Lessons Calgary can give Ottawa on Low-income bus passes
The beginning of April saw the City of Ottawa begin to offer discounted bus passes to low-income residents - those falling below the Statistics Canada Low Income Cut-Offs ($23,298 for a single person in a large city like Ottawa (2011 data)). Called the EquiPass, at $57 a month it is about half the $113.75 adult regular monthly bus pass.
Poverty advocates, while lauding the intent, criticized the City's initiative as not going far enough, particularly as welfare recipients receive far less than those on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), who qualify for the current $42.25 a month Community Bus Pass. It will be near impossible for a single person receiving $690 a month from Ontario Works (the provincial welfare program) to afford both rent, food and other necessities, and a $57 a month EquiPass.
Co-incidentally, the City of Calgary is also offering a low-income bus pass starting in April, but at $5.05 a month for very poor (under half the StatsCan LICO), then $35.35 a month up to $50.50 a month on a sliding scale, depending on income. For comparison, an adult regular monthly bus pass is $101 in Calgary.
Calgary moved to this new sliding scale low-income bus pass approach after years of providing a $44 a month bus pass for all of its low-income residents (the comparable Community Bus Pass in Ottawa is only for those on ODSP), because it realized that for many poor even $44 a month was unachievable.
It appears that even the City of Ottawa thinks so too, as its estimate of rider-take-up for the EquiPass, at $57 a month, was only 4,400 people - less than 4% of Ottawa's low-income population - leaving some 134,000 low-income people having to scrape by with the occasional bus ticket.
It would be easy to describe City Council's EquiPass as well-meaning but inadequate in meeting the needs of Ottawa's low-income population, but there is a crucial difference between Ottawa's effort and Calgary's. Calgary was able to provide its more achievable low-income bus pass through the benefit of a $13.5 million 3-year grant from the Alberta Government.
At least the City of Ottawa is recognizing that our poor have a tough time getting to work, school and everything else we take for granted, but clearly a $57 a month bus pass will provide little help to them – it is unaffordable. If we are serious about helping low-income families access public transit then we should ask the Ontario Government to help make those bus passes more affordable to these families, just as Alberta did for Calgary.