Public transit in Edmonton (Photo: Abdul Malik).

Abdul Malik is a photographer and writer based in Edmonton who covers climate justice, decolonization, and worker organizing in the era of extreme climate change. In this post he argues Edmonton doesn’t just need more public transit, it needs free public transit.

By Abdul Malik

Alberta’s already got a reputation for NIMBYism, from the criminal potential of trees to the terrifying blight of solar farms — the latter in a town best known for the sight and smell of its enormous slaughterhouse.

Recent news reports, though, take the idea of Not In My Back Yard to a new level, boosting a cranky petition to block new light rapid transit development in Edmonton, including the Valley Line extension, because of its cost to taxpayers and the inconvenience to motorists during construction.

Guest post author Abdul Malik (Photo: Abdul Malik).

This is precisely the opposite of what needs to be happening in Edmonton right now in light of Alberta’s well-known economic woes.

The idea of divesting from Edmonton’s transportation future is a particularly troubling frame when we consider the impact of a cruel provincial budget. Calls by some of our wealthier residents (and one city councillor) to cut jobs and municipal spending in tandem with provincial austerity are not just callous, they’re counterproductive, and most of all, deeply indicative of the city’s class divides, particularly as they fall along the lines of mobility.

In light of the way the UCP budget is likely to exacerbate wealth inequality in Edmonton, it will fall to the municipality to pick up the slack. Yes, the LRT should be built. And when it is, it should be free.

Indeed, all public transit should be free.

Edmonton is a city of immense class stratification. Many of our poorer residents don’t drive. Most of them face transit inconveniences that make the rush-hour traffic faced by folks with cars seem totally insignificant.

When a wealthy citizen complains to the local paper about the inconvenience of driving down 104th Street during LRT construction, please pardon me for playing the world’s smallest violin.

Cuts to municipal funding proposed by the UCP, and similar cuts proposed for municipal budgeting in Edmonton, are bound to hit the poorest and most disenfranchised Edmontonians hardest. To deny them access to vital transportation corridors that have long been the domain of car owners is a deliberate disinvestment from Edmonton’s economic future.

What’s more, if austerity is supposed to deliver prosperity, it won’t work.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

More than one study has demonstrated that the primary factor in escaping poverty is access to transportation. A person’s ability to escape tough financial circumstances is dependent on their ability to get from Point A to Point B. This doesn’t just speak to poverty, it speaks to the potential for employment, greater purchasing power, a more educated workforce, and a more connected city. Where there is more opportunity, every citizen can flourish.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says he wants property tax increases to remain stable at no more than 2.6 per cent.

But if they need to increase so we can have a city with more equity, where there are fewer people living in poverty and where economic opportunities are abundant, they should.

If we can invest in other projects for this city, even in tough economic times, we should also invest in our ability to travel without being beholden to automobiles.

Public transit is a public service, and public services should not be operated at a profit. If Edmonton’s more solvent residents have to carry the load by a percentage point or two, that’s an appropriate way to pull together in tough times.

What’s more, there’s the obvious environmental benefit.

The City of Edmonton has climate targets it intends to meet and for that to happen, there will have to be changes that make some drivers unhappy in the short term.

Make no mistake though, a more equitable and less car-dependent city will help everyone.

Arguing that we should replace LRT trains with electric buses as a compromise is shortsighted — and a bit disingenuous. Buses compete for space on the road. They can’t move as many people as rail transit. They are, in the long term, less efficient.

In terms of capacity, the Valley Line is barely enough. Buses would be even less than so.

Even with a new depot under construction, Edmonton’s capacity to store and maintain additional buses is limited. If you think the city spends too much on its workforce now, as many do, don’t forget that it will cost money to maintain an expanded fleet of buses too. How much more stress would residents feel comfortable putting on the mechanics who are already overworked maintaining our current bus fleet?

A better solution is to treat the traffic woes of the 1% as a necessary inconvenience to make a better city for our biking, walking, transit using public.

Now, tough times might seem like bad times to invest in public service, but it’s actually the perfect time for the city to take a look at its most underserved citizens and develop a plan that will benefit everyone.

Investing significantly in public transit will guard against future cutbacks, recessions, and economically hard times. It’s a lynchpin of diversifying the economy through economic opportunities that are led by working people who have been hamstrung by poor public services. It’ll create myriad economic and social benefits.

Building public transit is expensive, but it’s not a short-term investment. It is a long-term investment in people, the economy and a better life for all. To even have to frame an argument for free public transit around economics is troubling, because equity should not have to be framed around economic potential. No one should have to pay for transit at the point of entry. It’s an unjust barrier that unfairly affects the homeless, racialized, Indigenous, and the less well off.

Over time, the economic benefit will be obvious, even if many of Edmonton’s wealthier residents don’t see it yet. In the short term, it alleviates significant amounts of financial pressure on a group of people under siege by sweeping, cruel austerity.

Expanding transit makes sense in tough times. But in good times and bad, it should be a priority. There will be fewer tough times in the future with expanded and fare free public transit.

Edmonton can prove free and efficient transit isn’t a last resort for an ailing society, but the first one for a society that’s going places.

We can build to a greener, more connected, and more economically advantageous city. Expanded public with no fares or low fares is an essential part of how to get there.

We shouldn’t let a few well-to-do complainers in luxury automobiles get in the way of a better future for Edmonton.

You can follow Abdul Malik on Twitter @abdulymalik, and find more of his work at, and through his podcast, Kino Lefter. Like all guest posts authors on, he is known to the publisher, that is to say, me. DJC

Join the Conversation


  1. You have written a compelling argument, Abdul. Thanks for writing it. Sadly, I am afraid we are moving farther away from free transit instead of closer to it. For my wife and I to go to a movie, the present situation makes it significantly cheaper for us to drive to a suburban cinema complex than to take the bus downtown, which feels wrong.

    A somewhat related issue that is a concern for me is the discussion I hear about ending the heavy subsidy that currently exists on seniors’ bus passes. The powers that be are looking at how much revenue they are losing by subsidizing these bus passes, but that thinking assumes everyone who buys the discounted pass would buy one at full price. I am/was looking forward to buying the subsidized bus pass when I turn 65 and using transit more, but if the subsidy comes off I know I won’t use transit enough to pay the current price for a bus pass.

    Two other arguments for you to put in your toolbox:

    1. The more people who use transit, the less congestion there will be for people who do not use it. Thus the taxes drivers pay to subsidize transit is a de facto congestion charge that major cities like London have in place.

    2. Continuing to subsidize seniors’ transit will normalize it for seniors. This in turn will make it make it easier for them when they reach an age that they have to quit driving.

  2. Edmonton (and Calgary) are resolutely going for cars, by expanding their ring roads. Public transit is obviously not a priority and never has been. When Edmonton’s current mayor was a member of council, the City removed the electrical lines for street cars and its electric bus fleet. Some 60% of GHG emissions come from transportation and half of that is from automobiles. So the logical thing to do would be to take some of those car lanes and change them into street car only lines. Electric street cars can be ganged into multiple cars as they do in Europe. Most Albertans live in cities and the low hanging environmental fruit is getting people out of their cars. LRTs are fine, but they are only a small part of a low GHG public transit system. Incidentally, an LRT line to the airport would be the height of environmental hypocrisy. And yes, like the roads are to cars, public transit should be a free service.

  3. This guest writer is screwed in the head. We already waste 3 million per year subsidizing a bus to the airport and back to Heritage. That should be stopped too. User Pay! We already pay for the LRT being built. THAT’S punishment enough.

  4. I have always been of the belief that austerity is a vicious cycle, where the first action of austerity leads to recession, which leads to more austerity and deeper recession, which leads to more austerity …

    At some point, the rats begin to consume each other until there is nothing left.

    The wealthy love austerity, but more as a form of sadistic entertainment. They love the prospect of social collapse, where they can reap the spoils. Property values decline, commodity prices degrade, and soon those who have wealth and liquidity can reap the whirlwind of economic collapse. Even in the Dirty 30s, they were the best of times if one had liquidity. Interest rates plunged to never before seen depths, but that was okay if you were in the market for cheap credit and had a store of cash to cover.

    Looking at the UK, and the newly minted Conservative monstrosity of a government, even Boris Johnson is considering flooding the economy with fiscal injections of every description, and for good reason. The UK is on the verge of total chaos. The union is nearing unprecedented disintegration, thanks to the nationalist movement in Scotland, and a newly minted unification movement in Northern Ireland. No one wishes a return to the “Troubles” that a hard border would bring, so a sort of union with Eire is more attractive than anything the Tories can offer. So, Johnson is considering the very un-Tory thing of ending the years of austerity with all kinds of economic supports to hold off the building deluge of anger.

    We’ll have to see if things get to be that bad in Alberta.

  5. With all due respect, Sir, I humbly disagree. Large cities need to have convenient mass public transit systems that will get most employed commuters out of their cars and into buses/trains/subways/whatever. Schedules need to be frequent, and trips need to be fast-fast-fast, if we are going to convince daily commuters to leave their cars/SUVs/pickups at home, and so reduce the CO2 and other emissions they create. To pay for these systems, cities need to have the gumption to stop spending the billions they currently do on new roads, highways, freeways, ring roads, interchanges, and on and on and on — and divert those funds to the transit system. This won’t be popular, but it has to be the way to go.

    But transit systems like this, might not be optimized to get the unemployed and the unemployable where they need to go in the way your plan envisions. That doesn’t mean it won’t serve that segment of the population, and it doesn’t mean free transit isn’t an option for those who need it, but it does mean the real priority target for transit has to be people with jobs, if we are going to reduce daily commuter traffic and the emissions it causes.

    As for me, transit isn’t an option in the small city where I live. It’s way, way too slow, it’s too infrequent— half-hour even during peak periods — and it doesn’t extend outside city limits to where we live. Our transit system is set up for seniors and people who can’t drive or don’t own cars, not for commuting. Even if there were a bus stop right in front of my door, 30 minutes or longer to get to work, when I can drive it in seven, is simply not on. Maybe someday …

  6. If the taxpayer is subsidizing transportation for the poor to get to a job because the job doesn’t provide a wage where they can afford the full cost of their transportation, whether public or private, who is the taxpayer truly subsidizing? Are you comfortable subsidizing the transportation for under paid employees who work for highly profitable multinationals? Throwing around that only the 1% will pay is, frankly, rather insulting and I would suggest you do a little research on the actual numbers. Keep in mind Canada wide you only need to earn around 236k to hit the 1% which may seem large however the tax burden is quite large especially if that is a wage. We know the middle class income earners foot most of the tax burden, so when you argue for free stuff you are arguing for increases to middle class taxes.

    Perhaps a better course of action would be to question why the previously mentioned highly profitable multinational corporation won’t pay their employees a living wage? Subsided transportation, income support, and other social assistance programs for the working poor are really just a corporate assistance program. As a business owner if you can get away with paying your employees $15 an hour and the taxpayer picks up the rest so your employees don’t die most would do it.

    Attempting to play off the jealously of what others have and have accomplished it a dangerous path to go down. It creates divisions in society and an eventual breakdown, which is never good for anyone.

  7. An accessible transit system gives people more opportunities to find employment. Instead of someone in Mill Woods with no drivers license having limited access to employment outside of the the local community, they can take the LRT to work downtown or other places of employment. To these people in West Edmonton who complain about the Valley Line LRT being built west, how long do you spend taking buses to West Edmonton Mall, Downtown or University? The LRT will cut down the commute time, and it will have greater frequency.

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