Public transit has often been hailed as a green way to lower your carbon footprint. When I lived in Atlanta back on 2007, the public system there, MARTA, capitalized on its name with the catchphrase “Marta is Smarta,” meaning that it is smarter to use public transit than it is to drive and be stuck in traffic. However, Atlanta is a city that has a great public transportation system. Cities such as Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and other smaller metro areas have smaller systems with just a few buses running until 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. It varies by city — size matters. I grew up on the bus system in Shreveport and when I moved to Atlanta where they had not only buses but trains and a transit station, it was an enlightening experience. I’ve also lived in Dallas, and even though it has a similar system to Atlanta’s, Dallas’s was more spread out and that made using it harder.
One other thing that was notably different about public transit in Atlanta from Shreveport, though, was the cost. It was relatively expensive. It’s even higher today. What would happen if the cost of riding a bus or train was gone? What would happen if it was free?
An article in the Huffington Post explores this and shares the story of Chandria Grey along with her two children. They live in Massachusetts and use the buses for all of their travel needs. They go to school, the doctor’s office, work and pretty much depend on the bus to travel. In 2017, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority raised fares from $1.50 (wow, that’s cheap by MARTA standards) to $1.75 which could lead to $12 a day on public transit. However, the service remained the same. “Nothing is changing, so why are we paying more?” Chandria expressed to HuffPo. Some of her neighbors gave in and bought vehicles with the thought that if transportation was expensive, the least it could be was reliable as well. This challenge inspired Gray to do something else. She helped form a coalition to fight for better, more affordable bus service in New England’s second-largest city, and today, they are on the brink of victory.
In January, the Worcester city council declared its support for eliminating fares altogether. This came about as a result of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, a local think tank, proposing the idea. This move will ease the financial burdens on the riders while also increasing the number of people who would use public transit. This would reduce the number of vehicles on the road and hopefully inspire better bus service.
Mobility is a human right and if other cities in the US were to completely do away with fares for public transit systems, it would give more people access to jobs, services, and even recreation that they need. Free rides would help reduce emissions as well by encouraging drivers to use a greener mode of transportation. Also, with more and more cities and universities embracing fully electric buses, this greener mode of transportation is getting even cleaner.
Kansas City, Missouri, not only has considered this, but at the end of 2019, the city council passed a resolution that would encourage the city to eliminate bus fares. If this happens, Kansas City will be the largest city in the US to stop collecting bus fares from passengers. This will cost the city $8 million, but Mayor Quinton Lucas says that it will help “build up a culture of bus riding.” Olympia, WA, has already done this, starting in January. The city made the calculations and realized that the cost of upgrading the fare collection systems would outweigh the cost of collecting fares. On top of that are air quality (public health) and road maintenance savings that result from higher bus ridership.
When I was in middle school, I used my lunch money to take the bus and would often skip lunch and breakfast just so I could get to school. Introducing ways to provide free transportation for those who are dependent on public transport would be a big help to society and the environment. Hopefully this trend will take off and launch 2020 as the decade of no more bus fares.