Intercity Transit is deliberately framing its new approach as “zero-fare” as opposed to another phrasing like “ride free.” That’s because it successfully asked Thurston County voters in 2018 to raise the local sales tax for better bus service.”

Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?
by Ellen Barry / Jan. 14, 2020

“Dionisia Ramos gets on the 37 bus twice a day, rooting through her handbag to dig out the fare and drop it into the slot, so it came as shock several months ago when the bus driver reached out his hand to stop her. “You don’t have to pay,” he said. “It’s free for the next two years.” Ms. Ramos had never heard of anything like this: Someone was paying her bus fare? At 55, she lives on a monthly unemployment check for $235. So saving $2.40 a day, for her trip to and from community college, past the hulking mills of Lawrence’s industrial past — that meant something. Since a pilot program began in September, use of the buses has grown by 24 percent, and the only criticism Ms. Ramos has of the city’s experiment with fare-free transit is that it’s not permanent. “Transportation should be free,” she said. “It’s a basic need. It’s not a luxury.”

That argument is bubbling up in lots of places these days, as city officials cast about for big ideas to combat inequality and reduce carbon emissions. Some among them cast transportation as a pure public good, more like policing and less like toll roads. The City Council in Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, expressed strong support last week for waiving fares for its buses, a move that would cost between $2 and $3 million a year in lost fares. And fare-free transit is the splashiest policy recommendation of Michelle Wu, a Boston City Council member who is expected by many to run for mayor in 2021. Larger experiments are underway in other parts of the country. The cities of Kansas City, Mo.,and Olympia, Wash., both declared that their buses would become fare-free this year. The argument against fare-free transit is a simple one: Who is going to pay for it? In communities where ridership has been falling, the cost of waiving fares may be less than expected. Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Ms. Wu speak about fare-free transit, asked his regional transit authority how much was collected on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. The answer was such a small amount — $225,000 — that he could offset it from the city’s surplus cash reserves. “What I like is the doability of this, the simplicity of it,” Mr. Rivera said. “We are already subsidizing this mode of transportation, so the final mile is very short. It isn’t a service people need to pay for; it’s a public good.”

Around 100 cities in the world offer free public transit, the vast majority of them in Europe, especially France and Poland. A handful of experiments in the United States in recent decades, including the cities of Denver and Austin, were viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; new riders tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press. But in another sense, they were successful: They increased ridership right away, with rises between 20 and 60 percent in the first few months. That statistic accounts for its revival among a new wave of urban progressives, who see transit as a key factor in social and racial inequality. “Think about who is using our buses: It’s black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty,” said Kim Janey, who was sworn in last week as the president of Boston’s City Council and has proposed waiving fares on a key route through some of the city’s low-income neighborhoods. “I know what it’s like to stand on the bus, all cramped up, so I won’t be late to work,” she said. “When I say more representation matters, that’s why it matters. We will bring new ideas like free buses.”

The idea also appeals to moderates in places like Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, which is struggling to persuade residents to use its buses. Ridership has dropped by 23 percent since 2016, and the buses now run half-empty, according to a report released last May by the Worcester Research Bureau, a nonpartisan policy group. At a City Council meeting last week, a parade of citizens lined up to express support for a proposal to make Worcester’s buses free for three years, as a pilot program. Revenue from bus fares is so low, and the cost of collecting them so high, that it could be replaced by an infusion of $2 million to $3 million a year. “When I heard the news I sat bolt upright and said, ‘That’s a good idea!’” said Howard Fain, a public-school teacher, who said he often saw people struggling to dig out coins on the 7 bus. “Even people who can afford to pay for dinner love a free buffet,” he said. “Open up a cash bar and see what happens. We can draw people to public transit because people like free.”

In Boston, the idea has run into resistance from officials who say the cost would be exorbitant. “We have to have that conversation,” said Mayor Marty Walsh, who was pressed for his position in an interview on WGBH, a Boston public radio station. “It’s easy to throw ideas out there. But when you put ideas out there, we have to back it up with how do we actually pay for it. And that’s going to be the key point to this.” Brian Kane, deputy director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which oversees expenditures on Boston’s public transit system, said bus fares in Boston brought in $109 million in 2019 and $117 million in 2018. “There’s no such thing as free,” Mr. Kane said. “Someone has to pay. Boston has the highest-paid bus drivers in the country. They’re not going to work for free. The fuelers, the mechanics — they’re not going to work for free.” Advocates of free transit have suggested that the cost could be offset by a gas tax increase; but replacing $109 million would mean raising the gas tax by 3 and a half cents, Mr. Kane said. And all the while, he said, the system is straining to cope with the current demands. “I hate to be the guy who says, ‘eat your peas,’” he said. “But that’s where we are.”

Proponents of the idea argue that Mr. Kane’s numbers are inflated and that the true replacement cost would be closer to $36 million. That gap, they say, could be covered by a 2-cent rise in the gas tax. “That’s where something controversial or impossible a few years ago now seems possible,” said Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation research group. The Boston Globe editorial board, which endorsed the idea of making Boston’s buses fare-free this month, suggested the cost could by covered by philanthropy. Scott MacLaughlin, a ticket agent for the Merrimack Valley Transit Authority, which serves Lawrence, is already worrying about what happens when Mayor Rivera’s two-year experiment in free transit ends, in 2021. “You’re going to take it away after two years?” he said. “When you give someone something for free and then you take it away, that’s always going to be an issue.” And that, Mayor Rivera said with a smile, was exactly the point. “To me, it’s not a pilot,” he said. “I want people to get used to it.”

and WHY WE DON’T PAY to RIDE ELEVATORS’t+Pay+to+Ride+Elevators
Why Shouldn’t Public Transit Be Free?
by Hans Rollmann  /  10 Sep 2019

“For those who shill out ever-increasing amounts of cash to ride the bus daily, the notion of abolishing transit fares might sound like a pipe dream. But fare-free public transit is more common than many North Americans realize. At least 97 cities around the world operate fully free public transit systems, the largest being Tallinn, capital of Estonia (with nearly half a million residents). Free public transit in that city has been so successful – advocates say its generated tens of millions euros a year in profit – that its being expanded across the country. And that’s just the cities where transit is entirely free. Many other cities operate variations on the theme. Sometimes it’s particular parts of a city in which transit is free – a popular downtown core, say, or routes to and from the airport. In other instances, particular groups are exempt from having to pay fares – often children, seniors, youth, post-secondary students. In Greece, registered unemployed persons became eligible for fare exemption under the Syriza government.

Sometimes fares are suspended at particular times – some Chinese cities have experimented with free transit in the early morning and evenings in an effort to tackle rush hour congestion. Or specific days might be designated fare-free in an effort to boost public transit use or to generate environmental awareness. In the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca (with over 300,000 inhabitants) public transit was, for a period of time, free — if you read a book during your transit. Many of the jurisdictions where transit fares have been abolished are in Europe, but there are also several notable examples in South America, China, and Australia. What all this illustrates is the surprising frequency and creative range of approaches to free public transit around the world. Several of these examples are explored in the collection Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators, which draws contributions from a number of different countries. The collection includes a number of case studies of free public transit systems, as well as more policy-oriented analyses looking at how free public transit might affect land value, impact car use, and and improve health and accessibility in cities. The superb collection is a public policy planner’s dream, and the data it compiles makes a powerful case for the benefits not only of expanding public transit systems, but of abolishing fares entirely.

Cities abolish transit fares for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s motivated by public health concerns (car pollution takes an often underrated toll on public health, and studies are clear on the improved health outcomes that result when car usage is reduced). Other times it’s in response to traffic congestion problems, untenable rush hour traffic, or public anger at heavy traffic in particular parts of a city (a downtown shopping core, for instance). Some jurisdictions will eliminate transit fares for short periods in response to construction or road work going on that increases traffic congestion and delays. In this case, abolishing fares is partial compensation to the rider for the delays they experience, but it also boosts ridership and decreases car use, thereby helping to alleviate the intensified bottlenecks. Other jurisdictions, however, are motivated by broadly progressive ideals — to reduce and ultimately phase out car use, and to make cities more accessible for all residents. The collection makes a stirring case for boosting free public transit as a means of ultimately phasing out cars. The advent of the car industry has had a devastating impact on cities in many respects. In the United States, car companies worked assiduously with local politicians to shut down public transit systems – especially the tram lines that had sprung up in most growing American cities in the early 20th century. Cities also underwent restructuring as massive swathes of land were given over to parking lots. The result was a loss of common space and green space, coupled with hefty costs incurred by cities which often wound up paying the bill for parking-related developments, not to mention the expenses incurred by monitoring and enforcing parking fees.

In our present era, the realization that climate change is dangerously driven by fossil fuel use has burnished the determination of a growing number of urban advocates and policy-makers to reduce and ultimately abolish car use entirely. An innovative ‘right to the city‘ movement in Mexico City drew up an urban bill of rights, which explicitly designates car users as those least deserving of consideration when it comes to policy development (pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users take priority in this paradigm). Yet one common lesson that emerges from jurisdictions that offer free transit is that free transit by itself will not necessarily reduce car use in significant ways. The cities that have been successful in doing this have approached free public transit as part of a broader strategy to shift transportation from cars to public transit. This often involves additional measures like re-routing roads; designating certain roads and lanes as bus-only; moving parking spaces out of areas where car use is to be discouraged or hiking parking fees, and expanding transit routes so as to ensure they are able to meet the needs of the city’s wide plurality of residents. Examples of cities which effected significant shifts in resident behaviour through such strategies include Hasselt, Belgium, and Bologna, Italy.

Some of the book’s contributions focus on the strategies adopted by movements for free public transit. The policy has proven popular across a broad political spectrum, and has been endorsed by groups ranging from conservative political parties to anarchist activist groups. (Even The Economist describes Tallinn’s free public transit policy as “Expensive, but worth it“). Yet for several jurisdictions it has actually not proven expensive at all in the long-run, and has even generated savings (or profits, whichever way one chooses to look at a fiscally efficient public service). Fare collection and enforcement requires a significant cost in technology, infrastructure, staffing and legal work, and simply eliminating all that can be a very prudent fiscal decision, especially when one factors in the inevitable boost to a jurisdiction’s GDP, employment rate, and economic activity when residents are able to get around town more easily to work, access services and spend money.

Hence the book’s subtitle: elevators don’t cost money because we want people to get up and down the inside of buildings; otherwise there would be no point to building multi-storey buildings. But shouldn’t the same logic apply to horizontal, not just vertical, movement around our cities? Unfortunately, resistance to the idea of free public transit is prevalent as well, and often assumes purely ideological forms. This is one reason there are so few fare-free jurisdictions in the United States (although there are some). Capitalist and neoliberal reactionaries have been so determined in parts of North America (and elsewhere – Italy being a recent example) to strike pre-emptively against anything that carries a whiff of socialism. (Never mind that free transit has been shown to make great business sense.) Some jurisdictions have adopted restrictive policies requiring public services to pass on certain minimum percentages of their operational costs to passengers in order to access public funds, effectively barring free provision of public services. In other cases, municipalities have been stripped of the powers of taxation (or never had them in the first place) necessary to be able to generate the revenue to operate a fare-free public transit system.

How should transit advocates and activists most effectively push for free transit? While the notion has been endorsed as common sense by politicians and parties from across the political spectrum (especially in Europe), in some jurisdictions it’s required a struggle by an organized movement. Achieving majority control of municipal government is key, the analysts say, and organizing on a local neighbourhood level is an integral method of building municipal movement strength. Jurisdictions that have seen the successful build-up of powerful, progressive municipal reform movements – case studies in the book include places like Montreal, Canada and Bologna, Italy – have seen broad-based organizing take place at a neighbourhood level, block by block.

Building a strong municipal political culture was key to maintaining a progressive approach to municipal governance in Bologna (a city that abolished transit fares), where the leftist government, once in power, devolved many of its previously centralized functions to the local neighbourhoods. This made municipal government services more accessible to residents – they no longer had to travel across the city to access out-of-the-way, centralized government offices, but could access the services within a short walk or bus ride in their own neighbourhood – and helped to generate a more vigorously engaged municipal population.

Some of the contributions to Free Public Transit explore fare resistance movements, and the creative tactics they have adopted in cities like Stockholm, Montreal, and Toronto. These have ranged from encouraging people to ‘pay it forward’ by swiping transit passes for strangers, to actively encouraging fare dodging. In Sweden, an activist movement organized a ‘strike fund’ against transit fares whereby fare-dodgers who subscribe and contribute on a regular basis can have their fines covered from the fund in the event they get caught. Sometimes the transit authority’s response to organized fare-dodging movements has been to engage in a bit of an arms race: transit companies determined to charge fares install expensive, high-tech gear (surveillance equipment, full-body glass doors instead of simple turnstiles, etc.) or increase security staff to try to cut down on fare-dodgers. However, these are tactics that the fare-dodging movements will often just as effectively counter. In light of the significant costs incurred by expanding fare-enforcement infrastructure, it tends to simply bolster the argument in favour of free transit, which does not require any of this expensive technology, infrastructure, or staffing costs related to fare collection.

Of course, nothing is ‘free’ – everything comes with an associated resource cost – so who should pay for free public transit? There are a variety of responses to this question too, and a range of different strategies have been deployed to generate the revenue necessary to run the transit systems. Generally these involve taxation of some kind – either funding the transit system from a city’s general revenue (which ultimately comes mostly from taxation anyway), or from targeted taxes on businesses and landowners that benefit from the enhanced land value and economy activity resulting from free public transit. Sometimes businesses above a certain size will be charged additional taxes to cover the cost. Additional fees and taxes levied on tourists – hotel taxes, for instance – are often used, in recognition of the fact that tourists might be availing of the services which tax-paying residents fund on an ongoing basis. Budgets are always a matter of priorities, and the money to make public transit free is always easy enough to find where there’s a will. It’s simply a matter of whether it ought to be diverted from some other area of spending, or generated through targeted taxes on some portion of the beneficiaries of the service. And if so, whether the rich should pay more than the poor.

The biggest drawback from Free Public Transit is the assumption, implicitly accepted by several of the contributors, that self-driving vehicles are an inevitability. The contributors consider the impact these will have on transit and traffic debates, and generally make an argument against private ownership of self-driving vehicles, arguing that if publicly controlled, they could constitute a useful part of a public transit system. They envision a system in which smaller self-driving vehicles are used to transport neighbourhood residents, free of charge, from their homes to the larger bus or light rail terminals that allow them to complete their daily journeys. Yet there’s a certain naïveté in the tacit assumption that self-driving vehicles are inevitable, as well as the hope that they will contribute in utopian ways toward a positive public transit future. If anything, the lessons in this book – especially those drawn from the ruthless campaigns of car companies to eviscerate public transit systems and restructure urban space for the benefit of their product – are that new technologies, especially when pioneered by private interests, rarely prioritize the public good over private profit. It is just as likely that self-driving vehicles will simply continue the struggle of private industry against public transit.

Moreover, the utopianism inherent in the vision of a self-driving public transit system ignores the very real human cost that could result from removing human oversight from the system. Does anyone really think that corporations seeking to profit from self-driving vehicles would pay to have human monitors on those vehicles, for security and safety purposes, if they weren’t forced to? No technological innovation is inevitable, and the rather naïve utopianism of some contributors around self-driving vehicles is the only jarring part of this collection. That is not to say that self-driving vehicles shouldn’t be part of the dialogue, but future versions of the collection would benefit from having some more critical analyses of the corporate hype surrounding self-driving vehicles.

Labour unions representing transit workers have been fighting against automated transit systems with varying levels of success; there’s potential for a strong alliance against the automation of our cities’ transportation networks. Given the reckless accidents already being caused by experiments in self-driving vehicles, and the tremendous risk of hacked vehicles being used in criminal or terrorist activities, there’s immense potential for galvanizing an urban movement to ban self-driving vehicles that could easily stop the technology in its tracks. The future of self-driving vehicles, and their role in transit debates, deserves a more holistic debate than we see in the present environment, in which developers of the technology are allowed to forge the agenda and transit advocates merely try to add some progressive touches to an agenda already shaped by private industry. That aside, Free Public Transit is a delightfully thought-provoking collection, packed with data and innovative ideas alike. It’s a refreshing source of inspiration for those who rely on public transit, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in urbanism or public policy.”

Who’s Afraid of Fare-Free Public Transit?
by Josh Cohen  /  May 25, 2018

“Elizabeth Bauerle is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s medical center. To get from her home in the north Seattle suburb of Shoreline to her job on the Seattle campus, she can either drive or take two buses. Like all of us, Bauerle weighs cost, convenience and personal values in deciding how she’ll travel to work. She says the two-bus trip can take as much 20 to 30 minutes longer than driving. That time difference would matter less to Bauerle if she wasn’t paying for the bus out of pocket, but the cost plus time has her grabbing the car keys most mornings, joining the roughly 34 percent of University of Washington employees who drive alone. Bauerle is part of a campaign to try and change that equation for employees like herself. UW Pass or Fail — a new campaign lead by a broad coalition including university employees, the Seattle Transit Riders Union, 350 Seattle, SEIU Local 925 and others — is pushing the University of Washington to fully cover the cost of transit passes. Currently, university faculty and staff can get an unlimited transit pass for $50 a month. Though that’s nearly half the normal $99 cost for an unlimited monthly regional transit pass, the campaign argues that as a state employer with tens of thousands of employees, the University of Washington is lagging behind other state employers, Seattle universities, hospitals and large companies that provide employees with free transit passes.

Beyond simply matching comparable institutions, the campaign also argues that it makes sense for the university to encourage transit ridership both to ease congestion and further its climate impact goals. “It is actually cheaper in the long run for [the university] to make transit free for employees than building more parking,” said Rosalie Ray, a Columbia University PhD student and contributing author of “Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators,” at a May 21 launch party in Seattle for the newly published book. Co-edited by Jason Prince, an urban planner and faculty member at Montreal’s Concordia University, and Judith Dellheim, a researcher at the Rosa Luxumberg Foundation in Berlin, the new book comprises 19 wonky, academic essays from a variety of contributing authors. The anthology makes a collective economic, environmental and social justice case for fare-free public transit and looks case studies from cities around the world that have implemented free transit policies. Both Ray and Bauerle spoke on a panel about free transit at the May 21 event in Seattle, which doubled as a kickoff for the UW Pass or Fail campaign.

Around 200 cities worldwide have some form of fare-free transit, whether fully free or just free for certain user groups, in certain zones or at certain times of day. As of the book’s publication, there were 97 cities and towns with fully fare-free public transit (the book uses the term fare-free transit because, of course, transit costs money whether fares or taxes pay for it). Most of the fare-free systems are in Europe, with 21 in Poland, 20 in France and another 15 elsewhere. Estonia’s capital Tallinn, home to about 450,000 people, is the largest city in the world with a fully fare-free transit system. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States has 27 fare-free systems — mostly in small towns and colleges where the cost of fare collection out paces the revenue it raises. There are also 11 fare-free systems in Brazil, two in China and one in Australia. “There are many cities making small and large poetic gestures [to fare-free transit],” says Prince. “Our book is trying to present the opportunity to the next city that will really do something on a big scale with transportation.”  To Prince, making that major shift is now critical. “We’re facing two great challenges in the 21st century. One is climate change. If we’re serious about mitigating the effects of carbon change we have to take strong action on transportation … the second great challenge of the 21st century is income inequality.” Globally, transportation is responsible for more than 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; meanwhile, transportation is often the second highest household cost. Prince points out that fare-free transit could help incentivize single occupancy vehicle drivers to shift to more environmentally friendly buses or trains and help ease financial strain for low-income households. “We can feed two birds with one bit of bread by attacking transport with a completely new model,” Prince says.

Recently, several cities have experimented with temporarily free transit to help address air pollution including Salt Lake CityBrussels and Seoul. Paris is considering making its system fully fare-free to address its smog. It turns out, cities have long made the link between air pollution and encouraging transit use by making it free. The book references a few examples, like in April 1973, overwhelmed by daily traffic jams and the pollution it caused, Bologna, Italy (then under communist rule) made buses free before 9 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Recognizing that free buses alone would do no good if they were stuck in traffic, the city also implemented restrictions on 75 percent of their streets such as bus and taxi only zones, streets only accessible by businesses and delivery drivers, and pedestrian only streets. After two years, the policy reduced daily traffic from 200,000 to 160,000 cars. Beyond pollution, Bolognese planners also had quality of life in mind. In a quote cited in the new book that could well be about contemporary cities, Bologna Traffic Councilor Mauro Formaglini said, “Our goal above-all is the restoration of the human dimension of our city. … The people consider the causes of the traffic chaos and soon discover that there are clear political reasons for it.”

Many fare-free transit systems are introduced in service of economic development — think free downtown circulator buses and street cars. Tallinn, Estonia’s fare-free policy was originally introduced in 2012 in the wake of financial crisis. Residents could not afford the fare and the government was already subsidizing 70 percent of the system cost. Rather than slashing service, they eliminated the fare. City leaders assumed it would help stimulate the economy some. They were surprised to discover people moved to the city in part to take advantage of the service and the increased tax base more than offset the lost fare revenue. The idea of free transit as a right is radical. For both Prince and Ray, it is one of the underpinnings of their work. Ray says, “Transit should be conceived of as a necessity, not a commodity … For me the best argument is that public transit is a right and access should not be limited by the ability to pay.” Prince points to Mexico City’s Right to the City Charter as a compelling case for free transit. The charter outlines core principals of sustainable, equitable, democratic governance and standard of living. It also makes a claim that all residents, regardless of income, have a right to the city’s public spaces.

Prince draws a line from there to the need for fare-free transit. After all, what good is a right to a public park, library or museum if a low-income family can’t afford the bus or train ride to experience it? Also featured in the book, the anarcho-syndicalist Youth Federation, in Sweden, has taken a far more radical approach to the right of fare-free transit. In response to fare hikes in 2001, they launched (a url that translates roughly to Members contribute to a solidarity fund that costs about US$12.46 a month, far cheaper than the $100 monthly transit pass. If you get caught turnstile jumping, your fine is covered by the fund. There is no criminal punishment for fare dodging in Sweden, so there’s no permanent record.

In addition to its survey of fare-free transit policies, the book attempts to answer some of the inevitable questions surrounding the idea of free transit, namely who will pay for it if not riders? All public transit systems require some form of subsidy already. But fare-free systems tend to rely more on taxes to fund service. Getting that funding source right is important. After all, the progressive goal of fare-free transit would be rendered moot if it was funded by a regressive tax such as sales tax that takes a larger percentage of low-income residents’ earnings than wealthy residents. In France, a small payroll tax on all employers with 11 or more employees is used to subsidize transit.

The final chapter of the book argues that cities should consider using land value capture to fund transit — the idea of capturing some of the increase in land values around transit systems and stations as a way to pay for transit. Because transit systems and stations raise the value of adjacent properties, the author Jan Scheurer, says it makes sense to tax those landowners on their increased wealth to pay for transit service. One land value capture model not captured in the book include Hong Kong’s MTR, wherein the transit agency establishes revenue-sharing agreements with developers for the land around transit stations. Even with average fares of less than a dollar, the system typically earns surplus revenue most years, ploughing the money back into the transit system or bolstering the municipal budget. Taking a different tack from the systems featured in the new book, MTR operates with zero taxpayer subsidy. The agency is now exploring how to export that model to other countries and municipalities.

The Seattle Transit Riders Union, one of the main forces behind the UW Pass or Fail campaign, has long fought for free or reduced cost transit, including past campaigns against fare hikes, against the elimination of the downtown free ride zone, for free youth transit and more. (Recently, New York City lawmakers have also started coming out in support of 50-percent reduced fares for low-income households). “I don’t know that we’ve ever officially adopted fare-free transit as a goal. But everything we do trends towards that,” says co-founder Katie Wilson. “It’d be nice to get to the point where public transit is thought of as a public good and something we just have and use without variable rider fees.” The Transit Riders Union recognizes that the U.S. is likely a long way from adopting fare-free transit funded by progressive taxation, which is why Wilson says employers and especially major institutional employers subsidizing passes for employees is a common sense and responsible step to take. “The more programs we have, whether employer programs or city funded programs or county programs, that get transit passes into people’s hands for little or no cost, the easier it is to have that conversation [about fare-free transit],” Wilson says.”

Paris Gets Serious About Free Transit
by Feargus O’Sullivan / May 16, 2018

“You can’t fault Paris for ambition. After banning the most polluting vehicles from the city, pedestrianizing the Seine’s banks, and generally pushing the transformation of the French capital into one of the least car-centric major cities in Europe, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is preparing to go a step further—a very big step. The city is launching research into a plan to make the city’s public transit entirely free. That could potentially mean passengers would pay no fee for the Metro, bus, or suburban rail system across a metropolitan area that’s home to over 11 million people, making the Paris region the largest free public transit zone in the world. Of course, all this hinges on the results of the study, which will be delivered at the end of the year. Liberating all transit would cost the Paris region an extra €6 billion annually, according to one estimate. But the potential upsides are equally enormous: cleaner air, reduced healthcare costs, plummeting carbon emissions.

There’s also the possibility that free-transit-for-all would make Paris so pleasant and easy to live in that it becomes irresistible to investors. At the same time, this boldest of proposals emerges at a moment of political weakness for Hidalgo, as her administration faces growing resistance to its pro-transit policies (plus a series of in-house blunders). Some local media have even suggested that the proposal is really an exercise designed to distract from these problems—perhaps unfairly, as their development long predates the mayor’s current difficulties. So is the plan the shape of things to come, or a utopian pipe dream? Right now, answering that question only opens the door to a string of further questions—a sort of inverse set of Russian dolls where the questions get bigger, not smaller, at each stage. For a start, the practicalities. What would be the limits of a public transit zone? Would free transit be given to everyone, or just particular age groups or income brackets? Would it run all day or be restricted to specific hours? There’s a broader question beyond this. How would Paris find the extra €6 billion necessary to bankroll the scheme?

Employers already contribute to public transit funds in Paris; their contribution could be enlarged, albeit not by enough to cover the entire bill. Indeed, at this early stage, a working assumption is that simply raising taxes alone wouldn’t be viable, so another method would be needed. One possibility: congestion fees. The city could raise funds by charging tolls on all motor vehicles to enter Paris Proper, the 2.2 million-resident historic heart of the metro area. Congestion charges of this type aren’t new—London has had one since 2003—but one that covered the entirety of Paris Proper would be five times the size of that in the U.K. capital. And such a plan would certainly not be an easy sell, given that Paris will have to contend with pressure from municipalities in the wider metro area where many residents still depend on their cars.

Back in 2008, a similar scheme emerged for New York City as part of that city’s Bloomberg-era efforts to cut traffic: Dreamed up by transit advocate Theodore Kheel, it would have offered free transit paid via a $16-per-day congestion fee for all cars entering Manhattan; like all efforts to institute congestion charges in New York, it went nowhere. Simply offering a subpar service for free is unlikely to lure many drivers away from their cars.

There’s a more fundamental question here, too: Are free public transit zones on this kind of scale feasible or desirable? France is something of a leader on this front, with more than 30 cities that enjoy free public transit zones. As Henry Grabar reported for CityLab back in 2012, they’ve been largely successful in boosting ridership without bankrupting town coffers. But most towns that attempted the fare-free model are relatively small—the largest is the 120,000-citizen city of Niort. Germany’s caretaker government has also been toying with the idea, but its plan to trial such a scheme in five medium-sized cities, (including Bonn and Essen) has been shot down by local municipalities, leaving the 87,000-resident city of Tübingen as the only major German town seriously looking into a free bus ride scheme.

Scaling a scheme up from this level is no easy feat. There’s a reason why free transit programs are typically limited to university towns and lightly populated rural networks, where the costs and bother of collecting fares can outweigh their value. The Estonian capital of Tallinn, whose public transit has been free to all 430,000 residents since 2013, is one system that’s managed it, creating a fare-free system that still retains high levels of public support. But it relies on a local funding quirk: In Estonia, when you register as a municipality’s official resident, a part of your national taxes are transferred to that municipality. Many Tallinn residents had not bothered to register as living in the city, but when given the incentive to do so by the free public transit plan, they did so in large enough numbers to boost Tallinn’s coffers by around €20 million annually, enough to pay for the scheme.

Still, going fareless in Estonia did little to increase demand, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker reported in 2015, raising ridership by just 1.2 percent. The number of drivers on the roads did not drop. That doesn’t invalidate the idea of making transit a fully subsidized municipal service: Many argue that public transit is a fundamental need to which access should not be limited by wealth. But if the transit being offered isn’t useful and effective, simply offering a subpar service for free is unlikely to lure many drivers away from their cars. Several U.S. cities have experimented with free public transit, including Austin, Texas. One study of the Austin program, which operated in 1990, found that ticketless bus rides increased the presence of “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults” who served to drive away regular commuters. Such precedents may give Paris pause, but they don’t automatically presage failure. It’s one thing to give away free bus rides in a city that overwhelmingly favors drivers, like 1990s Austin, and quite another to offer up the wealth of transit options that contemporary Paris boasts. Parisian public transit users as a group are far from socially marginalized—the Metro, trains, and buses are used all the way up and down the social scale, because they are so often more convenient. At least some of the problems American cities faced would be unlikely to be replicated in France.

Tallinn’s example is another story. Their lack of a ridership spike is cause for concern, if Paris intends to push this through under the banner of pollution reduction. Bearing this in mind, Paris’ consideration of a citywide congestion charge for drivers isn’t just a funding mechanism. It would be an indispensable incentive that ensures that all those free buses, trains, and metros actually get used. Would Paris really be in a position to implement such a policy right now? With the city struggling to fix its bikeshare system (which is already free, but for unhappy reasons) and seeing its pedestrianization plans getting shot down in court, that seems unlikely. But things can change fast in politics; at the very least, Paris might stoke the dreams of free-transit advocates in other cities by paying attention to the issue again.”


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