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June 28, 2013

Is the future of transit free?

by Nicole Schlosser - Also by this author

Over the last couple of weeks, protestors in Brazil demanded less corruption and improvements to the nation's public services. In particular, a free transit activist group staged mass demonstrations over bus fare increases. The group, mostly university students, got the fare hikes that triggered the protests canceled, the AP reported.

The group is not stopping there, though; even after meeting with Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, it is still demanding the end of transit fares, in keeping with its original platform.

In another AP story, polls show that the majority of Brazilians “support the protests, while demanding more services for the heavy taxes they pay.”

However, adds the AP, Brazil’s economy is struggling, and the country is dealing with rising inflation. Both factors make investing more money in public services even more of a challenge.

Then again, there may be something to the idea of fare-free transit on larger systems, argues an article in The Economist. It says that buses and subways should be free to ride in an effort to reduce congestion and increase service quality. Fares cost a significant amount of money to collect, the story points out, referencing a 2007 report in New York magazine that found 6% of the MTA’s budget went to fare collection — maintaining the system and wasted fuel from idling buses, not to mention lost time.

The article also refers to a New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) study that totaled the amount of time wasted as riders waited to board and pay fares on one run of one bus route. That turned out to be 16 minutes and 16 seconds, or over a quarter of the total run. Moving to a proof-of-payment system on many of its lines has helped, but could making the system free to board help even more?

Fare free transit service is not unheard of, of course. Some Europe and U.S. cities have experimented with the idea. Europe appears to have had better luck with it, says a story in Planetizen.

The idea of fare-free transit may not gain much traction here in the U.S. anytime soon, especially given the current political climate. Still, is it possible that the movement in Brazil could be the tipping point for other countries, including the U.S., to re-examine how they improve their transit service and cover the expense?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Transit expands its list of partners."

Nicole Schlosser

Senior Editor


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  • Ian Straus[ June 28th, 2013 @ 11:27am ]

    Let me be sure I understand this: It's been tried, it' been found unsatisfactory several times, and people still pop up claiming it's the wave of the future.

  • Bill Hough[ June 28th, 2013 @ 11:34am ]

    The "no fare" advocates have a point in the case of systems with a low fare box recovery ratio, but people tend to devalue anything that's "free" and tend to abuse it. Make transit free and the homeless will just move in and set up housekeeping. Transportation and social service agencies have different missions and should be kept separate.

  • Mike Martin[ June 28th, 2013 @ 11:38am ]

    You've got to be kidding me. Why on earth would you attempt to draw an analysis of Transit, in America, somehow being the same as Transit in Brazil? That is insane. The last time I looked, Brazil was more broke (financially) than the United States.

  • Henry Porter[ June 28th, 2013 @ 11:55am ]

    This reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw when Obamacare was passed: "If you think health care is expensive now, wait 'til it's free!" I agree with Ian, Bill and Mike. It's a nutty idea!

  • Kymberleigh Richards[ June 28th, 2013 @ 12:34pm ]

    A big reason transit agencies charge fares is to deter indiscriminate use of the service. Here in Los Angeles County, one of our larger cities which runs its own service to enhance the regional Metro service (Glendale) tried going fare-free at one point, and quickly reestablished a nominal fare just to alleviate the resultant overcrowding. Before we as an industry can consider such an idea, we need to determine how the inevitable need for increased service (infrastructure, equipment, operating costs) will be funded ... and with the anticipated increase in usage the subsidies will have to be greater than the present farebox recovery. This will require a paradigm shift in thinking by DC and our state legislators which I don't see happening without some kind of catastrophic event that required most travel to be via public transportation.

  • Sam Zimmerman[ June 28th, 2013 @ 5:14pm ]

    The idea of free public transport has lots of political appeal, but, if anything, would result in worse service and more congestion, not better service and less congestion. Beijing tried essentially free transit (<$.10 us="" trip="" with="" a="" pass)="" for="" the="" 2008="" olympics="" with="" no="" measurable="" impact="" on="" congestion="" but="" an="" operating="" deficit="" that="" is="" becoming="" unmanageable.="" if="" anything,="" the="" crowds="" of="" people="" taking="" extremely="" short="" trips="" by="" bus="" instead="" of="" walking="" or="" biking="" cause="" intolerable="" crowding="" and="" slow="" up="" service="" making="" the="" bus="" less="" desirable="" for="" longer="" trips="" by="" people="" with="" a="" car="" or="" taxi="" option.="" those="" who="" drive="" are="" not="" particularly="" sensitive="" to="" fare="" the="" "simpson-curtin="" rule,"="" fare="" elasticity="" of="" 33%="" should="" attest="" to="" that.="" people="" with="" a="" choice="" are="" much="" more="" sensitive="" to="" the="" quality="" and="" level="" of="" service="" which="" would="" be="" hurt="" if="" operating="" revenue="" is="" eliminated.="" if="" there="" is="" a="" need="" to="" increase="" transit="" subsidies="" for="" the="" poor,="" do="" so="" directly,="" not="" via="" free="" transit.="" an="" issue="" in="" brazil="" is="" that="" employers="" are="" legally="" required="" to="" provide="" a="" significant="" subsidy="" to="" their="" full="" time,="" regular="" employees="" --="" unfortunately,="" like="" in="" many="" developing="" countries,="" the="" poorest="" people="" only="" work="" in="" the="" informal="" sector="" and="" have="" no="" way="" of="" being="" subsidized="" because="" they="" have="" no="" formal="" relationship="" with="" an="">

  • Joel Volinski[ June 29th, 2013 @ 5:19am ]

    Most people might be surprised to know that there are at least 40 transit systems in the United States that operate totally fare-free systems. The one common theme among all of them is that the areas they serve fall into one of three categories: 1. Small urban or rural areas 2. Resort communities 3. Communities in which a university is a prominent presence. In the case of small urban and rural communities, the business case can be made that the limited amount of money received in the farebox is not worth the expense and time associated with collecting fares. In resort towns, another business case can be made in communities where the population can go from 2,500 on normal days to over 50,000 on weekends. These towns need to do everything they can to try to get people out of their cars in order to allow the streets to function. In the case of towns with a large university presence, the students and faculty are often riding without paying a fare on the bus (the university students and personnel pre-pay at a discounted rate per passenger), leaving only a minority of people (who are usually lower income)paying at the farebox which doesn't feel equitable. In the case of resort towns and university towns, crush loads occur at many stops where 40 or 50 people might board at one time. If all of them had to pay a fare, the bus schedule would be impossible to keep. Resort areas and university towns are also usually very concerned about the environment and want to do what they can to reduce their carbon footprint, so they encourage people to use transit. Yes, there have been experiments in the U.S. in Denver, Trenton, and Austin, all of which were discontinued for a variety of reasons including overcrowding, rowdy behavior, buses running behind schedule, etc. All of these sort of things can be addressed with additional resources (more buses, more security, more maintenance), but of course those things cost money - in larger cities it would cost a ton of money. I wrote a repor

  • John Jones[ July 1st, 2013 @ 6:43am ]

    I recently managed a system that has always been free and the areguments made by the others commenting here all hold true. The system was devalued and taken for granted by our users, we even had issues getting our employees to show any pride in what they were doing. Vagrants were always "round tripping" in winter and there really was no way to stop that because all they had to do was get off and get back on again - it kept ridership high. The issues were that we didn't attract a huge choice rider base because those folks knew what they would encounter once they were on board. Eventually, ridership began to fall and we weren't able to cover our operating costs with our sales tax so we had to reduce services. When I left the system, the Board still flatly refused to make the system fare based. It may work to have a route or two within a restricted zone be free but a whole system is a bad idea. I would advise anyone toying with this idea to run the other way - quickly!

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Janna Starcic

Executive Editor


Alex Roman

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Nicole Schlosser

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