The problem: Traffic congestion is increasing rapidly as more and more people move to urban areas.
The solution: Offer free public transportation to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Fewer cars means less air pollution and a quieter environment.
At the urging of its mayor, Quinton Lucas, the city council of Kansas City has voted unanimously to make all city bus routes free. The city’s light rail is already free to use. This move makes Kansas City the first major American city to make its public transportation system free to use for all. The cost of the new policy is expected to be $8 million a year, according to 435 Magazine.
KSHB News reports, “The council voted 13-0 to pass a resolution ‘directing the City Manager to include a funding request in the next fiscal year budget to make fixed route public transportation fare free within the City’ among other things, a measure branded as ‘Zero Fare Transit.’ The council still needs to work out details of the proposal, including how it will be funded and where that money will come from. Currently, a trip on a city bus costs $1.50 per ride or $50 for a monthly pass.”
One of the benefits supporters of the plan foresee is helping low income residents get to and from work. Councilman Eric Bunch says, “When we’re talking about improving people’s lives who are our most vulnerable citizens, I don’t think there’s any question that we need to find that money. That’s not a ton of money and it’s money that we as a city, if we want to prioritize public transportation, it’s something that we can find.”
Free Transportation Or Better Transportation?
Free public transportation may not be the panacea for urban congestion many advocates think it is, according to Jalopnik. It points to an experiment with free transportation in Austin, Texas between October of 1989 and December of 1990. A review of that program found significant issues, not the least of which was that buses became rolling homeless shelters. The report summary concluded,
In the fare-free demonstrations in larger systems reviewed in this paper, most of the new riders generated were not the choice riders they were seeking to lure out of automobiles in order to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution.
The larger transit systems that offered free fares suffered dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free, causing numerous negative consequences. Vehicle maintenance and security costs escalated due to the need for repairs associated with abuse from passengers. The greater presence of vagrants on board buses also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.
In other words, the promised reward — fewer cars on the road — did not materialize and the costs of operating the public transit system increased significantly. The TransitCenter has examined several cities that have implemented free public transit programs and found mixed results. In Dunkirk, France, the plan has seen ridership increase 85%, but in Tallinn, Estonia, a similar program saw only a 3% rise in ridership. In general, TransitCenter suggests, people are perfectly happy to pay for public transportation if it is efficient, clean, and timely. It says on its website,
When researching our forthcoming report, Who’s on Board 2019, we surveyed 1700 transit riders in seven different cities across the US. What we heard is that most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.
What are superior and sustainable ways to move the needle on ridership? Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb. Ridership has also been gaining in San Francisco, where SFMTA has an ongoing program to speed up buses. Cities like Austin, Richmond, and Columbus are redesigning their bus networks to better connect people to jobs, and seeing ridership growth as a result.
TransitCenter says the cost of parking or accessing cities by car can make a big difference in the number of people riding public transit. In London, congestion charges have led to an 18% increase in people taking the subway. In Los Angeles, Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro recently created a stir when he proposed a similar congestion charge could raise $12 billion a year — money that could be used to fund free public transportation with plenty left over. Under his plan, buses on major routes would come every 90 seconds. The plan is a long way from being adopted but it has created lots of healthy debate, which is a good thing. TransitCenter concludes its latest analysis of the value of free transportation this way:
Free transit makes for a terrific news hook. But the only way to see the full benefits of transit – like improved air quality, less congestion, and more vibrant cities is for people to actually start riding transit in substantial numbers. To this end, agencies should immediately make transit more accessible by offering discounts to riders who need them the most. More employers should be compelled, whether through penalty or incentive, to subsidize transit passes.
But what advocates and policymakers should actually be focusing on is a multi-pronged approach to make driving less attractive, and undoing policies that make driving feel free. Cities and transit agencies should work together to raise parking rates and replace swaths of curbside parking with transit priority streets.
And while congestion pricing isn’t feasible for most US cities, large metro areas with robust transit networks should start laying the groundwork. Funneling money from these pursuits directly into improving transit will yield precisely the type of benefits sought by proponents of free transit.
The takeaway is this. The paradigm that says anyone should be free to drive into any city at any time — a notion that became firmly rooted in the American psyche after the explosion of suburbia after World War II — needs to be a blown up and replaced with a new one that emphasizes public transport options that meet the needs of most members of society at affordable prices. The age of the car is ending. It’s time to move on to what’s next.
And let’s not forget that any new public transit options need to utilize zero emissions vehicles, whether they are buses, ride sharing vans, or other vehicles. There is no point in making it easier to get around if doing so results in a dying planet.