View from St.Olav's Church in Tallinn, Estonia. (Kadi-Liis Koppel/Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau)
Six years ago, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, became “the world's first" to introduce free public transport for all its residents, according to the AP. After three months, the program was deemed a success, with ridership up 10%, and the number of cars on city streets reduced by as much as 15%. In 2018, free fares were extended to the entire nation of Estonia — another first. Similarly, the French city of Dunkirk, drastically reducing private car use when it launched a free bus system for residents and visitors in 2018. Bus use in the city skyrocketed by more than 60% on weekdays and more than doubled on weekends, with 48% of users reporting that they leave their cars at home, according to the according to an article by Enrique Dans for Forbes. The increased demand was not due solely to the availability of free and convenient transportation, but also to the fact that it is frictionless: people don’t have to worry about travel cards, cash, or identification, Dans explained.
Smaller systems take lead
About three dozen public transit systems offer zero fare service in the U.S., according to 2012 TCRP data. These systems are all located in one of three categories of communities: small, urban, and rural; university; and resort. When the Oregon-based Corvallis Transit System, which operates 15 buses and one trolley vehicle, implemented its fare-free service in 2011, ridership grew by 37.9% in its first year, according to Mobility Lab. Heading further east, Missoula, Mont.’s Mountain Line transit system launched a three-year zero-fare pilot program in 2015, which was funded in part by community partnerships. Two years later, the agency announced it was extending the pilot another three years.
This summer, Massachusetts’ Worcester Regional Transit Authority announced it would conduct a fare analysis that includes consideration of a fare-free system. Additionally, Kansas City (Mo.) Area Transportation Authority President/CEO Robbie Makinen is pushing for a zero-fare system. “Public transit needs to be free,” Makinen told KCUR during an interview about a system overhaul.
While zero-fare policies have been mostly cropping up in smaller cities, it is notable that Los Angeles Metro CEO Phil Washington announced last year that he wants to implement a congestion-charging plan to help fund free transit.
'More just, equitable, sustainable'
There are many benefits of switching to a fare-free service. In addition to the significant ridership increases and more efficient operations by reducing dwell times, other benefits include: a significant drop in funding subsidy per passenger; reduction in administrative expenses related to fare collection; community recognition and pride; increased support from bus operators; and most importantly, going fare-free makes transit service equally available to everyone regardless of income.
In a post for StreetsBlogLA, youth advocate Eli Pallrand urges Los Angeles to get rid of transit fares for a “more just, equitable, and sustainable urban city.” “[Fare-free transit] is the only method by which transit can become a safe public space which serves the groups that need it most — primarily young people and the poor,” he said. Pallrand also touted the practice as a key weapon in the fight against climate change. “Until transit is free, every city without it will be plagued by the dominance of cars — and car companies — which destroy an environment already under siege,” he explained.
As smaller transit fleets in the U.S. take the lead in the fare-free movement, larger systems need to take a second look at the benefits, because there are too many not to.
Janna Starcic is the executive editor of METRO Magazine.
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