windows and mirrors - Should Public Transit Be Free? - florence sprague - april 2023

LWVUS Position: The League believes that energy-efficient and environmentally sound transportation systems should afford better access to housing and jobs and the League will continue to examine transportation policies in light of these goals. [Basic Human Needs: Access to Transportation]

LWVRA Position: Support transportation options that serve the needs of the area. [1983 Social Policy #3]

LWVUS Position: LWVUS believes that it is in the national interest to promote the well-being of America’s cities…The League is committed to an urban environment beneficial to life and to resource management in the public interest. [Urban Policy]

Do you ride the bus? I live only a block from a bus line, but I only occasionally ride the bus. A fascinating episode of Freakonomics Radio [August 24, 2022 Free Transit?] discusses our title question and the online introduction observes, “It boosts economic opportunity and social mobility. It’s good for the environment. So why do we charge people to use it? The short answer: it’s complicated.”

Thinking about public transit means thinking about the relationship between transit and society, what kind of city we now have, and what kind of city we would like to have.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu wants to see her city move to free transit. She sees this as an important force for economic mobility, racial equity, and climate protection. For example, one study on fare reduction done in Boston showed that this enabled families to make necessary trips that they had previously rationed.

Fully removing fares speeds up transit by removing the clog when paying at boarding and common conflicts at the fare box. Removing fares increases ridership; this both allows and necessitates greater frequency of service, a positive factor for retaining the increased ridership. It turns out that we all hate to wait, either between buses or to climb aboard.

Kansas City has already gone to no-fare transit. It transitioned in stages--First for veterans, then students, then safety net providers, then all. In KC the fare box recovery of operating costs had been less than 10%, and nationwide fares account for less than 30% of operating costs, with capital costs coming almost entirely from federal grants. Fares are not what keeps the wheels rolling.

Another factor cities consider is who makes up the ridership. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a majority of the commuters on BART are high income workers avoiding the difficulties of driving to, and in, San Francisco. There, free fares across the board might not be the best option; but in cities where most riders are lower income, the benefits could be huge. And we all know that cars and drivers don’t pay the true costs of the roads, pollution, noise, etc., of automobile traffic.

KC also took an interesting approach to a problem present on our public transit even without going fare-free—unhoused individuals sleeping on buses and trains. KC chose to put caseworkers on the routes most used by unhoused riders to assist them in utilizing shelters and community resources, reducing such issues, an idea already being explored by the legislature for adoption in Minnesota.

Would the removal of fares solve all of the transportation related woes of the world? No. We love the independence of cars. As noted in The Onion long ago, “98% of US Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others” [Others]. That satire is still funny, because it is still true. Still, fare reduction or elimination could help a lot of people.

What transportation options DO best serve our area? The answers are not one-size-fits-all. Where does updated, possibly free, public transit fit into an urban environment beneficial to life and resource management? These are good questions for Leaguers to contemplate. We can make a difference.