Guest Op-Ed: Fairer Fares, Increased Ridership: Using Reduced Fare Programs as a Tool for Equitable Recovery

In March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few civic-minded New York City residents created CoronaMetro, a platform for workers able to work from home to share their unused monthly metro cards with commuters still reliant on transit. As stay-at-home orders forced many riders to halt normal travel patterns, public transit ridership plummeted. However, transit remained a critical pathway to work for essential workers.  Across the nation, transit riders are disproportionately low-income and people of color, and depend on transit to access healthcare, employment, education, and social connection. In NYC, home to the largest public transportation system in the country, subway stations in lower-income neighborhoods experienced smaller declines in ridership than those in higher-income neighborhoods during the pandemic. Bus service, relied on by healthcare workers, transit operators, grocery clerks, and janitors living in the city’s outer boroughs, consistently retained higher ridership than subway service. These trends highlighted the importance of transit for functioning economic systems, as well as the need to provide high-quality and affordable service for marginalized communities.

For low-income riders, transit fares can create a financial burden, affecting individuals’ ability to pay for other basic needs, such as housing or food. Inability to pay fares can lead to fare evasion, often inordinately policed for Black and Latinx riders. To create more equitable transportation systems, several transit agencies offer reduced fares for low-income populations. Although research shows that these programs provide mobility benefits, such as increases in trips to healthcare and social service destinations, only 17 out of the 50 largest transit agencies in the U.S. provide means-based reduced fare programs. In order to drive a more equitable recovery for low-income communities of color hit hardest by the pandemic, reduced fare programs throughout the U.S. must be strengthened and expanded.

Acknowledging the importance of more affordable transit, cities such as Los Angeles and Boston initiated pilot programs to investigate the feasibility of fare-free transportation for low-income riders. Seattle’s Kings County Metro introduced a free pass for very low-income riders in 2020, and Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) removed transit fares altogether in 2019. Not only do these fare-free programs reflect a renewed commitment to transit equity, they have proven to increase ridership. During the pandemic, KCATA’s bus ridership remained at 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, far higher than other transportation systems around the country. Similarly, when Olympia, Washington and Lawrence, Massachusetts initiated fare-free pilots, ridership increased 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

While budget shortfalls due to lost revenue during the pandemic may prevent every city transportation system from becoming fare-free, especially those that gather larger portions of their budgets from farebox collection, new and improved reduced fare programs can provide an effective means for recovery. The Washington, D.C. Metro, the third largest system in the U.S. by ridership, does not currently offer reduced fares for low-income residents, but recently announced plans to launch a reduced fare pilot program. As the U.S. capital, where low-income riders often utilize bus service rather than subway service to avoid higher fares, widespread adoption of a reduced fare program is essential to build a more socioeconomically just transportation model.

In addition to starting new reduced fare programs, cities that already offer these discounts can consider ways to assure reduced fares are accessible to those who need them most. Although many cities reduced fare initiatives, programs vary significantly in terms of income requirements and discounts offered. NYC’s reduced fare program has the strictest requirement for eligibility in the U.S., with only riders at or below the federal poverty level able to access a 50 percent reduction in fares. Conversely, LA Metro’s reduced fare program is available to riders under 286 percent of the federal poverty level for a one-person household, but offers a lower fare reduction of 24 percent. To ensure that low-income riders do not face a large financial burden to pay transit fares, cities should consider setting a higher maximum income level for eligibility, higher discounts for currently qualified recipients, and a maximum percentage of income that low-income riders spend on transit.

Transit agencies should also work to enhance awareness and enrollment in reduced fare programs. As of February 2022, only 268,574 residents are enrolled in NYC’s Fair Fares program, less than 40 percent of the 700,000 estimated to be eligible.. During the pandemic, the NYC mayor cut funding for the program, assuming that enrollment would not drastically increase. Instead, city transportation officials should engage in strategies to increase enrollment in reduced fare programs, such as Portland’s effort to make reduced TriMet fare enrollment available online, previously only available in-person.

Although most transit systems acquire a portion of funding from fare revenue, leading to potential financial issues with reducing fares, reliance on transit for essential city functions during the pandemic demonstrated the role of transit as a crucial public good. With $39.2 billion in new funding for public transit from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, transportation agencies across the country should implement reduced fare programs alongside service improvements and accessibility upgrades. USDOT should develop a grant program to provide direct funding to cities to offer reduced fares. Transit agencies that offer reduced fares may reduce money spent on policing due to fare evasion, and boost economic stimulation as riders can spend money on goods and services that they would have spent on fares. Additional local sales taxes or taxes on employers can also fill gaps caused by decreased fare revenue.

The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed political interest in reducing or removing fares, creating an opportunity for policy change. Mayoral candidates in both Seattle and Boston supported free transit in their campaigns, and the recently-elected Boston mayor Michelle Wu applied for funding to make three bus routes free on her first day in office.First in June 2020 and again in March 2021, Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Pressley (D-MA) proposed the Freedom To Move Act, national legislation to fund fare-free public transit. City transportation leaders should take advantage of growing political will for free or reduced fares, and advocate for affordable transit as a lever for a more equitable mobility future.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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