Cheap Transit Fares: Almost Zero but Not Quite

Everyone appreciates a good deal especially when we get something for free. We love free chocolates at hotels, warm cookies at realtors’ open houses, flash drives at conferences, and magnets at career fairs.

The “zero-fare” movement for transit services is now gaining momentum. Since 2020, nearly all trains, buses, and trams have been free throughout Luxembourg. In Kansas City, the streetcar is free, and in Seattle, Sound Transit started offering free fares for riders 18 years and younger.

In the U.S., elected officials — not transit agencies — have been leading zero fare initiatives. The mayor of Boston, elected in 2021, has been a strong proponent of zero fares and now thanks to city funding, several bus Boston bus routes are free through 2024. In December, the city council in Washington, D.C. one-upped Boston when it unanimously voted to make all buses free for residents and visitors.

Ironically, zero-fare is gaining popularity at the same time that many transit agencies are about to face a fiscal cliff with fare revenues far below pre-pandemic levels and federal COVID relief aid drying up.

The cost to provide free transit services is a major reason why many transit advocates do not support zero fares. They would rather see funds go to improving services and increasing frequency. Eliminating fares is especially problematic for those transit providers (such as Metro-North Railroad and Caltrain) that rely upon fares for the bulk of their revenues.

Many transit agencies are also reluctant to institute zero fares because they fear that unhoused individuals will get on buses and trains – and not get off. Utah Transit Authority officials call these types of passengers, “non-destination riders.” The tragic situation of this population strains transit agency resources and undermines efforts to provide high quality services. A recent survey of LA Metro customers found homelessness to be a top issue along with service frequency, safety, and cleanliness. These concerns are intertwined. When people set up camp at transit stops, they affect cleanliness, and when people live in train stations and walk along train tracks, they endanger themselves and disrupt service. While cities and transit agencies grapple with an increasing number of homeless people, those who live in transit facilities are not just making passengers uncomfortable, but they are also deterring many others from using transit.

Transit officials concerned about the impact of zero fares and non-destination riders have been looking at other options. You can call them “cheap fares”.

Imagine getting a $10 pass that allows you to ride all month as much you want on the Long Island Rail Road and Chicago’s El and the New Orleans Streetcar and Jersey City’s light rail and San Francisco’s BART train and California’s Metrolink commuter rail. The German government introduced just that kind of program last summer as a measure to reduce the impact of rising energy costs and promote transit use. For a 9-euro pass, you could ride fare-free on all regional, local and urban public transit networks for an entire month all across the country.

Transit agencies in Germany sold more than 50 million passes in June, July, and August. (The program ended after three months). Allister Loder, a German transportation researcher led a study that found, not surprisingly, Germans took more trips by transit and fewer trips by car as a result of the program. The largest increase in transit ridership occurred on weekends among passengers who did not own cars. However, only 3% of the participants in Loder’s research study seemed to systematically replace car trips with transit trips because for most trips, driving is the faster mode.

Although most of the German transit providers were able to accommodate increased ridership without adjusting service, some of them had to ban bicycles and there was a surge in ridership on several lines headed towards resort areas. Transit providers also needed to offer more passenger assistance– so that new customers could navigate their services and get their bearings when arriving at their destinations.

Cost was not the only attractive feature of the 9-euro program. Simplicity was an important dimension. Riders did not have to figure out how much transit trips would cost to travel between certain destinations on various modes at different times. Next summer, Germany will offer a similar program, but this time the pass will cost 49 euros.

American transit agencies are looking at their own ways of providing inexpensive service.

In the summer, LA Metro is instituting a fare-capping policy. Metro customers will no longer purchase 7-day and 30-day passes. Instead, riders who use the TAP contactless smart card will be charged a maximum of $5 a day or $18 in a week no matter how many rides they take. To encourage ridership, the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace Suburban Bus jointly announced plans to issue unlimited ride passes that can be used on their trains and buses.

To address equity issues, New York has a “Fair Fares” program that cuts public transportation costs in half for low-income New Yorkers. Likewise, a pilot program has reduced fares on three transit lines on the southside of Chicago.

With fewer people going to the office five days a week, transit agencies are also lowering the cost of monthly passes. For example, last summer the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority lowered its monthly pass from the equivalent of 36 trips down to 32 trips.

Laurel Paget-Seekins, a transportation consultant, says that increasing ridership should not necessarily be the goal, but rather enhancing mobility and equity, as well as reducing emissions and creating a more efficient transportation system. She says that “one fare policy doesn’t fit all regions” because there is such a diversity in the number of operators, modes, network design, revenue sources, and transit demand.

This year, transit agencies and local governments are expected to address sluggish ridership and a looming fiscal cliff with a wide and contradictory range of strategies. Some will cut service and raise fares to balance their budgets; while those with the luxury to focus on mobility and equity, will lower their fares and even eliminate them completely.

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