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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Proponents Say Transit Should Be a Free Ride

By Josh Stephens


As the nation’s transit agencies ponder massive deficits, some advocates are noting that the current crisis differs little from business as usual. Transit agencies typically recover 20-40 percent of their costs from user fees (fares and passes) while the rest comes from local and state subsidies. Therefore, they always operate at a deficit—the only question, then, is how much deficit, and, conversely, how much subsidy, is acceptable in the pursuit of the public good.

A distinct chorus, however, is saying that the best way to balance transit agencies’ books is to end the charade and throw out the books.

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.

“It’s a very small gain for a very huge hurdle if your goal is to get people on public transit,” said Dave Olsen, a Vancouver, B.C.-based transit consultant and outspoken proponent of fare-free transit.

Eliminating fares would buck the oft-cited Curtain-Simpson rule, which estimates the elasticity of transit ridership at about .38-to-1: For every 10 percent increase or decrease in fares, there is a 3.8 percent decrease or increase in ridership. A decrease of 100 percent, however, would be like dividing by zero.

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. Olsen also argues that fare-free transit would save money because it would eliminate what he considers an unacceptably costly infrastructure to collect fares.

“Almost every transit agency I’ve ever known does not know how much it costs to collect fares,” said Olsen, who said he polled 30 transit agencies to inquire about their fare-collection costs. “A huge proportion of the fare revenue is eaten up by the fare collection.”

Though small systems in Washington State and Belgium have had good luck with fare-free transit, some major municipal operators are not so sure.

“It’s a great benefit to reduce congestion and emissions and all that,” said Phil
Washington, interim general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District. “But we have a product just like anyone else, and we have to manage that. And with this product, which his service on the street, we think it should come at a fair cost.”

Another potential trouble with fare-free transit is that cars may not be the only thing taken off the street.

“That’s very altruistic,” said Los Angeles County Metro CFO Terry Matsumoto. “But what you would have in a practical sense, buses would become mobile homeless shelters and rail stations would be permanent homeless shelters.”

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.

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