1/16/2020 by Jeremy Mohler In the Public Interest, No one asks how are we going to pay for war. So, why should we for public transit?
Tons of positive ink has been spilled about Kansas City, Missouri’s decision last month to make public transit fare-free, and rightly so.
The New York Times just published a somewhat rosy article, asking, “Should public transit be free? More cities say, why not?”
Those cities include Olympia, Washington, and Lawrence, Massachusetts, which made bus rides free last September, before Kansas City did. Others are considering it, like Denver, Colorado, and Atlanta, Georgia.
And it’s not just happening in large metropolitan areas. Ozark, Arkansas, just added two free bus lines—in a city of 3,500!
When you add up all the benefits, it’s hard to argue against free public transit.
It saves money for those who need it most, poor and working people. Some frequent riders could save about $1,000 per year under Kansas City’s new plan.
For the same reason, it can boost the local economy. More money in the pockets of working people is more money spent locally. And the public jobs it potentially creates pay better and are more stable than their private counterparts.
It helps tackle climate change. Studies suggest that eliminating fares can lead to a spike in ridership of 50 percent or more. This means less traffic congestion and carbon emission from cars. After Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, made public transit free in 2013, private car use has reduced by half.
It also puts a dent—albeit, a small one—in America’s horrifying, record-breaking incarceration rate. Cities like New York City, which will spend $249 million over the next four years trying to stop fare evasion, would no longer be arresting people because they can’t afford fares.
How are we going to pay for it, you ask? That’s a separate question, but the answer is obvious: by cleaning up the tax code so that corporations and the wealthy no longer pay less in taxes than teachers and construction workers.
Amazon, for example, paid $0 in taxes on its $11.2 billion income in 2018. They can’t be allowed to do that.
But, ultimately, the argument for free public transit is simple: it’s a vital public good. Like education, libraries, and parks, it serves the common good and not just individual desire.
As we explained in our new, “pro-public” vision for 2020, we all benefit from things like public transit regardless of whether we use them or not.
As Wojciech Kębłowski, a post-doctoral researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, writes “You don’t have to insert coins to light an individual lamp posts on your way home at night, or pay for every minute spent in a park or library.”
Dionisia Ramos, a 55-year-old living on unemployment while going to school in Lawrence, put it even more directly, telling the Times: “Transportation should be free. It’s a basic need. It’s not a luxury.”
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Could Free Service Solve Denver’s Transit Problems?
Recent fare hikes have made Denver’s Regional Transportation District one of the most expensive public transit systems in the country, and ridership is slipping — leading some to worry about a “death spiral,” in which ridership losses and cost increases continue to worsen in a vicious cycle.
Lots of people have lots of different ideas about how to turn things around. But what if the solution were for RTD to have no fares at all?
That may sound crazy, but we’re already more than four-fifths of the way there. RTD collected $143 million in fare-box revenue last year, only enough to cover about 18 percent of its operating costs. The rest came from the 1 percent sales and use tax that funds the district and other sources, including state and federal grants.