Free Fares Vs. More Service

I take on the endless debate between transit activists about which one matters more.

A recent city council meeting in Berkeley, California became the latest scene of the “Free Fares versus Better Service” debate. Several low ridership bus lines in the city had been discontinued during the pandemic in favor of adding more frequent service on higher ridership bus lines. The city council voted to give the bus agency funding to start a free Sunday service pilot for a year, but conditioned the use of the funds on the restoration of discontinued lines. Several council members took issue with the pilot since their districts had lost bus service and the agency wouldn’t promise their restoration. Berkeley ranks #1 on the West Coast in commuters who bike, walk and take transit, thus the impassioned debate hit on some themes I’d like to address as free fare initiatives spring up around the country.

Transit advocates in the United States are split over free fares. Neither side disagrees that we need more transit and that ideally transit should be free. But the divide focuses on which priority is more important to implement with the limited funding transit agencies have.

Socialists and left-wing urbanists tend to focus on making transit free, because they’re primarily concerned with the well-being of poor folks who currently use public transit. In the United States, buses are almost exclusively ridden by the poor outside of a few major cities, so it makes sense that reducing low income riders’ financial burden is their primary concern. It’s also a popular rallying cry that garners support from many equity groups and average folks who reason that people don’t ride transit because it isn’t free.

But other transit activists see the lack of universal use of public transit in the United States as indicative of transit’s neglected status. They think that poor folks are merely putting up with bad transit service because they can’t afford cars like everyone else. Lack of collective buy-in allows elected officials to treat public transit as a bare bones service rather than something everyone needs to depend on. As one famous quote goes by a Columbian mayor: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation.” Some liberal urbanists are not-so-enthusiastic about free transit proposals, because they think that low transit ridership is due not to the high cost of fares but the low quality of service.

I want to be clear that this is a healthy debate between two well-intentioned camps.

But, I’m certain that the primary cause of low transit ridership in the U.S. stems from poor service. If American transit ridership was indicative of costs and not service, then 85% of Americans wouldn’t have driver’s licenses. Paying gas, car insurance, car loans and parking fees certainly accumulate more costs than paying a transit fare, but all those costs are worth it because cars are more convenient.

Recently, I was headed to a party that was 5.4 miles away from where I was located and I took the bus. The total travel time was one hour. The time it took for my friends to drive from the very same place I started at to the party was a mere 20 minutes. Meaning their average speed was 16 miles per hour versus my 5.4 miles per hour. That’s barely faster than the average human walking speed of about 3-4 miles per hour.

If you’re a working class individual who needs to get to work on time those 40 minutes can better be spent not riding the bus. If you’re a person with disabilities, the situation is even worse since disabled transit services often do not offer same day service and require 24 hour advanced notice. So why is transit service so bad in the United States?

There’s two main obstacles to providing better service and fixing these problems:

  1. The federal government poorly funds public transit. Historically, 80% of federal dollars goes to highways and 20% goes to public transit.

  2. Federal funding usually consists of grants for capital projects—such as airport connectors, new rail lines and new vehicles—but little subsidy for keeping bus service running. Therefore, county agencies have to rely on some level of revenue from fares and local taxes for operations. Fare revenue is usually about 1/10th to 1/5th of an average bus agency’s income.

Low federal operational funding puts bus agencies into a death spiral where the lower the bus ridership goes, the fewer fares they collect, which means fewer funds to run buses which results in fewer riders. This repeats until a bus system eventually is no longer useful. This makes transit service, particularly in rural and suburban areas, and transit for people with disabilities effectively impossible to ever make widely used.

There are non-federal solutions to these funding issues such as more taxes. Many foreign transit agencies also become landlords by leasing land they own to residential, commercial and office developments to draw in both riders and rent. Hong Kong’s metro—widely considered the best in the world—maintains a huge budget and very low fares under this strategy. But this is largely untested in the United States.

Federal funding for capital projects can be very effective at improving service such as bus-only streets. Inching your way to your destination on a bus while cars pass you by is an advertisement for a car. The lack of bus-only lanes allows public transit to be obstructed by private cars. All too often you have a frequent bus line with 2 or 3 buses bunched up that all come at once, and then another bus won’t come for a half hour thanks to car traffic obstruction. My local transit agency implemented a bus only lane and on-time performance increased by 30%, mostly to rave reviews by riders.

This is part of the reason why Americans love trains much more than buses because trains are physically detached from traffic. Zooming along at 70 MPH while cars are stuck in traffic gives the train rider a very important psychological reassurance that they’ve taken the optimal trip. Whereas Americans are used to passing buses by as they drive in their cars. Buses can be much more reliable and fast like trains if cities gave street space to public transit rather than private automobiles.

So if that’s all true then why did I support a free fare Sunday program? (I actually created the idea in Berkeley)

The Case for Free Transit

Transit’s not always financially competitive over a car in many circumstances. It depends on parking benefits you may get from your employer or the lack of paid parking in a city, and almost every American city has free parking on Sundays. Bus transit in many places is only marginally less expensive than it is to drive, and as soon as you transfer from one agency to another (bus to ferry to train ect) you easily rack up higher costs than that of gas and parking.

I’m not including insurance costs and car premiums in the costs to drive; they just don’t matter on a psychological level because you’re not paying them on a weekly basis like gas. In comparison, you’re constantly reminded of the cost of your transportation every time you step on board a bus and pay a fare. Those feelings of diminishing returns get amplified when your bus then gets stuck in the same traffic caused by people comfortably sitting in their cars.

Rider experience is often more psychological than it is practical and that same rule very much applies to the average person’s finances. The average person does not realize cars cost more than transit because they’re not paying a fare every time they turn on their cars. This is why monthly passes or employer subsidies boost transit ridership even if the cost is the same. Or, of course, getting rid of the farebox altogether.

Also, all comparisons between the cost of cars and the cost of transit are predicated on one person traveling. As soon as it’s two people or more: the car wins every time. More public transit travelers in a group or a family means more people paying fares, but gas and parking always cost the same whether it’s one person in a car or four. This is a strong pitch for at the very least weekend free transit when families generally travel.

Another benefit to free transit is that commuters start using transit for non-commute activities such as errands. Detractors of free transit see this as proof that free transit doesn’t induce more riders, just the same riders taking more trips, but it’s actually besides the point even if it’s true. Your mobility should not be constrained to just commute trips; people have other obligations beyond going to and from work. Taking your groceries on the bus because the free fare makes it seem more flexible is a worthwhile benefit over that same bus rider going home and shopping with an SUV.

Lastly, transit fares often come with police fare enforcement which is just a waste of resources that never recuperates the loss in fares from fare evasion. On a moral level, nobody should be arrested for having mobility needs and not having enough money to use the public option. Those police salaries would be better spent on hiring more drivers to increase service anyways.

We also have to get real that our culture has heavily stigmatized riding the bus compared to the rest of the world. Most Americans think buses are only for the poor, and owning a car is a class symbol in the United States as a byproduct of auto industry indoctrination. Trust me, many of my dates who I have told that I ride the bus suspect I’m either on parole or poor. I was recently interviewed by a Chinese student about my transit activism and the very first thing she asked was “why do you ride the bus”, which she admitted is not a question anyone would ever ask in China.

If we’re to reach net zero in emissions—and we all agree emissions are more important than anything else—then we have to go above and beyond just standard transit incentives. Any and all barriers to using transit for a car-oriented country, including a farebox, is an advertisement for a car. We just don’t have the time to solely emulate Tokyo or Paris’s transit-oriented density quickly enough in the U.S. to cut emissions in half, and get people on transit by 2030. We need more carrots like free transit to assist and free bus transit increases ridership.

But let’s be clear: free fares is only as effective as a transit system is good. Free fares doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a bus to ride. It won’t lure away motorists who are already willing to pay premium if the bus doesn’t come for 30 minutes. Free fares should not come at the cost of reduced service. We need those low ridership bus lines for uncommon trips such as to a hospital, a field trip or the DMV. We don’t have streets paved for the most driven routes, we have them paved for every possible route someone with a car may need. We need to treat buses the same way. The biggest obstacle remains Congress who imposes austerity onto bus riders and only cares about airplanes and highways.

Boston is currently experimenting with an interesting pilot to make certain bus lines free rather than the entire system. The Berkeley Sunday free day pilot advances provided the agency restores several cut bus lines first. These measures are competing against the ultimate form of free transportation we have in America: the freeway and free parking.

Note: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to Gustavo Petro. It was believed to have been from Enrique Peñalosa, another former mayor of Bogota, but Petro is commonly misattributed to have originally said it.