Philbrick: Making fareless transit a reality
A VTA light rail train at Baypointe Station. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Fareless transit is a tool in the mobility toolkit that has the potential to address ridership and equity issues while fighting skyrocketing gas prices and climate change—but who will pay for it?

Public transit provides a reliable, safe, climate-friendly and equitable method to get from point A to B. But as with so many other industries, transit—which already had its share of problems—has been thoroughly shaken up by the pandemic. Who is using transit? How, and why? Reexamining these issues may enable the industry to shape a new, better “normal,” especially when it comes to the possibilities of fareless transit.

“Zero fare” and “fareless” transit is just what it sounds like: riders would pay nothing to hop on or off the bus, train or light rail. Some might argue transit is a service riders should pay for, while others might note it is a public good–much like our roads and streets. Think about it, every time a driver turns onto a local road or highway, they are not swiping a credit card to pay for this infrastructure that benefits drivers. So why should a transit user do so?

“The goal for transit is building equitable cities,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “We have this opportunity to do things a different way, invest in a different vision. Zero fares is a strategy to address that.”

The pandemic forced us to rethink everything. The way we work, how we travel and what is important. Even though transit ridership declined when many were social distancing and shifting to working at home, buses and trains remained up and running, providing lifelines to the transit-dependent community.

They had to—transit is essential infrastructure that enabled our nurses, grocery store employees and other essential workers to keep the country running through a global health crisis. But if we take a closer look at who was riding, a wider issue emerges.

Surveys from non-partisan research center Pew showed “a disproportionate number” of those who continued to regularly use transit through even the worst of the pandemic were “essential workers, Black and Latino residents, and people with low incomes.” Further data, from Pew and APTA, shows 65% of bus riders and 54% of rail riders are people of color.

If we really want to begin addressing equity in our country, fareless transit might be a step in the right direction, and it might attract new riders as well—which is an important tool for fighting climate change.

Research from the Mineta Transportation Institute, Free Transit: It All Depends on How, makes the case for off-peak fareless transit, rather than fareless across the board, or for fareless transit combined with a new revenue source such as pricing roads.

“One of the challenges with fareless transit is the most obvious one—it means forgoing revenue for transit agencies that are typically scrounging for every operating dollar they can find,” explain the study’s authors, Dr. Joshua Schank and Emma Huang. “Free transit is much more likely to be successful in improving mobility as part of a program that simultaneously raises the cost of driving.”

The study examines the perceived direct cost of using transit—paying for your ticket each time you use it—versus the initial upfront investment of driving, and how shifting this dynamic could encourage transit use.

Furthermore, many transit agencies, especially since the pandemic, are not being funded through farebox recovery—what riders pay to use the service—but rather through government subsidies like the $20 billion investment in transit through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This means going fareless would likely not have a significant impact on transit agency fiscal recovery.

Public transit safely and effectively addresses issues of equity and traffic congestion, the gutting effect of high gas prices and climate change. In fact, public transportation use saves the U.S. approximately 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually, which is more than 11 million gallons of gasoline per day.

Implementing fareless systems will take careful research and planning, and some may wonder if now is the right time to make major changes. But now is exactly the right time—the right time to face equity issues and rebuild a safe, efficient and accessible transit system.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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