Whether it’s suspending the gas tax, $400 gift cards, or $200 refund checks – these proposals to help Californians cope with high gas prices all have varying degrees of merit. But free public transportation? That was a real head scratcher.
Gov. Newsom, in his $11 billion relief package for Californians, announced that in addition to rebates for taxpayers, he proposes to spend “$750 million in incentive grants to transit and rail agencies to provide free transit for Californians for 3 months.” If public transportation agencies actually do spend the money the way Newsom hopes (remember it’s just an incentive), roughly three million Californians per day who take the bus, subway, or light rail won’t have to pay fares for three months.
It’s obvious that people who take public transit don’t need relief from high gas prices any more than people who don’t own a car, like me. What’s really going on here is a heavy dose of social engineering, sprinkled with a little commuter equity. Politically, there’s got to be something in it for everyone: people who pump gas, people who don’t pump gas, and people who don’t want us to pump gas.
For decades, progressives and climate change activists have tried to get more people to take public transportation. And Newsom is not letting this gas price crisis go to waste. By offering free public transportation, he hopes that he can help break up Californians’ life-long love affair with their cars.
But do people really drive less when public transportation is free? Recent studies say no, but ridership does increase.
Some economists believe that free public transportation doesn’t make sense because it generates “useless mobility.” This means, writes Enrica Papa, associate professor of Transport Planning of the University of Westminster, “people will choose to move more simply because it’s free….”
That’s exactly what happened in Santiago, Chile. A study by the Universidad Catolica de Chile showed that commuters who received free public transit passes didn’t drive any less but instead took advantage of the free fares during off-peak hours to have some fun. Chileans visited parks, went shopping, and dined at restaurants.
Prof. Papa notes that research has found that when public transit is free, “only a small number of people who previously travelled by car make the switch. New passengers attracted by [the free fares] tend to be pedestrians and cyclists rather than car drivers. The picture from most cities where free public transport has been introduced is that the increased passenger numbers overwhelmingly come from people who might have walked, cycled or not travelled otherwise.”
All this free transportation, she writes, ends up “increasing the costs of transport operators and subsidies to local authorities, while ultimately increasing emissions from public transport.”
Governor Newsom might want to pay special attention to Prof. Papa’s last point.
There’s also another, dangerous reason not to provide free transit. Even more homeless people will be enticed to make the rails and buses a hangout. In the Los Angeles transit system alone, there are hundreds of encampments on or near Metro-owned property, facilities, and rights-of-way. The agency counted 5,700 homeless riders on their system in August 2021.
Steve Fiechter, a director with Metro’s outreach program run by People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, told the Los Angeles Times that “homeless riders are often more isolated and have more serious behavioral issues than those living in encampments on the streets. Riders complain about harassment and disturbing outbursts, about soiled seats and elevators reeking of urine.” In Los Angeles earlier this year, a homeless man murdered a 70-year old nurse and avid transit user. A man was also pushed onto the tracks and suffered a head injury and fractured ribs.
Milton Friedman famously warned us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There’s no such thing as free public transportation either – it costs more, increases emissions, and worst of all becomes a risk to transit users.
Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.