Metropolis

The Problem With Free Transit

A growing movement wants to scrap bus and subway fares. That’s not what riders need most.

Riders, in face masks, wait for a MUNI bus as it pulls into a stop in San Francisco. Looks like a gray day.
Riders wait to catch a MUNI bus in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The board of L.A. Metro, which runs the buses and subways in Los Angeles County, met on Thursday to consider a radical idea: making transit free. The agency has approved a pilot program that will waive fares for K–12 and community college students this summer and for low-income riders next winter. In 2023, Metro will decide if the remaining riders get to ride free too. That would give Los Angeles the largest free transit system in the world.

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More than two hours of public comment preceded the meeting, and most of the speakers were not fans of Metro’s incremental approach. They were against the agency asking for “a public attestation of poverty.” “Any effort to impose a means test is in fact a form of racial discrimination,” one said. Another said, “It’s an apartheid system on its face.” In short: free transit, now!

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There’s something in the air. Many U.S. cities waived bus fares during the pandemic, including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles—where buses are still free and will remain so until the pilot begins. Kansas City was already getting rid of fares on its buses before COVID. San Francisco supervisors want to make transit free this summer. Making the MBTA free is a big plank in the platform of Michelle Wu, one of the favorites in next year’s Boston mayoral election. The leading candidate for Manhattan borough president wants free city buses in New York, too.

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Freeways are free once you’ve bought the car—why shouldn’t transit be free once you’ve bought a pair of shoes? Proponents say universal free transit will help the poor, end the carceral cycle of fare evasion, avoid the stigma and inefficiency of means-testing, and boost ridership.

Unfortunately, on that last point—getting more people more places without cars—the prospects for free transit do not look so good.

Los Angeles is in some ways the perfect large city to experiment. In the American Prospect, Claire Wang offers an excellent rundown of the case for free transit in the Southland. Seventy percent of county riders are low-income, so even a universal subsidy would be fairly well-targeted. After the pandemic’s onset, Metro fare revenue dropped from 17 percent to just 4 percent of its operating budget. “We have a moral obligation to research and implement a fareless transit system,” Phillip Washington, L.A. Metro’s recently departed CEO, told the Prospect. “In the long term, transit should just be like library services or fire department services.”

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The primary difference between a bus and a firetruck in Los Angeles, however, is not that one is $1.75 and one is prepaid by taxes. It’s that a firetruck comes when you need it. According to the AllTransit Gap Finder, a comparative tool that ranks cities based on service in densely populated neighborhoods, more than 60 percent of L.A. County households are underserved by transit relative to their density (rising to 70 percent in the city of Los Angeles). The comparative figure is 18 percent in Chicago and 24 percent in D.C. How free is free transit if you have to spend an hour a day waiting for the bus?

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“I’m not sure free fares are the best investment from the point of view of liberating large numbers of low-income people—only those who already live where transit is already useful,” said Jarrett Walker, a transit planner based in Portland, Oregon. “I’ve heard people describe the free fare movement as being a movement for free, terrible service, and that’s how the trade-off ends up working if you expect this to happen inside the budget of an impoverished American transit agency.”

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On the one hand, it would be disingenuous to pretend Los Angeles straphangers must choose between free service and frequent service: The agency’s budget is almost $8 billion, and it spends many times its bus budget on capital projects and highways, funds that could easily be reapportioned to bulk up its transit offerings. It spends more than $100 million a year on police—the very police whose discriminatory conduct provides the strongest justification for getting rid of fares!

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“We don’t think of it as a trade-off at all,” said Channing Martinez, an organizer with the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, which is pushing for free fares for all. “They could give up one of their 30-year, 40-year capital projects and double, triple the service.”

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On the other, a service-for-fares bargain was exactly what was proposed at last summer’s announcement of the free transit pilot, which was paired with bus service cuts of 20 percent. Only one-time stimulus from the federal relief bill and sustained pressure from activists got those buses restored. And the status quo isn’t very good. As the Gap Finder attests, what passes for regular service in Los Angeles would appall riders in Chicago or D.C.—to say nothing of London or Tokyo.

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Low-income riders do use transit more once fare discounts are offered, observed Steven Higashide, the research director at the think tank TransitCenter and author of Better Buses, Better Cities. He pointed to an MIT study that showed that low-income residents in Boston with discounted CharlieCards took about 30 percent more trips, especially for health care visits. (There are many more studies of free transit in Europe, but the continent’s excellent service and high cost of car ownership make them dubious points of comparison.)

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But those same riders also overwhelmingly said reliability was a bigger concern than affordability. And that’s just among people who ride now. “For millions more people the barrier might be the bus doesn’t even go to their doctor’s office, or they can’t rely on it getting there when the schedule promises,” Higashide said. “People won’t have true freedom of mobility unless there is twice, three times, four times as much service as what exists today.”

The competition between free fares and better service is more acute in cities like San Francisco, where transit is not considered the mode of last resort and fare revenues make up a greater share of the bottom line. There, even with MUNI service reeling from pandemic-era cuts, city supervisors moved to abolish fares over the summer using federal relief funds. They sparred with SFMTA chief Jeffrey Tumlin, who cautiously argued for a focus on restoring service. (He was more direct on Twitter a couple years ago: “If we have $X to improve transit, are our goals better served by eliminating fares or improving service? If you want to spend public $ to buy down fares, target those for whom fares are an obstacle.”) Mayor London Breed vetoed the supervisors’ resolution.

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That trade-off is also at work in Boston. Laurel Paget-Seekins, who recently left a post as assistant general manager for policy at the MBTA, thinks abolishing fares is not the best use of the agency’s limited budget. “The cost of taking transit for low-income people is not just the fare,” she explained. “It’s their time. Obviously, they need to be able to pay the fare, but we shouldn’t waste their time by making them wait for the bus for an hour.”

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Most transit experts support targeted discount programs for low-income riders, like the one operated by King County, Washington, which runs transit service in Seattle. They also admit they haven’t done a great job helping people access such programs, a point in favor of a “free school lunch” analogy; benefits are only good if people can get them. That’s a particular concern in Los Angeles, with its large population of undocumented people who might not have or want to share financial paperwork.

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In cities with more wealthy riders, though, free transit isn’t just a regressive redistribution of tax money—it’s also not clear how many high-income riders would get on board. In Boston, for example, of MBTA pass holders given free access to the city’s bus network before COVID, 40 percent never rode a single bus. If free buses can’t capture subway riders, why would they lure drivers?

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What’s true in Boston is true nationally: Riders say they want better service, not cheaper service. And that may underestimate the preference, because so many low-income people have been pushed out of close-in, well-served neighborhoods where transit works. They don’t think of themselves as straphangers anymore; free transit means little when the bus is a mile from your house.

Well before the pandemic cratered their ridership, American transit agencies were in crisis. Los Angeles had fewer riders in 2016 than in 2006 despite a growing population and billions spent on new transit projects. According to a 2018 study, that decline had an obvious culprit: Angelenos were switching to cars.

In other words, transit in Los Angeles is losing riders to a better option, not a cheaper one. Then again, if riding is free, at least Angelenos will be getting what they pay for.

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