Traffic Lab: Should Public Transit be Free?
The idea of hopping on a bus and actually getting to work on time — completely for free — might sound too good to be true. But earlier this year, Mayor Quinton Lucas made Kansas City the first major U.S. city to launch a fare-free public transit system. This is the realization of his “Zero Fare Transit” dream, which took a mix of public and private funding to become reality. Funding, Lucas knew, was where he would get the most pushback on his plans, so his first step toward free public transit was making the case. “There were tons of nay-sayers,” he explains, “so we had to tell the story of how the budgeting could work.”
The case for free public transit
Making public transit free solves a ton of problems. It takes an economic burden off some of the people who rely on it the most. There would be less traffic if more people ditched their cars for the bus or subway, which they’d be more inclined to do if it was free. Fewer cars on the road means fewer carbon emissions in the air and more room for green spaces, bike lanes, and pedestrians.
It’s the “free” part that gets people. Someone has to pay for it — to run it, staff it, maintain it, and improve it when necessary.
For Jason Prince, an urban planner in Quebec and professor at Concordia University, that’s actually an invented problem. In cities around the world, libraries, parks, and even some museums are free, and there are few complaints about how they’re funded. Why should the city bus be any different? “No one pays to use an elevator — the cost of building, running and maintaining it is included in the cost of rent,” Prince points out. “Why can’t public transport work that way?”
How a fare-free system supports cities
In parts of the U.S. during the ’50s, it nearly did, Prince explains. As cities gave way to suburbs and malls, local businesses led the charge on free rides to win back shoppers. “They were willing to pay whatever to bring shoppers and workers downtown rather than the mall.”
And eight years ago, when Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, started offering free public transit, the city actually made a profit. How? The perk of free transit actually helped convince people living in the suburbs to move to the city and bring their tax dollars with them.
Now, Prince thinks fare-free rides could play a similar role in a post-pandemic society that’s once again seeing people flee cities for suburbs: “Offering free public transportation can help revitalize our city centers.”
Making free rides the norm
For Mayor Lucas, the ultimate goal of free transit is “to make life easier for people of any economic means.” A lot of people rely on public transit for essential tasks like getting to work or school, so coming up short on fare can have huge repercussions. A fare-free system helps level the playing field, and makes some of the finer things in life more widely accessible, too. “In Montreal, we have a massive public library that’s free for everybody,” Prince explains, “But if you want to get to it, it’s going to cost $32 to get there and back for a family with a couple of kids.”
The fare-free program in Kansas City launched just before the pandemic began, and Mayor Lucas says ridership dropped to only 60% of regular capacity, while in some cities, it dropped to as low as 25% during the height of the pandemic. He hopes to see ridership continue to increase in a post-COVID world, leading to less traffic and lower carbon emissions from idling cars.
“The first step to building a free transit system is accepting that it’s possible. Once people see that it works, they probably won’t want to go back,” he says. “In the same way that we fund the Fire Department, trash pickup, and new roads — which is a huge subsidy to people who drive.” In the long run, he explains that cities can actually save money by not having fare boxes that need regular repairs and updates, not having to slow down buses while people pay, and by removing the need and upkeep for a system to enforce payment.
Public and private transportation: Working together
Ideally, the future of travel doesn’t rely on one mode of transportation. Cars get a bad rap, for example, because fuel emissions are responsible for nearly a third of all greenhouse gases. But in Prince’s mind, cars can be part of the solution when they’re shared. He believes some combination of public transport and ridesharing will eventually become the norm for mobility. “The metaphor I like to use is that a glass of wine is great. But two bottles of wine every single day is going to quickly destroy your liver. The automobile is a magnificent invention, but we’re completely drunk on it by using it to commute to work every day.”
A shift to public transit and consistent ride sharing isn’t just about saving money on fares and gas — it makes mobility more efficient overall. As a driver, Prince says, “you’re not in traffic, you are traffic.” When more people ride the bus, drivers get faster trips with less congestion, which is a pretty great deal for everyone on the road.