Dave Olsen

Fare-Free Public Transit Could Be Headed to a City Near You

The time has come to stop making people pay to take public transit.

Why do we have any barriers to using buses and urban trains? The threat of global warming is no longer in doubt. The hue and cry of the traffic-jammed driver grows louder every commute. And politicians are getting the message. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered his staff to seriously examine the costs of charging people to ride public transit. And Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, recently voiced to a reporter his top dream: "I would have mass transit be given away for nothing and charge an awful lot for bringing an automobile into the city."

Consider this sampling of communities providing free rides on trolleys, buses, trams and ferries: Staten Island, N.Y.; Island County, Wash.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Vail, Colo.; Logan and Cache Valley, Utah; Clemson, S.C.; Commerce, Calif.; Châteauroux, Vitré, and Compiègne, France; Hasselt, Belgium; Lubben, Germany; Mariehamn, Finland; Nova Gorica, Slovenia; Türi, Estonia; and Övertorneå, Sweden.

Or speak, as I have, with transit officials in parts of Belgium and the state of Washington, where fare-free transit has hummed along smoothly now for years.

Raising fares kills ridership

As even conservatives like California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger trumpet a green agenda, more people are taking a hard look at just how many of their tax dollars subsidize the private car versus less polluting buses and trains. You have to figure in roads, parking and other infrastructure, tax breaks for car and fuel companies, as well as subsidies for car-carrying ferries and federal income tax reductions and write-offs for companies that use motor vehicles.

By some estimates, the government subsidy to each private vehicle owner is about $3,700, while a common cost for providing a single trip by transit is about $5.

Yet big or small, most transit systems are scraping by or on the brink of financial collapse, paradoxically because of their reliance on the farebox. Revenue for any system drops when ridership dips or when fares are increased. Yes, when fares are increased. This is so well proven it has a name: the Simpson-Curtain rule. Most often the dip in ridership is caused by a fare hike.

To understand this cycle better, let's imagine that you are in charge of a transit system. You feel pressure to increase service or to maintain service despite increasing costs. You need to raise more money. Politically and practically, for most systems, the easiest way is to raise fares. But soon after, ridership goes down. It drops 3.8 percent for every 10 percent increase in fares, researchers have found. Which means you either haven't gained much new revenue, or worse, you've started spiraling downward.

Just one example is Toronto's transit system, which went into a 12-year downward spiral throughout the 1990s after a series of fare increases and resultant service cutbacks. The authoritative Transit Cooperative Research Program in Washington, D.C., has clearly documented how fare increases always result in lower ridership.

Fare-free success stories

Recently I met the people who run Island Transit in Whidbey Island, Wash., and rode their fare-free bus system. It's a serious operation with 56 buses and 101 vans. Ridership tops a million a year. Its operating budget is $8,392,677 -- none of it from fares, all from a 0.6 percent sales tax collected in Island County.

Despite the pressure to conform, the pressure to make users pay and the pressure from conservative politicians at all levels, Island Transit has been fare-free from day one and is proudly so 20 years later. Not one Island Transit bus, shelter or van has advertising on it. All of Island Transit's buses are bike rack equipped and wheelchair accessible. For folks with disabilities, Island Transit also offers a paratransit service with door-to-door service.

Island Transit has developed a simple policy around dealing with behavior that is unruly or disturbing to others: "The operator is the captain of their own ship." This is backed up by a state law regarding unlawful bus conduct. A bothersome rider first gets a written warning. The next time, his or her riding privileges are revoked. These privileges are only restored after completing a Rider Privilege Agreement. Island Transit has further protected its employees by installing a camera system in every vehicle. The big brotherness of it is acknowledged, but the safety of their operators simply takes priority. "Show me another transit system in Washington state," said Island Transit operator Odis D. Jenkins, "where the teenagers more often than not say 'thank you' when they get off."

Done right, fare-free transit can transform society, says Patrick Condon, an expert on sustainable urban development who knows the system in Amherst, Mass. "Free transit changed the region for the better. Students, teens and the elderly were able to move much more freely through the region. Some ascribed the resurgence of Northampton, Mass, at least in part, to the availability of free transit. Fares in that region would have provided such a small percentage of capital and operating costs that their loss was made up for by contributions by the major institutions to benefit: the five colleges in the region," says Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Another success story, a decade old, can be found in Hasselt, Belgium. This city of 70,000 residents, with 300,000 commuters from the surrounding area, has made traveling by bus easy, affordable and efficient. Now, people in Hasselt often speak of "their" bus system and with good reason. The Boulevard Shuttle leaves you waiting for at most five minutes, the Central Shuttle has a 10-minute frequency, and systemwide you never have to wait more than a half an hour.

A prime lesson offered by Hasselt is the fact that it radically improved the bus system as well as its walking and cycling infrastructure before it removed the fareboxes. In 1996, there were only three bus routes with about 18,000 service hours/year. Today, there are 11 routes with more than 95,000 service hours/year.

The transit system in Hasselt cost taxpayers approximately $1.8 million in 2006. This amounts to 1 percent of its municipal budget and makes up about 26 percent of the total operating cost of the transit system. The Flemish national government covered the rest (approximately $5.25 million) under a long-term agreement.

Hasselt City Council's principal aim in introducing free public transport was to promote the new bus system to such a degree that it would catch on and become the natural option for getting around. And it did -- immediately. On the first day, bus ridership increased 783 percent! The first full year of free-fare transit saw an increase of 900 percent over the previous year; by 2001, the increase was up to 1,223 percent, and ridership continues to go up every day.

Planning essential

So how did Hasselt make it happen?

On Jan. 1, 1991, the Flemish Authority brought together three public transport companies and joined them into one autonomously operating state company. This company's raison d'etre is to provide transport for the whole of Flanders. That was the beginning of the Flemish Transport Co., since then generally known under the name "De Lijn." This structure allows it to buy buses more cheaply, and it can even share buses among the different city and regional systems whenever they're needed.

"To be successful," says Jean Vandeputte, the chief engineer-director for the City of Hasselt, "I think that the public transport system must not be crowded at the start. Our project was originally organized to attract more passengers and to have less cars in the city center. The buses also need separate lanes, because traveling by bus has to be faster than by car, so the infrastructure of intersections and streets has to be adapted. The buses have to be modern, clean ... you need to have more bus stops. And the shelters must be attractive."

By making public transport free of charge, it became possible to guarantee the right to mobility for all residents in Hasselt. Their position was that an improved public transport system simply means a better use of the public space that will not only improve the quality of traffic, but the quality of life in general.

The Hasselt experience before 1997 was not much different than anywhere else in the Western world. Car ownership in Hasselt rose by 25 percent from 1987 to 1999, while the population increased by only 3.3 percent during this same period. Although Hasselt is the fourth largest city in Belgium, it ranked first in car ownership during those years.

After implementing fare-free transit, over 40 percent of the people visiting hospitals switched from a car to the bus. Over 32 percent of the people "going to market" switched from using cars to buses. Overall, in November 1997, 16 percent of all bus riders studied previously drove a car. It is important to understand that this was achieved by the elimination of fares, the expansion of service and the implementation of bus priority measures such as bus lanes.

Karl Storchmann, a researcher at Yale University, has documented that even the 12 percent of bus riders that were previously cyclists, as well as the 9 percent that switched from walking to the bus in Hasselt, will produce a net positive change for society, since pedestrians and cyclists "belong to the most endangered road users, [and] every decrease in these modes will lead to a reduction of automobile-caused costs [i.e., deaths and injuries]."

Because Hasselt's policy makers understand that bikes are the most sustainable form of transport, today in Hasselt one can borrow a bicycle, tandem, scooter or wheelchair bike free of charge. On the Groenplein (behind the town hall) you can also borrow a stroller free of charge for your little one (as its website states, "Handy when your toddler can't make the distance"). And two wheelchairs are available for free loan from the tourism bureau. The city's center is cleared of cars, offering instead a network of pedestrian shopping streets."

This approach has saved the City of Hasselt millions of Euros on transportation infrastructure costs, and clearly the city isn't afraid to innovate. As Hasselt Mayor Steve Stevaert declared, "We don't need any more new roads, but new thought highways!"

The costs of collecting fares
A prime reason to quit charging people to take the bus is that collecting bus fares costs a lot of money. It takes both machines and people to sell, make and distribute tickets and collect, count and deposit cash.

King County's Metro Transit System, which includes the city of Seattle and an estimated population of just under 2 million, concludes, after a comprehensive assessment, that the cost of collecting fares will hit about $8 million this year -- enough to buy 18 new buses.

A major analysis of U.S. public transit systems found that for larger systems, fare collection costs can be as high as 22 percent of the revenue collected. Another study showed that New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends roughly $200 million a year just to collect money from transit riders. What about switching to "smart card" technology? Wouldn't that save money? In Toronto, the city's Transit Commission estimates the switch will cost almost $250 million (or about 520 new buses) for card readers, vending machines and retrofits, and over $10 million a year (22 new buses) after that, which has some transit authorities saying the money could be better used in improving service.

For similar reasons, some cities have decided it just doesn't pay to police people who don't pay fares. In 1996, the Maryland Mass Transit Administration (MTA) wanted to figure out how to stop those few riders that cheat; its Central Light Rail Line was "barrier free." MTA wanted to know whether it should start using barriers in order to force people to pay their fares.

The study found that more people would pay, yes, but the cost of making them pay would be higher than the revenue from extra fares collected. Much higher. The least expensive alternative would cost the MTA $18.54 for each potential fare dollar recovered over a 10-year period. In other words, if $1 million is currently lost to fare evasion, it would cost at least $18.5 million to collect that money.

Spread the burden and benefit

All of which brings us back to the logic of fare-free transit.

Whidbey Island's transit planners did their own studies two decades ago. In 1986 they did an extensive cost-benefit analysis of collecting fares and found that either no significant revenue would be generated for Island Transit, or that the costs of collecting fares would exceed the revenue generated.

Other systems that didn't plan well have had near disastrous experiences, in particular Austin, Texas. As one study from Florida State University concludes, "There has not been a full fare-free policy instituted on a systemwide basis since the experiment in Austin. The negative consequences of these experiments, the Austin experiment in particular, have left lasting impressions on transit operators throughout the country."

But a lot of opposition to the idea is grounded less in practicalities, more in ideology.

It's a matter of faith among most transit officials, for example, that if you remove the fare, the service becomes worthless.

"Be aware that when one moves the price of something to zero, in addition to challenging capacity, one is stating that the product or service is not an economic good -- that is, that it has no value," warned one transit official. "Pricing signals value. I would suggest you keep it nonzero."

Perhaps North America's transit planners need to switch jobs with builders of roads and bridges. Those transportation essentials are, after all, usually paid for through taxes or bonds, and we use them without being charged each time we roll over them.

Imagine if a government tried to put a farebox into every car. Each time drivers took a trip, they would have to dig into their pockets to find a couple dollars -- in exact change.

And yet, we force the poorest among us to live this way. In British Columbia's Lower Mainland, one of the most expensive places to live in North America, a family traveled from a suburb to Vancouver by public transit during spring break. It cost the mother and her three sons $26 in day passes.

For those without well-paying jobs, a bus fare of any amount can be a barrier to finding work, making it to school, visiting friends and relatives or even getting food to eat.

Wouldn't it make more sense to treat public transit the way we treat most road infrastructure and pay for it all by some method of taxation?

Reality check

But before we act, let's make a few important guiding principles clear:

Taking the farebox out of any bus without a plan is just a recipe for disaster. That's the lesson from Island Transit on Whidbey Island and Hasselt, Belgium, which proves beyond doubt that fare-free systems can be safe, clean and very friendly.

Making transit free of charge won't in itself allow huge numbers of people to abandon their cars. We'll need more public transit vehicles, running more frequently, too. The decade-old experience in Hasselt has shown that investing in the service prior to the removal of the fareboxes not only makes the transition smoother, it will get people on the bus and out of their cars.

We need to pay, one way or another. There isn't a transit system on the planet that pays for itself solely through the farebox. If we want a transit system that is adequate, reliable and gets those lonely drivers out of their cars, we need to find funding formulas that are adequate and reliable.

Let us remind ourselves of what really matters. We don't have much time left to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions before catastrophic climatic changes irreversibly occur. It seems absurd, therefore, to continue to make it more difficult than it already is for people to use the bus and train.

Fare-free transit is not only feasible, it may well be critical for us to survive as a species. It can save us money, and it contributes to a much more fair, equitable and mobile society.

The only thing left to do is to let your transit providers and elected officials know how you feel. Speak up now -- for our children and for our planet.

Sixteen reasons to stop charging

Consider the many benefits:

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