Just Make It Free: A Response to Pro-Transit Critics of Fare-Free Public Transit

Image from The Boston Globe 1/31/19


The idea of free public transit has now entered popular political discourse. In December 2019, Kansas City councilmembers voted unanimously in a landmark decision to convert to a fareless bus system, becoming the largest U.S. city to do so. In January 2020, Olympia Washington’s Intercity Transit ceased fare collection, precipitating a 20% monthly ridership surge. Transit authorities and political leaders have pondered similar initiatives in Salt Lake City, Denver and Houston. These promising developments have only intensified existing grassroots transit justice movements coast to coast. The novel tactic of the “fare strike,” has resurfaced in the strategic repertoire of direct action activists, who have staged mass fare evasions in defiance of racist police violence and prohibitive fares on New York’s subways. Even politicians have jumped on the bandwagon in select cases. The struggle to decommodify public transportation and guarantee mobility as a human right has never been stronger. 

The free transit groundswell has generated disdain from typical anti-transit conservatives. But it has sourced criticism from unlikely places too: prominent transit planners, transit advocacy NGOs like TransitCenter and online-based transit fanatics, including some members of Facebook group, New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. All have offered critiques of free public transit that remain firmly within a liberal pro-transit framework. It is arguments from these categories this piece aims to engage. 


Not Enough Resources?


The thrust of these critiques hinge on the speculative claim that fare-free service necessarily comes at the expense of decent, useful service: frequent, reliable, all-day transit. Rather than eliminate fares, maintain all existing revenue sources and increase and improve service instead, so the argument goes. This contention carries little weight in cities cited above, like Olympia or Kansas City, where fare revenues accounted for mere fractions of operating costs. In Olympia, Intercity Transit netted just 2% of its operations revenue from fares. Many transit agencies source minimal or no financial benefits from charging fares. When accounting for the labor and maintenance costs of fare collection as well as the inflated bus stop dwell times fare payment entails, eliminating fares may save some transit agencies money. 

In larger and denser cities with high rates of transit use, fares tend to comprise a minority, though significant, source of revenues. These cases present distinct obstacles to securing universal fare-free service, though they are hardly insurmountable. Transit financial woes are not a question of economic resources, but of political priorities. The resources exist to provide free, frequent, 24/7 mass transit. Instead resources are squandered on prisons and police or are hoarded by the wealthy. It is precisely the power of grassroots social movements that could force shifts in budgetary priorities and re-distributions of wealth in the interests of transit riders and all working class people. In New York City, Decolonize This Place organizers have advanced demands to tax Wall Street to fund subway and bus service. Already, politicians in NYC have endorsed free transit after multiple high-profile protests in the subways. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, activist and city council member Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, has developed a free transit proposal funded by new progressive taxes on luxury vehicles and real estate. Others have suggested land value capture as a funding mechanism. A constraining liberalism pervades urban planning paradigms and pro-transit critics of fare-free can forget that policy, budgets and laws are transformed in the streets too, not merely planning boardrooms and government chambers. 

The economies of New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. are utterly dependent on functional mass transit. In these major cities, fare strikes – a mass refusal to pay fares – wield particular potential. Fare strikes can starve transit agencies of necessary finances in these cities, an exertion of material class power. However, transit authorities can’t simply respond by shutting down service; the subsequent economic crisis would be too severe for these leading urban economies. Caught between a rock and a hard place, politicians and transit officials could be compelled to identify new revenue streams if faced with a mass fare strike.

Low-Income Discounts Are Insufficient

Instead of eliminating fares systemwide, critics argue that discounted or free transit passes should be available to lower-income riders, while other riders should be charged full fare rates. This would address equity concerns while maintaining a revenue source for transit agencies. Numerous municipalities and transit authorities have now enacted low-income fare programs. While these are welcome developments in immediate terms, an income-based, multi-tiered fare structure suffers significant flaws. 

Few of these programs offer free transit passes to low-income riders. They offer discounted fares, usually about 50% of the standard adult rate. For Seattle’s ORCA Lift recipients, the fare is $1.50, while the City of New York’s Fair Fare charge is $1.35. Even these prices are prohibitive for poorer households, particularly for transit-dependent riders who tend to ride frequently. 

Eligibility in these programs are tightly income-restricted, based on percentages of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The FPL is set at notoriously low levels, with about $13,000 in annual income the poverty limit for an individual and approximately $17,000 the limit for a household of two. ORCA Lift utilizes a 200% FPL eligibility threshold, while Fair Fares only uses 100% FPL, despite the exorbitant cost of living in New York. A more accurate indicator of economic distress is the Self-Sufficiency Standard. This alternative measure accounts for different family types and local variations in living costs. In Seattle, a self-sufficient income for a household of one is $27,000 annually and $57,000 annually for a household of one adult and one young child. These figures are much higher than ORCA Lift’s maximum allowable income. For New York, the discrepancies are jarring. Although Fair Fares would only enroll a family of two with an annual income below $17,000, according to Self-Sufficiency Standard measures a livable income for an adult and small child can range from $51,000 in the Bronx to a staggering $85,000 in southern Manhattan. Under current guidelines less than 17% of New Yorkers are eligible for Fair Fares, whereas if the Self-Sufficiency Standard were employed, 40% of residents would be eligible. These calculations indicate the stark inadequacy of low-income fare programs in meeting the needs of working class transit riders. 

These fare programs also exhibit exclusionary and alienating tendencies common (perhaps inherent) to means-tested social provision. Riders who don’t speak English or Spanish may not even be aware of a program’s existence. Undocumented people may be deterred from accessing the programs if their residency and citizenship status is scrutinized during eligibility processes. Homeless people and others without a consistent home address or internet access will experience difficulty receiving application information. Means-tested services are wildly inconvenient, with distinct application processes for each program. Recipients of multiple services have to juggle many appointments with separate agencies, requiring different eligibility criteria. The humiliation of proving one’s poverty time and again can take its toll too.

Of course, free transit passes available to anyone below the the Self-Sufficiency Standard would be far superior to current discount programs. However, discount programs can only preserve fare revenues as a significant revenue stream by not offering free passes to everyone experiencing economic instability. In NYC for instance, the median income of an MTA rider was $46,000, less than the self-sufficiency standard for a household of two in every part of the city, and significantly so in many boroughs. Elsewhere, poverty rates as indicated by Self-Sufficiency rates approach 40% to 50% in major cities from L.A. to Philadelphia. With household incomes of transit riders consistently below the average U.S. household income, it’s reasonable to assume a majority of riders could be eligible for low-income passes if accurate measures of economic hardships were used.  This scenario would then logically beg the question: why not just make it free for everyone?


The Convenience of Fare-Free


Fare collection exacerbates “dwell times,” the amount of time buses spend at bus stops without moving. Fare-free service expedites boarding processes by permitting a swift and simple implementation of all-doors boarding and sweeps the infamous “fare fumble” into the dustbin of history. Fare-free also eliminates the cumbersome task of comprehending complex fare structures, which are particularly confusing to visitors, newcomers and infrequent riders. 

Critics in turn charge that the convenience of fare-free can be matched by alternative technologies and methods that maintain fare collection. These include transitioning from cash-based fares to electronic cards-based fares and adopting proof-of-payment (POP) systems. POP allows riders to enter transit vehicles at all doors by installing off-board or all-door payment infrastructure. While both of these innovations improve service efficiency, they carry social consequences for marginalized riders. Research indicates poor riders are routinely disadvantaged when cash fare options disappear. Without upfront cash, a smartphone, internet or a bank account card-based fares are more inaccessible. To deter fare evasion, POP systems employ fare enforcement officers (some of whom are fully-sworn police officers) to enter transit vehicles and inspect fare receipts from passengers. True to policing across the board, fare enforcement practices exhibit glaring racist and anti-homeless biases. Black riders in particular are disproportionately targeted by fare enforcement. This reason alone ought to suffice in opposing proof-of-payment. Cops don’t belong on our trains and buses. 


A Fight on Many Fronts


 Fare-free transit isn’t the silver bullet solution to the manifold crises plaguing public transportation. Eliminating fares doesn’t address poor coverage, late bus arrivals or infrequent service. Neither, though, does securing free public transit today preclude the possibility of improving and extending transit service in the future. In fact, organizations like OPAL Environmental Justice League in Portland, Oregon already organize for both free transit and expanded service coverage and options. 

 Free transit though, even as a standalone reform, can offer immediate social and ecological benefits on a significant scale. According to the authors of Free Public Transit, free service can boost riderships up to 50%. It increases service speeds, making transit more attractive. For low-income households spending 29% of their income on transportation costs, it can be transformative. With automobile use a leading contributor to global carbon emissions, any measures to incentivize public transit is crucial in mitigating climate catastrophe. 

Amidst the increasing popularity of socialism and the Bernie Sanders campaign, decommodification and universal services can now be glimpsed on the political horizon. The struggle for free public transportation parallels these national trends, and it’s time for transit nerds, advocates and planners to grasp this shifting political landscape and join working-class riders in this fight.

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