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On Transit, Progressive Doesn’t Mean Free

The decision to forego revenue from current and future riders consigns transit to staying small in ambition. That we cannot afford.
BART Train Arrives

Calls to liberate transit riders from the burden of fares have intensified in recent years, thanks to the ticking time bomb of the climate catastrophe and the resurging influence of the American left at the municipal level. Several U.S. cities have already put the idea to the test—in 2019, the Kansas City City Council voted to dedicate $8 million a year towards subsidizing free transit, and the college town of Olympia, Washington, eliminated fares from its transit system last January. 

The largest American city considering free transit is Boston, where the idea that buses should be free is a defining feature of the 2021 mayoral race. Transit as a public utility free at the point of use has become a shibboleth for most chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America. And transit ridership patterns during the pandemic have only sharpened advocates’ position that current transit riders, who are more likely to be essential workers, Black or brown, and low-income, shouldn’t be expected to pay fares. 

Proponents contend that free transit will address a litany of problems—climate change, inequality, air pollution, and the excesses of our criminal justice system. But making transit free is an inadequate—and in some contexts a misguided—response to the enormous transportation challenges we face as a country. There are myriad things holding transit back in the U.S., but the cost of a ride isn’t high on the list.

Transit has been decimated by COVID-19, and needs at least $32 billion from the feds to make it to the other side of the pandemic alive. But beyond that, dramatically expanding service should be the priority for any new source of funding. Bad transit service is its own penalty, and immediately addressing the failings of our current system will yield enormous material benefits to riders.

Transit in America—underfunded, infrequent, and unreliable—is an embarrassment compared with transit systems in other rich countries. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans can safely walk to transit that runs every 15 minutes or less, and an even smaller number use transit regularly as a result. By contrast, decades of auto-oriented policies and investment have made traveling by car a relative breeze, with no limitations on when or where you can go. Because of this mismatch, transportation comprises the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. 

To reduce emissions and achieve the ancillary benefits touted by proponents of free transit, like cleaner air and less congestion, drivers will need to be coaxed out of their cars in substantial numbers. But this isn’t what happened in countless free transit experiments around the world. After free transit was implemented in Tallinn, Estonia in 2013, studies found that public transit use increased by 14 percent, but car use dropped only by 5 percent—and walking trips went down by 40 percent. In the 1970s, the cities of Trenton and Denver experimented with making buses free. Although transit ridership did increase by 15 percent during peak periods, car traffic didn’t measurably decrease, and the programs were eventually abandoned. A 2020 survey on fare elasticity by researcher Todd Litman found that when transit fares are reduced, a substantial portion of associated ridership increases comes from people who would have otherwise walked, biked, or might not have made the trip.

Proponents argue that the price of a fare presents an undue burden to transit riders. But there’s ample evidence that in the face of poor transit service, riders are willing to pay significantly more than the price of a transit pass to opt out of the system. In Kansas City, fewer than 1 in 10 residents live near frequent transit. And so 91 percent of residents drive instead—even the ones with the least means to do so. Prior to the pandemic, automobile debt in the U.S. reached record levels, and poor families often go in and out of car ownership as the associated expenses pile up. A system that all but requires people to spend thousands of dollars to own and maintain a vehicle to participate in society is an unsustainable one, and a free bus that runs once an hour does not solve this problem.

This is not to say that the price of transit doesn’t represent a hardship for many riders, or that low-income riders don’t benefit from increased access when transit is made free. In a recent Boston-area transit study, riders who received food stamps also received half-priced farecards. As a result, they increased their transit use by 30 percent and took more trips to healthcare and social services. But it is entirely possible to implement high quality fare discount programs that allow agencies to keep bringing in revenues from customers who can afford it. Seattle’s ORCA Lift program is the best in the country, offering both a reduced and free fare product on a sliding scale to low-income riders in the Puget Sound Region. The agency has also lessened some of the administrative burden of signing up for the card by including the application as part of the standard public benefits package residents receive. 

The strongest argument for free transit is that it would reduce interactions between transit riders and police officers. Studies in Washington D.C., New York City, Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Cleveland have shown that fare enforcement disproportionately targets Black and brown riders, and that people of color face harsher penalties when they are stopped. But free transit won’t get police out of transit on its own. Until police forces are reduced in size and their power to commit violence curtailed, police will continue to enforce “quality of life” offenses like putting feet up on a seat, eating a sandwich, and selling churros. It’s a moral imperative for advocates to push for fare evasion to be decriminalized, as SFMTA in San Francisco has done, for unarmed ambassadors to replace police officers, as BART in San Francisco has done, and for the millions of dollars currently spent on fare evasion to be redirected towards service improvements.

Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable is the best way to move the needle on ridership. By raising taxes specifically to fund additional bus service, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit in recent years, and before the pandemic struck, ridership was consistently rising. Improvements like all-door boarding, bus-only lanes, and transit signal priority can also help to achieve many of the operational efficiencies promised by free transit, as well as make transit more competitive with driving.

Raising the cost of driving has also been shown to have a considerable positive effect on transit ridership. In his fare research, Litman also found that a disincentive such as parking fees or road tolls causes automobile trips to decline, which can result in a 20-60 percent shift to transit. In London, ridership on public transit went up by 18 percent after the city enacted a toll on drivers entering the center city, and the scheme has generated billions for London’s transit system. In the U.S, the cost of parking in central business districts tracks well with transit ridership, suggesting that cities can encourage transit ridership by raising the price of parking. It’s lamentable that many of the same people pushing for free transit are unwilling to take on the fight of making driving more expensive, under the misguided impression that such a penalty is uniformly regressive.

There are some contexts where free transit may make sense. Small transit systems like Kansas City’s often have a low farebox recovery ratio, and spend a considerable amount of money on fare collection. In Kansas City, free transit is only an $8 million project. But at New York’s MTA, Chicago’s CTA, or San Francisco’s BART, the price tag is anywhere from a half-billion to multiple billions of dollars. Should advocates spend their energy finding another source to replace and augment this revenue, or should they focus on identifying ways to improve current service? Here it’s useful to ask transit riders themselves. A 2019 TransitCenter survey of bus and train riders found that most low-income bus riders would like to see the quality of service improved rather than the price of the service lowered. 

“Why not both?” is a common question at this point in the discussion. But in our world of limited resources, any money directed towards making transit free that could have gone towards service improvements should be considered an opportunity cost.

One way to perhaps thread the needle between activist calls and competing priorities is Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Ed Markey’s proposed “Freedom to Move” Act, which establishes a $5 billion competitive grant program that will offset fare revenues for transit agencies who would like to go fare-free. In recognition that free transit isn’t the only way to advance equity, the bill also allows funds to be requested for other improvements, such as bus stop upgrades, pedestrian and bike shelters, redesigning bus networks, and installing bus-only lanes and transit signal priority. This arrangement gives agencies and planning organizations flexibility to determine their biggest needs, and apply the money accordingly. 

The best and quickest way to improve transit access in U.S. cities is to focus on dramatically expanding and improving service, and removing affordability and enforcement barriers in a targeted way. This would make transit a viable option for millions more people, freeing Americans from the burdens of car ownership, clearing the air, and reducing transportation inequities. While free transit certainly sounds appealing, the decision to forego revenue from current and future riders consigns transit to staying small in ambition, much as it is today. And that’s an outcome we can’t afford.

Hayley Richardson is Senior Communications Associate at TransitCenter. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.