Free Public Transportation Accelerates in Some US Cities
The push for free-fare public transit is growing in the United States, despite a debate over its feasibility.
While some cities have been taking small steps, Washington recently passed a measure to eliminate fares on city buses. It is the largest city to put into place a zero-fare transit program, set to begin by July 1.
“Having free fare is the right thing to do,” said Charles Allen, a member of Washington’s governing council, which unanimously passed the bill.
Allen, who is also the chair of the city’s transportation committee, thinks public transit should be considered the same as other free public services.
“I don't pay to use the library or to call the fire department,” he told VOA. “I think public transit was primarily set up so that people didn't view it as a public good, and I disagree with that.”
Allen noted that Washington’s “transit [system] doesn't make money. It's not supposed to since it’s a public good. And so, fare collection is where you get a little bit extra money in the system. And we're just shifting the burden from the rider, especially because our bus riders are predominantly lower income.”
Work-from-home drove change
As in other cities, many Washingtonians began working remotely at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Ridership on public transportation dropped significantly.
“The bus ridership has now bounced back to 95% [of pre-pandemic levels],” Allen said, adding that Washington’s local government will provide funding for the project.
“The bill adds about a dozen 24-hour bus routes and creates a $10-million-a-year service fund for improving the bus service,” he said.
Allen hopes to entice more people to use public transit.
“The more we can get people out of their cars and onto the free public transit, the better,” he said.
Some see an environmental benefit to the free-fare movement.
“The Sierra Club supports the free-fare movement and believes that it's critical for slashing pollution from the transportation sector,” said Katherine Garcia, director of the environmental group’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. “We know that when there are more riders on public transit, traffic congestion is reduced, and air quality improves.”
Just outside Washington, the city of Alexandria in the state of Virginia is continuing its DASH bus service, which became free-fare during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It saves me a lot of money and time,” said Resident Eduardo Campos. “And I can easily go from my neighborhood to other places in the city.”
New York-based TransitCenter, a foundation that advocates 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 large cities, to abolish fares would reduce the revenue severely, and the amount of transit would be cut.”
Kansas City was first
Kansas City, Missouri, became the first U.S. city to embrace zero-fare public transit, making streetcars free for military veterans. Then, beginning in 2019, everyone was allowed to ride buses and streetcars for free.
Richard Jarrold, deputy CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said the program has been successful and “benefits the community by helping people save money they can use for rent and medical care.”
But Bragdon sees a downside, saying Kansas City used to have “low-quality transit that cost $1.50 to ride. Now, it has low-quality transit that costs nothing but not a lot of people ride it because it's still low quality.”
Instead of eliminating the fares, said Bragdon, they should have used the income to improve the services.
Kansas City is facing substantial financial challenges to continue the free fares.
“Politically, we have the support of the city of Kansas City, which has provided additional funding to partially offset the loss of the revenue,” Jarrold said. “But long-term, we're looking at possible different funding, including from health insurance companies and a social service agency.”
Other cities have come up with innovative ideas to experiment with free fares.
The public transit system in Denver, Colorado, set up a zero-fare month when pollution is high in August.
In San Francisco, a pilot program for young people and seniors “offers free rides on all public transit,” said Stephen Chun, deputy spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Despite riders clamoring for free transit for everyone, “no steps have been taken in that direction,” he said.
TransitCenter’s Bragdon said providing fare subsidies is a better idea than no fares.
“There are cities already doing that in Seattle, Portland and New York. There are ways to subsidize the fares for low-income people,” he said.
Council member Allen in Washington also backs subsidies for the district’s subway system.
“It’s not going to happen right away," he said, "but the plan is, we’ll be able to get subsidies for people who ride the Metro rail.”