To Go Fare-Free or Not to Go Fare-Free: Is That Really the Question?

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The current state of transit in America is deplorable. That’s not an opinion. The argument, then, becomes about how to improve both ridership and quality of service, with a growing sub-argument revolving around whether transit operations should work towards becoming fiscally productive or if transit should be perceived as a government-provided utility, like sewer lines and trash collection, and become fully fare-free.

A recent article in InTransition Magazine explores both sides of the coin:

Just as websites have attracted millions of users by offering services for free and public schools have long waived tuitions in favor of the ability to offer guaranteed universal education, some contend that by opening up turnstiles and getting rid of the farebox, transit agencies could serve legions of new riders for whom the typical fare presents just enough of a financial or psychic barrier to keep them in their cars.

Proponents argue that free transit’s ability to remove cars from the road and therefore decrease congestion, curb pollution and foster more livable cities would more than justify the added burden on public coffers. It would even reduce insurance claims, since cars that stay in garages don’t get into accidents. [Vancouver-based transit consultant Dave] Olsen also argues that fare-free transit would save money because it would eliminate what he considers an unacceptably costly infrastructure to collect fares.

Olsen polled 30 transit agencies and found that not only do most agencies not know exactly how much fare collection costs, but that “a huge proportion of the fare revenue is eaten up by the fare collection.” In a post on Planetizen, Olsen writes:

…after a 4-month lock-out, Vancouver’s transit system (aka Translink) ran Fare-Free for 3 days. The jam-packed bus riders loved it, as did the drivers, who are still astonished that they were able to keep on time all shift long. Compare that to a recent trip I took on a so-called ‘Express’ service: it took more than 15 minutes to load its passengers, all of which – if the system was Fare-Free – could have boarded through 3 doors and sat down in less than a minute.

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He goes on to reference the gamble taken by Hasselt, a small city in Belgium:

Instead of spending billions more on a third ring-road/freeway, they commissioned a complete transportation plan that took space away from the already congested car driver and gave it to the timid cyclist, nature- and shopping-loving pedestrian, and eternally patient bus rider.

For a year, they expanded their transit system. They added routes (from 3 in 1996 to 11 in 2007), buses and trams, more stops, bus-only lanes, and more frequency (from 18,000 service hours in ’96 to 95,000 in 2007). Then, on July 1st, 1997, they took out the fare boxes. Ridership jumped 783% that first day, 900% that first year, and 4 years later it was up 1223% and continues to climb. Becoming Fare-Free got residents and visitors alike onboard, while the planned increase in capacity kept them coming back.

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Fare-free transit has been implemented in the United States as well, perhaps most notably by Island Transit in Washington State. Olsen lauds Island Transit’s success, but fails to mention the perfect storm that enables the operation to thrive. A largely homogenous middle-class demographic living mostly along a couple key corridors means that Island Transit doesn’t have to contend with sprawl or social conflict, a luxury few transit agencies share.

Hank Truslersource

InTransition quotes Los Angeles County Metro CFO Terry Matsumoto as saying that while he appreciates the altruism of going fare-free, the practical impact strays from the intent. “…buses would become mobile homeless shelters and rail stations would be permanent homeless shelters.”

Those against going fare-free have an economic gripe as well. Says Phil Washington, interim GM of the Denver Regional Transportation District, in InTransition: “It’s a great benefit to reduce congestion and emissions and all that, but we have a product just like anyone else, and we have to manage that. And with this product, which is service on the street, we think it should come at a fair cost.”

The same article states that most American transit agencies are subsidized at a rate of 60-80%, with the remainder of operating costs covered by revenue from fares and passes. Transit, then, as it currently functions in this country, is neither a public service nor a commercial enterprise. Caught in the middle of two political ideologies, it languishes. The InTransition article continues:

Though transit agencies also contend that they simply do not have the money to increase their subsidies, Olsen counters that the present shortage of money for transit does not mean that there is a shortage of money for transportation. He notes that subsidies for drivers amount to up to $3,000 per driver per year.

‘If [the transit subsidy] was comparable, transit systems would be flush with cash and expanding their systems like crazy, and people would be leaving their cars at home,’ Olsen said.

So, let me see if I understand all of this: fare-free transit exponentially increases ridership, but can turn buses into mobile homeless shelters; charging fares is necessary because government subsidies are insufficient; auto-culture is subsidized to the tune of $3000 per driver annually.

What if part, say half, of the $3000 per driver annual subsidy was simply reallocated to transit? A city with 100K drivers would suddenly have an extra $150M in their transit budget (as a point of reference, Sarasota County, FL, currently serves a total population of 370K residents with an $18M annual transit budget). Coverage areas and frequencies would increase, drawing still more riders (need and choice). Instead of collecting fares, tax-paying citizens could receive a free yearly transit pass. Visitors could receive daily or weekly passes from their hotel or condo or whatever, and kiosks could provide short term passes for a nominal fee with photo identification. Couldn’t such a system address the concerns of both sides of the fare-free argument, reduce auto-dependence without forcing people out of their cars, and reconnect cities and towns?

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This entry was posted in Culture, Josh Grigsby, Livability, Response Pieces, transit, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to To Go Fare-Free or Not to Go Fare-Free: Is That Really the Question?

  1. It’s great to see interesting ideas being considered for revitalizing public transit. Did they say what the $3000 subsidy per driver is currently being used for? I love the idea of making public transit a basic right for everyone, but it will be expensive to expand coverage and difficult to convince those who don’t use public transit that their taxes should be funding it. I like public transportation better than driving, but many people don’t like it at all. This could change, but I think investing more in making private transportation less ecologically harmful might be more effective. That being said, your figures for Sarasota sound compelling and very worth trying.

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