Cities should think twice before embracing ‘fare-free’ transit

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One recurring debate around public transportation is whether public transit systems should be “free.” Cities across the country and along the West Coast have made the leap to “free transit” or are debating doing so.

On Jan. 1, 2020, the InterCity Transit agency servicing Olympia, Wash., and nearby cities went “zero fare.” From 2020 through 2023, the city of Tucson, Ariz., made its public transit system “free” to ride, with the council declaring “our intention to go fare-free transit.” Activists in Los Angeles have argued that “public transit is a public good for which everyone should split the bill, no matter how often they use it.”

Proponents of abolishing fares correctly note that the typical public transit system is already heavily subsidized as it is and the amount of revenue collected through fares covers only a fraction of the money needed to operate such systems.

Given this, they argue, government should go the extra step, abolish fares entirely and find the money needed to cover the shortfall elsewhere. Often, proponents find zero-fare transit a desirable end in itself, while others will specifically cite the benefit of such a system for lower-income people and/or possible environmental benefits from more people potentially using transit instead of cars.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of ditching fares.

Problem 1: Few people use or will use public transit

Proponents of zero-fare public transit have to contend with a fundamental problem: most people don’t use public transit and probably won’t rely on it for the foreseeable future. Nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, just 3.8% of the nation’s commuters used public transit to go to work as their primary mode of transportation in the five year period up to 2022.

After years of stagnation in public-transit ridership throughout the years, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a sharp drop in ridership across the country. Nationwide, public transit systems have shown slow reuptake in the years since 2020. Today about three times as many Americans work from home than rely on public transit.

Read the Free Cities Center booklet about transit, “Putting Customers First.”

Watch this Free Cities Center video about public-transit subsidies.

While majorities of residents of some distinctively high-density cities like San Francisco report frequent usage of public transit, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. While less than 10% of Los Angeles commuters use public transit to get to work, as few as 1.6% of commuters in Tucson use public transit.

How do most Americans get around? By car, of course. As a strictly practical matter, in most cities, any proposal to make public transit “free” entails shifting finite public resources toward a means of transportation the vast majority most don’t need to get around.

While abolishing fares often is followed by an increase in transit ridership, research from the National Academies of Sciences indicates much of the increased ridership comes from people who already regularly use public transportation. And much of the rest comes from people who otherwise would walk or bicycle.

Problem 2: Trade-offs of free transit are probably not worth it

There are reasons to be skeptical of the idea that dropping fares is the answer. For one, not all transit systems are the same. Some localities have a handful of bus lines along main streets covering a relatively small geographic area, while others have a robust mix of bus-lines and light-rail servicing vast regions. What might be plausibly argued for one can’t necessarily be argued for another.

As the pro-public transit TransitCenter has argued, “the case for zero-fare transit is strongest at small agencies with low ridership, where going fareless can improve riders’ experience with minimal impact on current service capacity. For agencies with significant ridership or agencies looking to put good transit within reach of more people, however, forgoing all fare revenue would substantially impede the ability to provide service, let alone improve or expand it.”

Absent a substitute funding source, abolishing fares necessarily means foregoing revenue that could be used toward those very practical and desirable goals.

Los Angeles’ Metro system is already propped up by a sales tax and Angelenos still mostly don’t use it. Olympia’s move to “zero fare” was in part made possible by a local sales tax measure approved in 2018 to specifically help fund the agency. Tucson, meanwhile, has been considering a sales tax hike to make “free” transit possible.

Problem 3: Fare-free transit comes with its own problems

Research published in 2012 by the National Academies of Sciences noted that, “Some public transit systems that have experimented with or implemented a fare-free policy have been overwhelmed by the number of new passengers or been challenged by the presence of disruptive passengers, including loud teenagers and vagrants.”

A decade after those observations were reported, Tucson’s experience with fare-free transit from 2020-2023 is certainly representative of the latter set of problems. Bus drivers and riders reported a sharp increase in assaults and general perception of lawlessness on city buses.

“We have become a mobile refuge from the elements, frequented by drug users, the mentally ill and violent offenders that have made Sun Tran unsafe to ride,” the local Teamsters union warned in a letter to the city. “I literally saw a guy pull down his pants and poop on the bench that our passengers are supposed to be sitting on,” a union representative reported at a city transit meeting.

Such instances mirrored what happened in Portland, Ore.’s “Fareless Square.” For four decades until 2012, Portland offered fareless transit around part of its downtown. While long popular, persistent issues with crime and fiscal concerns resulted in fares being returned to the zone.

Of course, such problems aren’t unique to fare-free transit systems. The Los Angeles Metro system, for example, has long been plagued by rider reports of reduced safety.

But city leaders seriously considering fare-free transit need to think carefully about the potential for safety issues to undermine public interest in using transit, as well as whether dropping fares will make it easier or harder to deal with such problems.

Instead of foregoing revenue from fare collection, local transit agencies should ensure they are making the most of the resources they have. Revenue collected from transit riders is revenue that can go toward improving and expanding service.

Sal Rodriguez is opinion editor for the Southern California News Group and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of Dynamism or Decay? Getting City Hall Out of the Way, published by the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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