Will making transit free make people want to ride more?

Posted on January 28, 2020 by Lenae Storey - Also by this author

Several cities in the U.S. including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver have considered implementing free-transit systems. UTA

At the end of last year, Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council voted unanimously to make the city’s bus system fare-free. The plan was meant to increase transportation equity in the region and was a priority of the city’s recently elected Mayor, Quinton Lucas and newly elected council member, Eric Bunch. Several cities in the U.S., including Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Denver have considered implementing free-transit systems, but each area has had its own internal debate about how to best offer a free service, limiting their ability to put forth formalized proposals.

The initiative in Kansas City has since sparked discussion among city officials and transit leaders across the nation around whether free transit is the solution they’ve been seeking to make public transportation a more accessible — and preferred — mode of transit. At a time when competition from ride-hailing services, bikes and scooters, and, of course, personal vehicles is increasingly threatening public transportation ridership, Kansas City's willingness to experiment with new ideas to revamp transit service is intriguing — but will it work?

Fare-free transit certainly has its benefits
There’s no denying the potential benefits of fare-free transit, especially when considering how it could help marginalized communities move around more freely. This is certainly the hope among Kansas City lawmakers and transportation officials. In making its bus system free, the city hopes that it will be able to increase mobility overall, and thus, support equal access to jobs while also boosting economic activity in the city’s center. This is particularly important, as that anticipated increase in activity and revenue would help the city recoup the loss of ticket sales.

Research suggests that the success of fare-free transit is dependent on the size of both the city and transit agency.

Research suggests that the success of fare-free transit is dependent on the size of both the city and transit agency. Several smaller cities in the U.S., including ski centers such as Vail, Colorado, currently offer fare-free transit and have experienced strong ridership growth as a result. In Europe, many cities currently operate fare-free transit systems with even greater success. For example, when the French city of Dunkirk introduced the concept of fare-free transit in 2017, it saw bus ridership increase by more than 60 percent on weekdays and more than double on weekends, with 48 percent of riders saying they now leave their cars at home. Especially as city leaders continue to face heightened pressure to reduce carbon emissions and get people out of their cars, incentives like this are promising — but for most cities, the fix isn’t as simple as making service free.

Free fares also enable another major shift in fare collection and policing fare-evasion. There are obvious operational benefits in reducing the administrative burden of farebox maintenance, cost of revenue collection, and reduced dwell time. A moral benefit exists as well. Free-fares can replace discrimination in fare-evasion enforcement; a civil rights challenge plaguing many major transit systems. Studies across various U.S. cities have shown that fare enforcement disproportionately targets minorities, and these minorities face steep penalties when they are stopped. Providing free-fares alleviates the need for fare enforcement which in turn reduces inequality in access to public transportation.   

At the end of last year, Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council voted unanimously to make the city’s bus system fare-free. KCATA
At the end of last year, Kansas City, Missouri’s City Council voted unanimously to make the city’s bus system fare-free. KCATA
Making public transit free doesn’t necessarily make it better
Although there are case studies to support how fare-free transit can work successfully, it’s not the ultimate solution to improving ridership or service gaps. While free transit can certainly reduce barriers to access, we can’t overlook the reality that many cities are currently operating transit systems that don’t meet the needs of their citizens. Whether it’s an issue of routes not running frequently enough, or current systems not being capable of servicing people based on real-time demand, simply reducing barriers to access isn’t enough. In fact, a recent study by TransitCenter suggests most low-income bus riders see lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service.

Free transit doesn’t fix the lagging transit infrastructure required to make transit services more desirable.

Making the bus free is a great incentive to encourage people to ride more in theory. However, for many cities the desired impact of fare-free transit — increased ridership — often fails in achieving the goals of reduced congestion and greenhouse-gas emissions because ridership increases only marginally overall. Mostly people already willing to walk or ride transit take advantage; free fares do not entice those who otherwise would drive. Free transit doesn’t fix the lagging transit infrastructure required to make transit services more desirable. This in turn actually drives a larger gap between those that depend on public transit and those that do not; again, reinforcing a stigma about public transit’s viability and effectiveness.

Either way, the decision is still significant
Regardless of whether you support fare-free transit models or not, Kansas City’s initiative is impactful. The city’s decision comes at a time when a willingness to experiment with new transit ideas is necessary. The rise of more predictable and convenient services like Uber and Lyft is not a trend that will go away any time soon. Cities and transit agencies need to be willing to challenge the status quo and experiment with new, outcome-based models if they want to improve ridership, expand access, and ultimately enhance the vibrancy of their city. More than anything, it’s Kansas City’s entrepreneurial spirit that other cities should be embracing.

At the end of the day, there needs to be an emphasis on outcome-based transit planning among transit officials nationwide.

Implementing a fare-free bus system isn’t the only innovative approach the city has taken to revamp transportation in the region. Take a look at RideKC microtransit. The service has been incredibly successful since launching in Johnson County. In its first three months alone, the service moved 24X the number of rides that Bridj completed in the region before it folded. In a survey of RideKC users, 31 percent of respondents said that if the service weren’t available, they would have taken an Uber/Lyft, while 12 percent wouldn’t have made the trip at all.

Delivering transit alternatives like this is a viable solution to closing gaps in service and ensuring all citizens have equal access to navigate their city. While free transit can certainly be an element within a holistic transit ecosystem, it cannot be delivered at the expense of good service overall. Cities have to maintain a focus on continually bettering transportation, and part of that requires them to think creatively about how to align service with the needs of modern riders. At the end of the day, there needs to be an emphasis on outcome-based transit planning among transit officials nationwide. If that means creating fare-free services, it also means ensuring fast, reliable, and frequent transit. Kansas City has proven to be a positive example of this type of innovative thinking.

Lenae Storey is a Director of Mobility Strategy at TransLoc, a Ford Mobility Co.  

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