hasn’t been for generations.You can cut the numbers a bunch of ways, but no matter how you do it, seniors are either the wealthiest or second-wealthiest generation in Canada. One Statistics Canada measure in 2016 found that “senior families” had a median net worth of $762,900, compared to $407,100 for all non-senior families. No subcategory of non-senior families, including double-incomeno-kids couples, came close to senior families’ wealth.Solo seniors had a median net worth of $277,000; solo nonseniors had $37,700.Measured a different way, by the age of a family’s main income-earner, households where there’s someone 65 or older are second in wealth to households where it’s someone aged 55 to 64.A lot of that senior wealth isn’t super-liquid, of course: it’s in real estate and pension funds. It’s still wealth, and it dwarfs that of any other generation. And seniors’ numbers are growing, especially relative to the rest of the population.If we want to focus on income, senior families do make less in a year than non-senior families ($57,500 at the median versus $82,600, both after tax), but still plenty more than lone-parent families and singles. Senior families’ median income has also grown faster than that of other types of families, so relatively speaking, they’re getting ahead, not falling behind.The point here isn’t that all seniors are rich. They aren’t, any more than all yuppies or DINKs are. The point is that the faulty stereotype that seniors are poor takes us to some odd places.Consider that there’s no cutrate pass if you’re a single parent juggling two jobs, or if you’ve been laid off so you and your spouse are working for minimum wage and you’re trying to upgrade your skills with parttime courses at Algonquin.OC Transpo does have its “EquiPass,” aimed at transit users with incomes below the federal low-income cut-off, which is $39,100 for a family of four. At $58.25 a month, even the poverty pass costs more than a senior’s pass.And a household with two minimum-wage-earning adults wouldn’t be eligible.Also bizarrely, we price transit more expensively than driving a car, even though the social costs of driving are much higher. If you want to get downtown outside of business hours, you can park for nothing in the garage under city hall to compensate you for the inconvenience of the reconstruction work on Elgin Street. There’s no discount on bus fares for getting to the same destination. If you’re paying cash, that trip out and back will still run you $7 for each adult and teen, versus a few cents you’d pay in taxes on the gasoline you’d burn by driving. (The Presto fare’s just 10 cents less per person; the city started out with notably discounted Presto fares to get riders off tickets, then jacked them up.) If you could drive, you’d be crazy to take OC Transpo for that trip.Watson scoffs at council candidates who talk about free transit for everyone. That would mean $200 million in lost revenue if everything else stayed the same, which of course everything wouldn’t: demand for service would go way up, though demand for roads and parking and traffic policing would doubtless fall. It’s hard to guess how everything would shake out.But even that would make more sense than giving the steepest discounted transit service to a category of riders who don’t need it, and working toward waiving even that. [email protected]media.com twitter.com/davidreevely
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