Feb 2022 https://gothamist.com/news/free-fares-could-bring-riders-back-mta-quicker-what-cost
NY’s MTA is still suffering from low ridership during the weekdays due to the pandemic changing commuting patterns. It is relying on $16 billion in federal funding to balance its budget in the coming years, due to fare revenue shortfalls. But as the agency tries to bring ridership back to pre-pandemic levels, one idea we wanted to explore is what it would mean if the MTA were to make riding free?
Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, and Gothamist transportation reporter Stephen Nessen discussed the issue with Michael Hill, host of Morning Edition on WNYC.
There are a number of transit systems around the world that don’t charge fares. In the U.S., Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston is trying to make three bus lines that run through low income neighborhoods free. Could you see that ever happening here in New York?
Stephen: You may recall, during the early months of the pandemic, for about five months the MTA actually did make all buses free. This was in part because the fare box is at the front of the bus and the MTA wanted to avoid people getting close to bus drivers if possible. But also, at that time it was really essential workers that had to get around, and this was a great way to help them out. We also didn’t know as much about the virus then as we do now, and people believed the buses, with outdoor stops, could be safer than underground subways.
What was the effect of that on the MTA’s bottom line?
Stephen: Certainly, the MTA says it hurt, they were losing $200 million dollars a week running nearly full service on subways and buses for just a fraction of the riders it used to serve. But buses really did see higher ridership when they were free, and it dipped down again when the MTA started charging.
Ultimately, the agency relies on fares to cover about 40% of its operating costs. Let’s remember the MTA is expensive. It will need about $18 billion dollars this year to keep operations running. https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/wnyc/#file=/audio/json/1178325/&share=1
Rachael, 75% of bus commuters in New York City are people of color, and typically bus riders are lower income than subway riders. Is it fair to charge everyone the same price? Is there a more equitable way to fund mass transit?
Rachael: I think one thing to keep in mind is that we have a Fair Fares program, which provides a 50% fare discount to low-income New York city residents (but people need to meet a very low income threshold currently). And that’s a really important New York city program that should be expanded. One thing to consider, however, is that the MTA is already a pretty heavily subsidized state authority. State subsidies are going to be at nearly $6.5 billion in this year’s state budget for the MTA. And that’s actually more than what the fares are expected to bring in. The MTA expects to get $5 billion for the subways, buses and the commuter rails in fare revenue.
I think the concern about free fares is that an unintended consequence of getting rid of fares altogether [is that] it might mean the MTA would be entirely dependent on the state for funding. And it wouldn’t be able to adjust if demand increases. When riders pay some amount, when they ride, that means the MTA gets more money when there’s more demand.
If we locked in a set amount of government revenue we might see some similar problems to when the fares were locked at 5 cents, because there was no political incentive to increase fares back then, state money for the MTA has to come from somewhere. So it would have to come in the form of taxes, to New Yorkers and, our elected leaders aren’t very fond of increasing taxes, either.
Stephen, you’ve reported this week that the MTA is trying to bring riders back to the system by giving riders some discounts. It’s not totally free, but tell us about those?
Stephen: If you use OMNY, which is the new fare payment system there will be some interesting discounts coming at the end of the month. It does require a contactless credit or debit card, or a $5 OMNY card or a smart phone with a credit or debit card connected to it to access. That could be a barrier for some people.
But what the MTA is offering is called fare-capping. Instead of buying an unlimited weekly card at the start of the week…if subway or bus riders use OMNY, after 12 trips in one week—riders will automatically be upgraded to an unlimited card that is good for the rest of that week. It would run from Monday through Sunday.
This is just a pilot, but the MTA says if it’s popular, if a lot of people use it, it could become permanent. The agency is planning to phase out the MetroCard by 2024, and replace it with OMNY. That could mean other interesting fare discounts for commuters using the new technology.
Rachael, this isn’t the only way they’re trying to get riders back — fares will remain frozen for the year, how will that impact the bottom line and do you think it was a good decision?
Rachael: No fare increases or service cuts this year is good news for the MTA and riders. Federal aid is the main thing making this happen, they are using about $3 billion this year alone. But it will run out in a few years.
Another option is for the state to do more and give more in subsidies to the MTA because we want to make sure that when riders come back, that service is at the level they expect. To make sure that New Yorkers choose transit, we need frequent and well-funded service, [it] is an important part of that.
Stephen: And advocates with the group Riders Alliance are actually calling for no fare increase for five years. They want Governor Hochul to send more of the $1.8 billion dollars that the state gets every year from gas taxes, and vehicle registration fees to the MTA. Currently the MTA gets one third of that money – the rest goes toward fixing roads. They want it flipped so two thirds goes to the MTA.
Last, Stephen, what’s the latest on congestion pricing—the plan to charge drivers that enter Manhattan below 60th Street — that’s expected to bring in $15 billion dollars to the MTA over four years. Could that be used to keep fares costs down?
Stephen: Congestion pricing was delayed, first from the Trump administration, now it’s undergoing a federally mandated environmental review — but it could go into effect sometime next year.
One of the earliest proponents of congestion pricing, Theodore Kheel actually made the case in the 1960s that subways should be free, and funded with tolls on drivers. That didn’t happen. But still, the MTA is supposed to use the funds generated from congestion pricing to make upgrades to subways and buses.
Ideally, improving service and making it more attractive so more people will choose to take mass transit, rather than get in a car. As we said earlier, subway ridership isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels, but driving is. So, the more money the MTA has to run better service, ideally it’ll get more people out of cars and onto the more environmentally friendly way of getting around the city.
Rachael: Congestion pricing is the single largest source of funding for the latest MTA capital program. It will provide $15 billion out of a total of $55 billion. And so far, the MTA has only spent a little over a billion dollars on a capital plan, and they only have about $4 billion in the bank.
And we’re actually in the third year of that capital program right now. And it’s supposed to go through 2024. So it really is urgent that congestion pricing is turned on soon because the MTA needs the cash to make meaningful progress on the capital plan. And it’s going to fund subway, bus and commuter rail improvements. It really does benefit the whole region and we strongly support congestion pricing starting as soon as possible.
Stephen Nessen covers transportation for the NYC Accountability Desk. Since 2008, his work has varied from chronicling the transformation of the World Trade Center through photos and radio stories, to profiling the city’s most unique characters, like a tabloid crime photographer, Mohawk Ironworker and Cuban Salsa legend Arsenio Rodriguez. He spent a year reporting on the oldest family in one of the city’s oldest public housing projects for a four part series. READ MORE
Mayor Michelle Wu’s push for free buses is spurring other cities and towns to act, Boston Globe, by Taylor Dolven, February 9, 2022
Riders of the 23, 28, and 29 buses, which run through Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, will not be charged any fares starting in March, a first step, Mayor Michelle Wu hopes, toward making the T free. After a two-month delay to work out the details, Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have reached an agreement to make the three bus routes free for riders for two years, Wu and MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said Wednesday.
Wu indicated that the fare-free service is just the first step toward a larger goal of making all buses — and eventually all public transit — in Boston free, something she campaigned on and hopes to achieve through partnerships with other municipalities, the Legislature, and the federal government.
Mayor Michelle Wu today announced that the City of Boston is launching the two-year fare-free program on MBTA bus Routes 23, 28, and 29 on March 1, 2022. This program / fare free buses
- Extends the highly successful fare-free Route 28 pilot program and eliminates fares on two other crucial bus routes.
- Enable all-door boarding, which eases congestion and speeds up bus service. Riders will still have to pay for transfers to other MBTA routes and services.
“Expanding fare-free transit to Routes 23, 28, 29 will better connect our communities, increase ridership, and ease congestion for all our residents,” said Mayor Michelle Wu. We “look forward to working with our partners across the Commonwealth to build a sustainable, reliable, accessible, and affordable transportation system that truly serves our residents and our local economy.”
“Today’s announcement is really exciting,” said Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge. “We plan to use these two years to learn how making transit free can affect peoples’ travel decisions, improve the performance of the bus itself, and bring additional benefits to riders and the communities along these routes.”
Said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak: “The benefits experienced by customers on the 28 are being expanded to a broader group of riders, and we appreciate the City of Boston’s willingness to make this happen by providing funding.”
“February is Transit Equity Month in Boston. For the past 7+ years, we as transit advocates have been developing a vision of fare free transit,” said Mela Bush Miles, Director of Transit Oriented Development at Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE). “This is a vision whose time has come…Public transportation needs to be free for all and should be funded in the same way as other public services. Greener, cleaner, faster and affordable buses is a win for everybody whether they use public transit or not. Free the T!”
“Fare-free bus service has been successful across the Commonwealth and in the City of Boston, helping to ease financial burdens, increase bus ridership, and speed up bus service,” said Stacy Thompson, Executive Director of LivableStreets Alliance. “This expansion will create further momentum toward our shared goal of providing fare-free bus service across the MBTA.”
The 23 Bus route (Ashmont to Dorchester Center, Grove Hall & Ruggles), the 28 Bus route (Mattapan Square, up Blue Hill Ave. to Nubian Square & Ruggles) and the 29 Bus route (Mattapan Square, up Blue Hill Ave. to Jackson Square) each serve a diverse ridership, and all three travel through and along Blue Hill Avenue, an important corridor connecting riders who are underserved by the existing transit network. Blue Hill Avenue has been identified by Livable Streets Alliance as one of the corridors that should be prioritized for improvements to increase reliability and boost ridership, which the City is working to address through the Blue Hill Ave Redesign Plan.
These three routes are some of the routes with the highest ridership throughout the City of Boston. Route 23 serves over 100,000 monthly riders, runs past Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, the Grove Hall Branch of the Boston Public Library and various places of worship. The route also intersects with Columbus Avenue, home to the first center-running bus lane in New England, demonstrating the potential to combine fare-free transit with modern transit infrastructure to reduce local air pollution, ease congestion and speed up service.
After fares were eliminated in August 2021, Route 28 saw ridership increase to over 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels with over 12,000 riders every day, making it the most popular route in the system. Route 29 intersects with Route 28 and runs past Egleston Square Branch of the Boston Public Library, and several Boston Housing Authority developments, including the Franklin Field Apartments and the Doris Bunté Apartments.
“The fare-free 28 bus has been a blessing to myself and my community,” said Peggy James, MBTA 28 bus rider and Boston resident. “All of my daily activities, including going grocery shopping, heading to the laundry, and picking up my medicine, have been made easier due to this program. Since the fare-free program was implemented, my commutes have been a lot more enjoyable, with less hiccups and stalling at bus stops along the route.”
“It’s a huge convenience to know that I don’t have to worry about some of the financial burden that this pandemic has brought,” said Brittany Appleberry, MBTA 28 bus rider and Boston resident. “It feels good to know that I am able to ride for free and continue to get the same service. I would like to thank Mayor Wu and everyone who had a part in this pilot.”
The Boston Transportation Department has been working with the MBTA to manage the 28 bus pilot program that was first launched in August last year, including partnering on a comprehensive evaluation of the Route 28 bus pilot. The evaluation includes analysis of ridership and service reliability data as well as interviews with bus riders to get their views on the benefits of the pilot. The analysis suggests that by enabling all-door boarding, fare-free service reduced dwell time – the amount of time the bus stopped to allow passengers to board – decreased by more than 20 percent. A full evaluation of the Route 28 Bus pilot program will be available later this month at boston.gov
The City of Boston and MBTA have been meeting regularly and partnering to work out specifics of the program and deliver the benefits of fare-free service to riders. The program will be funded through the $8 million ARPA allocation. Cities across the Commonwealth and the United States are already delivering the benefits of fare-free service to riders and some cities are following Boston’s lead and working out how to deliver the benefits of fare-free service to their residents.
The expansion of this program will provide the City of Boston, MBTA and other transit partners the opportunity to measure the benefits of fare-free bus service, such as increased ridership, faster buses, less traffic, and business development, over a longer period of time. The duration of the program will also allow the City to make sure every resident knows about the fare-free service and provides an opportunity for residents to integrate riding the bus into their day-to-day routines.
The two-year expanded fare free program for the 23, 28, and 29 MBTA bus routes builds on Mayor Wu’s work to make public transit a public good, starting with bus service. In December, the Boston City Council voted to approve Mayor Wu’s appropriation order for $8 million in federal funds to eliminate fares on the 23, 28 and 29 MBTA bus routes for a two-year period. The City of Boston, in partnership with the MBTA, extended the free Route 28 bus through January and February using the funds from the $8 million allocation from ARPA.
For more information on the fare-free bus program, visit www.boston.gov/free-bus
Boston expands fare-free bus programme following pilot
10 Feb 2022 www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/boston-expands-fare-free-bus-programme-following-pilot-7401
After fares were eliminated in August 2021 on one of the chosen routes, ridership increased to more than 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels with over 12,000 riders every day.
Boston will use the two years to learn how making transit free can affect peoples’ travel decisions
The City of Boston is launching a two-year fare-free programme on MBTA bus Routes 23, 28, and 29. Beginning in March, the programme extends the successful fare-free Route 28 pilot programme and eliminates fares on two other important bus routes.
Fare-free buses enable all-door boarding, which eases congestion and speeds up bus service. Riders will still have to pay for transfers to other MBTA routes and services.
“Expanding fare-free transit to Routes 23, 28, 29 will better connect our communities, increase ridership, and ease congestion for all our residents,” said mayor Michelle Wu. These three routes are some of the routes with the highest ridership throughout the City of Boston. Route 23 serves over 100,000 monthly riders, runs past Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, the Grove Hall Branch of the Boston Public Library and various places of worship. The route also intersects with Columbus Avenue, home to the first center-running bus lane in New England, demonstrating the potential to combine fare-free transit with modern transit infrastructure to reduce local air pollution, ease congestion and speed up service.
After fares were eliminated in August 2021, Route 28 saw ridership increase to more than 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels with over 12,000 riders every day, making it the most popular route in the system. Route 29 intersects with Route 28 and runs past Egleston Square Branch of the Boston Public Library, and several Boston Housing Authority developments, including the Franklin Field Apartments and the Doris Bunté Apartments.
The Boston Transportation Department has been working with the MBTA to manage the 28 bus pilot programme that was first launched in August last year, including partnering on a comprehensive evaluation of the Route 28 bus pilot.
The evaluation includes analysis of ridership and service reliability data as well as interviews with bus riders to get their views on the benefits of the pilot. The analysis suggests that by enabling all-door boarding, fare-free service reduced dwell time – the amount of time the bus stopped to allow passengers to board – decreased by more than 20 per cent.
The expansion of this programme will provide the City of Boston, MBTA and other transit partners the opportunity to measure the benefits of fare-free bus service, such as increased ridership, faster buses, less traffic, and business development, over a longer period of time. The duration of the programme will also allow the City to make sure every resident knows about the fare-free service and provides an opportunity for residents to integrate riding the bus into their day-to-day routines.
After the city eliminated fares last August, Route 28 ridership increased to more than 12,000 riders a day, making it the most popular route in the system.
The city believes the expansion of this fare-free program will lead to increased ridership, faster buses, less traffic, and business development, over a longer period of time.
“Sounds good to me,” said Nathaniel Beaver who rides bus 23.
“The fare-free 28 bus has been a blessing to myself and my community,” said Peggy James, MBTA 28 bus rider and Boston resident. “All of my daily activities, including going grocery shopping, heading to the laundry, and picking up my medicine, have been made easier due to this program. Since the fare-free program was implemented, my commutes have been a lot more enjoyable, with fewer hiccups and stalling at bus stops along the route.”
Cambridge City Council Considers Pilot Program For Free MBTA Bus Route
By David Wade January 27, 2020 https://boston.cbslocal.com/2020/01/27/cambridge-free-bus-route-mbta-pilot-program-vote/
CAMBRIDGE (CBS) — Cambridge is considering becoming the next city to offer fare-free bus service, joining Lawrence in an effort to increase ridership. On Monday night, the Cambridge City Council will decide whether to research the details of a pilot program that would make one MBTA bus line free. But many questions remain. Biggest of all, the costs.
“It’s sort of the green new deal idea at the local level. Right now, traffic is the worst it’s ever been,” said Cambridge City Councilor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler. Since public transportation gets cars off the streets, Cambridge is considering whether to encourage bus ridership by making one of the routes free.
Sobrinho-Wheeler is a sponsor of a policy order. “All that contributes to climate change emissions and at the same time, lower-income people disproportionately depend on public transit and buses to get to work, doctor’s appointments and to live their lives,” he said.
If the Council gives the thumbs up, the city will study how to create and pay for a pilot program. It would focus on one busy bus route, like the #1 that travels from Harvard Square to Dudley Station.
“This is a completely possible idea. We just need the political will for it. So this is a step in that direction,” Sobrinho-Wheeler said.
An MBTA bus in Cambridge (WBZ-TV)
Several months ago, Lawrence made three bus routes free. The city is paying a quarter-million dollars for two years of service.
The cost for Cambridge would be part of their research. Yes, city taxpayers would foot the bill. “This is changing the equation. Let’s subsidize things that we know are good for the environment, that are good for equity,” said Sobrinho-Wheeler.
But not everyone likes that.
“I think it’s a bad tradeoff. It would bring more commuters into the city,” one man in Central Square told WBZ-TV.
And more riders could mean the need for more buses, more drivers, more costs.
Another complication, most of the bus routes through Cambridge also go into other communities like Boston. So to pull off the free fares, other cities would have to agree and contribute to the costs.
Forget fare hikes — make the T free
By Michelle Wu ,January 31, 2019, 1:40 p.m.
We can’t afford another round of MBTA fare increases.
Raising the cost of public transit would burden residents who can least afford transportation alternatives and punish commuters who are doing the most to ease traffic and improve air quality. But the heaviest cost is that focusing on whether to raise or maintain fares distracts from what should be our larger goal: free public transportation. We need bold proposals to make public transit the most reliable, convenient, and affordable transportation option.
Running a public transit system is not free, but relieving riders of the cost burden would benefit everyone who uses the roads and breathes air. Nearly a hundred cities around the world have abandoned user fees in favor of alternative funding streams that remove financial barriers for residents to access public transit. Read full article
Who’s Afraid of Fare-Free Public Transit?
“We can feed two birds with one bit of bread.”
JOSH COHEN MAY 25, 2018
A bus stop in Tallinn, Estonia, the largest city in the world with a totally fare-free mass transit system. (AP Photo/John McConnico)
Elizabeth Bauerle is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s medical center. To get from her home in the north Seattle suburb of Shoreline to her job on the Seattle campus, she can either drive or take two buses.
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Like all of us, Bauerle weighs cost, convenience and personal values in deciding how she’ll travel to work. She says the two-bus trip can take as much 20 to 30 minutes longer than driving. That time difference would matter less to Bauerle if she wasn’t paying for the bus out of pocket, but the cost plus time has her grabbing the car keys most mornings, joining the roughly 34 percent of University of Washington employees who drive alone.
Bauerle is part of a campaign to try and change that equation for employees like herself. UW Pass or Fail — a new campaign lead by a broad coalition including university employees, the Seattle Transit Riders Union, 350 Seattle, SEIU Local 925 and others — is pushing the University of Washington to fully cover the cost of transit passes. Currently, university faculty and staff can get an unlimited transit pass for $50 a month. Though that’s nearly half the normal $99 cost for an unlimited monthly regional transit pass, the campaign argues that as a state employer with tens of thousands of employees, the University of Washington is lagging behind other state employers, Seattle universities, hospitals and large companies that provide employees with free transit passes.
Beyond simply matching comparable institutions, the campaign also argues that it makes sense for the university to encourage transit ridership both to ease congestion and further its climate impact goals.
“It is actually cheaper in the long run for [the university] to make transit free for employees than building more parking,” said Rosalie Ray, a Columbia University PhD student and contributing author of “Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators,” at a May 21 launch party in Seattle for the newly published book.
Co-edited by Jason Prince, an urban planner and faculty member at Montreal’s Concordia University, and Judith Dellheim, a researcher at the Rosa Luxumberg Foundation in Berlin, the new book comprises 19 wonky, academic essays from a variety of contributing authors. The anthology makes a collective economic, environmental and social justice case for fare-free public transit and looks case studies from cities around the world that have implemented free transit policies.
Both Ray and Bauerle spoke on a panel about free transit at the May 21 event in Seattle, which doubled as a kickoff for the UW Pass or Fail campaign.
Around 200 cities worldwide have some form of fare-free transit, whether fully free or just free for certain user groups, in certain zones or at certain times of day. As of the book’s publication, there were 97 cities and towns with fully fare-free public transit (the book uses the term fare-free transit because, of course, transit costs money whether fares or taxes pay for it).
Most of the fare-free systems are in Europe, with 21 in Poland, 20 in France and another 15 elsewhere. Estonia’s capital Tallinn, home to about 450,000 people, is the largest city in the world with a fully fare-free transit system. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States has 27 fare-free systems — mostly in small towns and colleges where the cost of fare collection out paces the revenue it raises. There are also 11 fare-free systems in Brazil, two in China and one in Australia.
“There are many cities making small and large poetic gestures [to fare-free transit],” says Prince. “Our book is trying to present the opportunity to the next city that will really do something on a big scale with transportation.”
To Prince, making that major shift is now critical. “We’re facing two great challenges in the 21st century. One is climate change. If we’re serious about mitigating the effects of carbon change we have to take strong action on transportation … the second great challenge of the 21st century is income inequality.”
Globally, transportation is responsible for more than 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; meanwhile, transportation is often the second highest household cost. Prince points out that fare-free transit could help incentivize single occupancy vehicle drivers to shift to more environmentally friendly buses or trains and help ease financial strain for low-income households.
“We can feed two birds with one bit of bread by attacking transport with a completely new model,” Prince says.
Recently, several cities have experimented with temporarily free transit to help address air pollution including Salt Lake City, Brussels and Seoul. Paris is considering making its system fully fare-free to address its smog.
It turns out, cities have long made the link between air pollution and encouraging transit use by making it free. The book references a few examples, like in April 1973, overwhelmed by daily traffic jams and the pollution it caused, Bologna, Italy (then under communist rule) made buses free before 9 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Recognizing that free buses alone would do no good if they were stuck in traffic, the city also implemented restrictions on 75 percent of their streets such as bus and taxi only zones, streets only accessible by businesses and delivery drivers, and pedestrian only streets. After two years, the policy reduced daily traffic from 200,000 to 160,000 cars.
Beyond pollution, Bolognese planners also had quality of life in mind. In a quote cited in the new book that could well be about contemporary cities, Bologna Traffic Councilor Mauro Formaglini said, “Our goal above-all is the restoration of the human dimension of our city. … The people consider the causes of the traffic chaos and soon discover that there are clear political reasons for it.”
Many fare-free transit systems are introduced in service of economic development — think free downtown circulator buses and street cars. Tallinn, Estonia’s fare-free policy was originally introduced in 2012 in the wake of financial crisis. Residents could not afford the fare and the government was already subsidizing 70 percent of the system cost. Rather than slashing service, they eliminated the fare. City leaders assumed it would help stimulate the economy some. They were surprised to discover people moved to the city in part to take advantage of the service and the increased tax base more than offset the lost fare revenue.
The idea of free transit as a right is radical. For both Prince and Ray, it is one of the underpinnings of their work. Ray says, “Transit should be conceived of as a necessity, not a commodity … For me the best argument is that public transit is a right and access should not be limited by the ability to pay.”
Prince points to Mexico City’s Right to the City Charter as a compelling case for free transit. The charter outlines core principals of sustainable, equitable, democratic governance and standard of living. It also makes a claim that all residents, regardless of income, have a right to the city’s public spaces. Prince draws a line from there to the need for fare-free transit. After all, what good is a right to a public park, library or museum if a low-income family can’t afford the bus or train ride to experience it?
Also featured in the book, the anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation, in Sweden, has taken a far more radical approach to the right of fare-free transit. In response to fare hikes in 2001, they launched Planka.nu (a url that translates roughly to fare-dodge.now). Members contribute to a solidarity fund that costs about US$12.46 a month, far cheaper than the $100 monthly transit pass. If you get caught turnstile jumping, your fine is covered by the fund. There is no criminal punishment for fare dodging in Sweden, so there’s no permanent record.
In addition to its survey of fare-free transit policies, the book attempts to answer some of the inevitable questions surrounding the idea of free transit, namely who will pay for it if not riders? All public transit systems require some form of subsidy already. But fare-free systems tend to rely more on taxes to fund service. Getting that funding source right is important. After all, the progressive goal of fare-free transit would be rendered moot if it was funded by a regressive tax such as sales tax that takes a larger percentage of low-income residents’ earnings than wealthy residents. In France, a small payroll tax on all employers with 11 or more employees is used to subsidize transit.
The final chapter of the book argues that cities should consider using land value capture to fund transit — the idea of capturing some of the increase in land values around transit systems and stations as a way to pay for transit. Because transit systems and stations raise the value of adjacent properties, the author Jan Scheurer, says it makes sense to tax those landowners on their increased wealth to pay for transit service.
One land value capture model not captured in the book include Hong Kong’s MTR, wherein the transit agency establishes revenue-sharing agreements with developers for the land around transit stations. Even with average fares of less than a dollar, the system typically earns surplus revenue most years, ploughing the money back into the transit system or bolstering the municipal budget. Taking a different tack from the systems featured in the new book, MTR operates with zero taxpayer subsidy. The agency is now exploring how to export that model to other countries and municipalities.
The Seattle Transit Riders Union, one of the main forces behind the UW Pass or Fail campaign, has long fought for free or reduced cost transit, including past campaigns against fare hikes, against the elimination of the downtown free ride zone, for free youth transit and more. (Recently, New York City lawmakers have also started coming out in support of 50-percent reduced fares for low-income households)
“I don’t know that we’ve ever officially adopted fare-free transit as a goal. But everything we do trends towards that,” says co-founder Katie Wilson. “It’d be nice to get to the point where public transit is thought of as a public good and something we just have and use without variable rider fees.”
The Transit Riders Union recognizes that the U.S. is likely a long way from adopting fare-free transit funded by progressive taxation, which is why Wilson says employers and especially major institutional employers subsidizing passes for employees is a common sense and responsible step to take.
“The more programs we have, whether employer programs or city funded programs or county programs, that get transit passes into people’s hands for little or no cost, the easier it is to have that conversation [about fare-free transit],” Wilson says.
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Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.