The push for free-fare public transit is growing in the United States, despite debate over its feasibility.
While some cities have taken baby steps, Washington recently passed a measure to scrap city bus fares. It is the largest city to implement a zero-fare transit program, which is expected to begin by July 1.
“Having free fares is the right thing to do,” said Charles Allen, a Washington board member who unanimously approved the bill.
Allen, who also serves as chairman of the city’s transportation committee, thinks public transit should be treated like other free public services.
“I don’t pay to use the library or to call the fire department,” she told VOA. “I think public transport was set up mostly so that people didn’t see it as a public good, and I don’t agree with that.”
FILE – Passengers board a Metrobus in Washington, Dec. 7, 2022. Washington recently passed a measure to eliminate fares on city buses.
Allen noted that the “transit [system] it doesn’t make money. It shouldn’t because it’s a public good. And so, fee collection is where you get some extra cash in the system. And we’re just shifting the burden off the driver, especially since our bus drivers are predominantly on lower incomes.
Home working has driven the change
As in other cities, many Washingtonians started working remotely at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of passengers on public transport has decreased significantly.
“Bus ridership is now back at 95% [of pre-pandemic levels]Allen said, adding that the Washington local government will provide funding for the project.
“The bill adds about a dozen 24-hour bus lines and creates a $10 million a year service fund to improve bus service,” he said.
Allen hopes to entice more people to use public transportation.
“The more we can get people out of their cars and onto free public transport, the better,” he said.
Some see an environmental benefit in the free-fare movement.
“The Sierra Club supports the free fare movement and believes it is critical to dramatically reducing transportation sector pollution,” said Katherine Garcia, director of the environmental group’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. “We know that when there are more passengers on public transport, traffic congestion is reduced and air quality improves.”
FILE — A passenger carries a bicycle on a light rail train in Denver, Colorado, where public transit system fares will drop to zero for the month of August when pollution levels are highest.
Just outside Washington, the city of Alexandria in the state of Virginia is continuing its DASH bus service, which went free during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It saves me a lot of money and time,” said resident Eduardo Campos. “And I can easily commute from my neighborhood to other places in the city.”
New York-based TransitCenter, a foundation advocating for better public transit in the United States, is against the zero-fare movement.
“With inflation, public transit needs more money to operate, and some of that money should come from taxpayers and some of the revenue from fares,” TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon told VOA. “So, in most big cities, abolishing the tariffs would drastically reduce revenues and the amount of transit would be reduced.”
Kansas City was first
Kansas City, Missouri became the first city in the United States to adopt zero-fare public transit, making streetcars free for military veterans. Then, starting in 2019, everyone was allowed free rides on buses and trams.
Richard Jarrold, deputy chief executive officer of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said the program has been successful and “benefits the community by helping people save money that they can use for rent and medical care.”
But Bragdon sees a downside, saying Kansas City had “low-quality transportation that cost $1.50 to ride. Now it has low-quality transportation that costs nothing, but not many people ride it because it’s still low-quality.”
Instead of eliminating fees, Bragdon said, they should have used the revenue to improve services.
Kansas City is facing significant financial challenges to continue free fares.
“Politically, we have the support of the City of Kansas City, which has provided additional funding to partially offset the loss of revenue,” Jarrold said. “But longer-term, we’re looking at possible different funding, including from health insurance companies and a social services agency.”
FILE – A cable car in San Francisco, Sept. 11, 2019. A pilot program is now offering free rides throughout the city’s public transit system for young and old, a spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said.
Other cities have come up with innovative ideas to experiment with free fares.
The public transit system in Denver, Colorado, instituted a zero-fare month when pollution is high in August.
In San Francisco, a pilot program for young and old “provides free rides on all public transportation,” said Stephen Chun, deputy spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Despite motorcyclists clamoring for free transit for all, “no steps have been taken in that direction,” he said.
TransitCenter’s Bragdon said providing fare subsidies is a better idea than no fare at all.
“There are cities that are already doing this in Seattle, Portland and New York. There are ways to subsidize fares for low-income people,” she said.
Board member Allen in Washington also supports subsidies for the borough’s subway system.
“It won’t happen right away,” he said, “but the plan is that we’ll be able to get subsidies for people who ride the subway.”