Is the future of transit free?

Posted on June 28, 2013 by Nicole Schlosser

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."

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