WMATA, like many transit agencies in the US, has not collected fares on buses since March in an effort to protect drivers and riders from COVID-19. The agency, however, is considering bringing back fares in addition to implementing budget cuts in order to meet a nearly $200 million shortfall. The idea of making transit system go entirely fare-free has gained popularity in recent years, with systems in Europe such as Tallinn, Estonia, and the entire (admittedly small) country of Luxembourg doing so. In the U.S., recent examples include Kansas City, MO and Olympia, WA. Though going fare-free can boost ridership, major systems such as WMATA should prioritize Transportation Demand Management initiatives instead of eliminating fares in order to gain some of the benefits.
What are the Arguments Surrounding Fare-Free Transit?
Fares are just one more barrier to transit use that drivers don’t have to confront, and proponents of the idea believe that eliminating fares altogether could make transit more competitive with driving. In theory, going fare-free is indeed an attractive idea. Eliminating fares would make riding transit cheaper and easier, and shifting to other funding sources can potentially be more equitable. Unfortunately, today’s fares are regressive because each rider generally pays the same regardless of their ability to pay. Fare collection can often be a significant budget line item itself for the public, and enforcement is often inequitable, falling disproportionately on people of color.
However, the evidence that eliminating fares leads to greater ridership and a more equitable transit system is mixed. Research indicates that eliminating fares can increase ridership, but the devil is in the details. One major study from 1982 found an increase in ridership, but the scheme did not meaningfully reduce car trips. This result was also found in a 2013 review of various free transit schemes in Europe and in a 2017 evaluation of Tallinn’s fare-free scheme. In short, transit ridership increased, often significantly, but at the cost of walk and bike trips, not cars.
While growth in ridership is good in that it indicates people are taking more trips on transit and are less impeded by cost, this shift is not leading to the transformation of the overall travel mode-share. In these examples, eliminating fares has not made the transit system that much more appealing compared to driving.
What’s the Cost of Fare-Free Transit?
Bus and rail fares can be a significant burden on low income riders, but the fare is not the only cost to consider. Long waits, limited schedules, delays, and general unreliability all take their toll: an unreliable transportation system means less access to jobs, less freedom to travel when and where you want to, and more time spent traveling that could instead be spent earning money, caring for children, or enjoying free time.
COVID-19 service reductions brought these issues to the forefront in the D.C. area. While WMATA eliminating bus fares helped many essential workers save some money during the pandemic, the additional service cuts have been devastating. As transit fell to below the level of service typically provided on weekends, many workers who relied on transit were forced to turn to exorbitantly priced rideshare services. Transit Center modelled possible transit cuts in 10 US regions and estimated that more than 3 million households could lose access to frequent transit if deep cuts were made. Agencies are facing difficult decisions to fill budget holes in a country that already struggles to provide adequate public transit.
While it’s possible to invest both in a high-quality transit system and eliminate fares, in practice doing both is often a heavy lift for major transit systems. The cost of Olympia, WA going fare-free was $3 million, covered by a modest sales tax, while the cost for WMATA would be nearly $780 million a year, before even accounting for the necessary increase in capacity which can be considerable.
As a general principle, free transit makes a lot of sense in small systems, but it usually doesn’t make sense in bigger ones. Some larger systems such as Kansas City, MO, have explored eliminating fares because of poor fare box recovery, but this is an admittance of failure.
Kansas City, with a population of nearly half a million, which once boasted a streetcar network of more than 300 miles, one of the largest in the nation, could collect much more in fares if it invested in its bus network. The $8 million annually the city is proposing to spend on eliminating fares is 2/3 of the $12 million annually that Houston invested in redesigning their bus network, reversing a years long decline in bus ridership. Unlike fare reductions, ridership added by these investments, brings in additional revenue, lowering the net cost.
Deploying Targeted TDM Tactics Could Affect Similar Change
Many TDM tactics by their very nature are intended to increase the use of transit, such as providing rider passes to employees or students, and making ticketing systems simpler. A system-wide investment could even include initiatives to get much of the benefits of fare-free transit at a fraction of the cost. Programs that target low-mobility populations who can’t drive or don’t have access to a car can change lives by providing access to high quality transit.
For instance, Seattle in 2018 began providing every public high school student with an unlimited 12-month transit pass at the cost of $3 million annually. A pilot of this program found that in addition to getting to school, students used the cards to participate in social activities and access jobs. D.C. provides all students with fare cards for school trips, other jurisdictions should follow suit and allow passes to be used on all trips, not just school related ones.
Similar programs can target low-income households and older adults who may no longer be able to drive safely. LAB@DC is piloting a program to give low-income riders free or reduced fares. Such programs have proven to be both cheap and highly effective.
Transit systems can also realize efficiency gains similar to going fare-free with specific adjustments. Allowing off-board fare collection and thus all-door boarding were found to reduce dwell times on New York’s Select Bus Service by 40%. Agencies can also save money by scaling back fare enforcement whose effectiveness is dubious and that perpetuate inequities.
A good way to reduce fare evasion and reduce headaches for riders is to make ticketing simpler. Weekly, monthly, or even yearly passes can reduce the cost barrier of individual trips, growing ridership and making paying for transit easier. This is how many European metros organize their transit, and WMATA is making progress since last year’s Bus Transformation Project with new weekly and monthly passes, but riders still need to purchase a separate pass to access neighboring systems such as ART. Passes on the scale of Vienna’s €365 ticket could be the next step. Employers or universities purchasing these passes for their workers and students can further reduce the burden on individuals.
Transit passes and integrated fares “bundle” the costs of transit, encouraging ridership by reducing the cost of individual trips. This tactic is the inverse of the highly effective “unbundling” TDM strategy where drivers are required to pay for parking and other costs of car travel separately. Separating monthly parking fees from rent and charging for parking daily instead of monthly both encourage non-car travel by confronting drivers with the true cost of the journey every time.
Its possible to create an equitable and efficient transit system all at once. While eliminating transit fares can achieve some policy goals, in major metro areas its expensive and politically challenging. However, we can achieve the goals promised by free transit through targeted fare subsidies, bundling transit costs, and improving transit service. One day eliminating user fees from transit may be desirable, but there are many interim changes and service improvements that can be prioritized before abolishing fares entirely.