The benefits of increased transit use are plentiful and well-documented, from increases in health to reductions in congestion to improvements in air quality. For these reasons we should strive to increase public transportation use in our cities. Yet we continue to highly subsidize driving, making it more attractive at the expense of other modes of transportation. It is time for a radical change in our transportation priorities; cities should make public transportation free for all users. In addition to reducing driving, free public transit will increase mobility and equity throughout our society.
In 2001 the mayor of Châteauroux, France, made the entire city’s public transit system free. Over the next decade transit trips increased by over 200%. Surprisingly, the transit system also turned long running net losses into profits for most years during this decade. This was accomplished by slightly increasing taxes on large local businesses and the elimination of fare-related costs. The only negative impact of the switch to free transit appears to be an increase in bus vandalization incidents. On the other the hand, the positive externalities of increased ridership are plentiful, including improved air quality, less traffic congestion, the rejuvenation of the central business district, and a healthier population.
Free public transit has clearly been a success in the small town of Châteauroux, but would it work in larger cities and in the United States? Other recent examples and research studies suggest that it will. A recent study conducted in Boston and Cambridge, MA, provided free transit to regular car commuters. Almost 30% of the participants gave up their full-time parking passes after using transit in the study. Because of the auto-oriented culture in America, many people have never even considered transit as a viable transportation option. Eliminating transit fares will greatly increase the number of people willing to give transit a chance.
Many have argued that free public transit will not work in larger cities since they typically rely on a higher share of revenue from fare collection (30-40%). However, by lowering subsidies for driving or increasing taxes (either on major downtown businesses or motor vehicle drivers), the loss of fare collection revenue can be mitigated. Additionally, free transit eliminates the need for fare collection and enforcement, a substantial cost for many transit systems.
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia recently became the first city with over 400,000 people to institute a city-wide free transit system. It is still too early to definitively look at the results of the program, but after three months car trips are down 10%. Interestingly, Tallinn did not couple the program with any revenue increases. Rather, Tallinn sees the €12 million annual cost of its transit system as a fair price to reduce congestion and pollution, and to increase mobility for all its citizens.
With shrinking budgets across America, Tallinn’s model of free public transit is unlikely to work in the United States. One alternative to replace the revenue of lost fares is to subsidize transit using revenue from congestion pricing. Congestion pricing is already an excellent complement for free transit, as it both collects revenue and pushes more drivers towards public transit. A detailed report commissioned by Theodore Kheel, proposed free transit coupled with congestion pricing, higher taxi fares, and higher parking rates in New York City. The report found that higher taxi fares, parking rates, and a $16 fee for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street would raise $4.2 billion each year. This would more than make up for the $3.5 billion in lost transit fares. Additionally, this plan would reduce congestion by 25% in the central city, eliminating countless hours of lost productivity, and increase mobility for everyone in the city.
While many European cities have been lowering or eliminating transit fares, America is moving in the opposite direction. In recent years, many American cities have been attempting to maximize public transit profits through widespread fare increases and the closing of existing ride-free areas in places like Seattle and Portland. These polices have decreased ridership and raised the costs borne by riders. Increased public transit ridership benefits everyone in a city, so the costs should be distributed throughout society, not just on transit users.
Critics of the viability of free public transit in America often cite two trials in Trenton, NJ, and Denver, CO, in the late 1970s. These two trials did not see major reductions in congestion and the new transit riders were mostly characterized as “problem riders.” However, there are a number of major flaws for generalizing the results of those trials. First, both trials only offered free transit in off-peak hours. A major goal of eliminating fares is to increase the number of people commuting by public transit. Charging during peak hours defeats this purpose. Second, attitudes about transit have shifted since the 1970s. The stigma of public transit has receded in recent years, and more American appear willing to make the switch away from cars if it is economically advantageous.
Making the switch to free public transportation will be far from easy, both politically and logistically, but the benefits make it a worthy and necessary challenge. It will be up to a few courageous cities to make the leap and demonstrate to the rest of the nation that the benefits of free public transportation far outweigh the negatives. Eliminating transit fares will radically reduce the number of cars on the road, improve our environment, and increase mobility for all members of society, no matter their income. It is time for our cities to radically change how we spend our transportation funds and make public transportation free for all.