Free transit sounds like a utopian fever dream. Imagine being able to hopscotch your city on a bus, never again needing to fumble for your ticket, seeing the dreaded “insufficient fare” message on the fare machine, or forgetting to ask for a transfer.
Fare-free transit has lately been floated as a panacea for solving any number of society’s ills, including climate change, congestion, and income inequality. Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant used the recent closure of the Alaska Way Viaduct to introduce her vision of free transit for everyone. In March, Luxembourg will become the first country to make transit free entirely, but the scheme is already at work in cities like Tallinn, Estonia and Dunkirk, France. To date, there are 97 (mostly small) cities and towns around the world with fully fare-free public transit. Enchanted by the possibilities, several US transit advocacy groups are calling for the elimination of fares.
But what does the research tell us? Should free transit be the end goal for advocates and policy-makers?
Transit agencies need money to run service, and major transit agencies in the US rely on fares for a substantial portion of their operating revenue. In New York, the $4.5 billion the MTA receives in annual fare revenue comprises 50% of its operating budget. At the Chicago CTA, that percentage is 40%, and in San Franciso BART’s is 62%. Eliminating fares means that revenue would need to come from somewhere else, and the federal government only provides very small transit agencies with operating assistance. Funding transit operations entirely by other measures (such as a tax on businesses) would be a heavy political lift, and hasn’t been done in the US.
But let’s say agencies did find other ways to subsidize operations. What effect would free transit have on ridership? Around the world, the verdict is still out on whether going fare free substantially changes people’s travel choices. In Dunkirk, population 100,000, ridership increased by 85% immediately after the introduction of fare-free transit. But in Tallinn, population 426,000, ridership has only increased by 3% in the five years since transit was made free.
Ridership increasing is the desired outcome, but without sufficient revenue to increase service in response to new demand, agencies run the risk that riders will be turned off by delays and overcrowding. In fact, that’s what happened in several US cities who tried free transit but abandoned the projects after they created more problems than they solved.