The State of America’s Free Transit Programs

Dozens of cities made public transit free during the pandemic. Can transit agencies sustain these programs?

7 minute read

July 25, 2022, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu

@aworkoffiction


Red Albuquerque bus with man boarding

Albuquerque became the largest U.S. city to make public transit free citywide in January 2022. | PICTOR PICTURE COMPANY / Albuquerque bus

During the COVID-19 pandemic, plummeting ridership and the economic hardships experienced by many riders prompted public transit agencies to implement fare reduction programs, reducing or eliminating transit fares altogether. More than two years later, how are these programs—no pun intended—faring?

For many proponents, free transit is an equity issue. They point out that low-income Americans rely on public transit the most and are thus most impacted by fare hikes and the high cost of transportation. Free transit opens up more economic opportunities and allows low-income households to spend more of their income on other necessities, like food, housing, and healthcare. Free transit also benefits low-income youth and students, giving them more options for transportation and letting them more easily access school and jobs. For riders not as concerned about cost, free transit can still encourage ridership by eliminating the pain points of having to purchase a pass or find cash for a fare. 

Fareless transit can also benefit transit agencies by cutting down on operational costs (for example, eliminating the need for fare collection equipment and technology), streamlining the boarding process by allowing faster boarding, and reducing the chance of confrontations between riders and operators, most of which occur during disputes over fares. According to a report from TransitCenter, low pay, unsafe conditions, and a lack of basic amenities like restrooms (and restroom breaks) have led to a dramatic shortage of transit operators at more than nine in ten U.S. agencies.

But with so many transit systems relying in part on farebox revenue to fund their operations, fare-free proposals often run up against the difficult realities of transportation funding. Some critics caution that free transit isn’t a silver bullet for transit ridership, and that the frequency and efficiency of service is a more important factor for all riders. Too often, agencies sacrifice service for reduced fares, leading to longer commutes and abandonment by the users who have the option of taking other modes. Opponents argue that building capacity and improving service should be the main focus of transit agencies. Research suggests that free transit draws more users who previously walked or biked for transport, rather than people driving cars. So, while it reduces cost for transit-dependent riders, it may not necessarily decrease car trips. Some say that because cost isn’t an important factor for many higher-income riders, agencies should focus their efforts on the users who need discounted fares most by funding and promoting low-income fare programs, such as New York City’s Fair Fares, while retaining paid fares for some users to bolster their coffers.

While many systems had the chance to pilot free transit thanks to pandemic-era federal assistance, the future of these programs hinges on the ability of transit agencies to secure long-term, sustainable funding sources.

Fareless Transit Around the World

Elsewhere in the world, free transit is more common. According to a New York Times analysis, roughly 100 cities around the world offered free transit in 2020. The small European duchy of Luxembourg was the first country to offer unconditional free public transport, while Scotland and the Netherlands offer free transit to students and youth. New Delhi has free bus and metro services for women, and residents of the Estonian capital of Tallin have benefited from free transit since 2013. Youth under 18 ride for free on Paris transit, while Spain is offering free season tickets on the country’s suburban and regional trains in an effort to reduce fuel consumption and promote clean transportation. Israel recently launched a free transit program for elderly citizens.

Fareless Programs in U.S. Cities

Even before the pandemic hit, some cities began experimenting with free transit. Missoula, Montana’s Mountain Line created its Zero-Fare Program in 2015. Since then, the agency says ridership has increased by 70 percent. 

Columbus, Ohio implemented free transit for downtown workers and residents in 2018. The following year, the system achieved its highest ridership numbers ever.

Olympia, Washington’s Zero-Fare Demonstration Project started on January 1, 2020, and is funded for five years. The program was prompted in part by the high costs of fare collection. “We were looking at fare collection options that cost more to collect and process the fare than the amount of the fare,” said City Council member Clark Gilman. One month into the program, ridership had increased by 20 percent over the previous year. 

Kansas City, whose popular streetcar was already free, implemented “Zero Fare Transit” in December 2019.

As COVID-19 led to disrupted travel patterns, dramatic drops in transit ridership, and a need for social distancing and other public health measures—along with federal assistance dollars—more U.S. transit agencies started to reduce or eliminate fares in an effort to boost ridership, increase safety for riders and operators, and support low-income riders, particularly essential workers who continued to rely on public transportation.

Richmond, Virginia made its buses free in March 2020, but ended the program at the end of June 2022. 

In Los Angeles, the pandemic prompted the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) to eliminate fares systemwide in an effort to protect riders and operators, but the agency ended the program in January 2022, despite a surge in new COVID-19 variants that signaled social distancing may still be necessary. Metro more recently approved a 23-month free transit pilot program for K-12 and community college students, but the agency has yet to figure out long-term funding sources for renewing the program. 

Farther south, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in February made its free transit program for youth ages 6 to 18 permanent, the first transit agency in the region to do so. 

Tucson, Arizona eliminated fares in 2020 and will maintain the program until the end of 2022. Although free fares are often credited with reducing violent incidents between riders and operators, Tucson’s bus driver union called for an end to the fare-free policy, citing a rise in crime on buses. 

On January 1, 2022, Albuquerque, whose transit agency gets just seven percent of its budget from fare revenue, became the largest U.S. city to make its buses completely free citywide. The program, motivated by a realization that many of Albuquerque’s transit users are low-income workers, is funded through June 2023.

Alexandria, Virginia paired a 2020 fare-free program with a redesign of its bus system that increased service frequency. Unlike many other cities, where ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels, Alexandria’s buses are up to 95 percent of pre-COVID ridership. After the initial three-year program, funded by the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation, city leaders are optimistic that they’ll be able to continue funding the program through taxes.

The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) piloted free fares for one month in February 2022. On the commuter rail system between Ogden and Provo, ridership rose by 163 percent during weekdays during this period, signaling latent demand for public transit.

While not many U.S. cities have made transit completely free for all residents, some localities are experimenting with eliminating fares for students, seniors, low-income residents, or other groups that could benefit from reduced transportation costs. One of the most successful free transit programs in the United States is the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point program, which sponsors free rides for students throughout the city and largely funds the city’s transit system. 

In Philadelphia, some employers—namely, Penn Medicine, Drexel University, and Wawa—started giving free transit passes to their employees in May 2022. Close to half of eligible employees registered for the programs. In July, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) expanded the program, dubbed Key Advantage, to any employers with 500 or more employees.

Emerging Lessons

Free transit can reduce household transportation costs, speed up boarding times, decrease violent interactions with operators or transit police, and encourage more people to use it. But the most successful programs are those that also prioritize improved service and frequency. Even as some commuters return to transit, it’s clear that some pandemic-era changes in commuting patterns will become permanent, and that many riders may not need to return at all. Future transit riders will be the people who depend on it most: those who work in jobs without remote options and car-free households dependent on transit for everyday transportation. Acknowledging this, some transit officials are calling for funding transit as an “essential service” and moving away from a reliance on fare revenue.

Ultimately, the future of these programs hinges on funding and priorities. While many cities took advantage of pandemic-era federal funding to launch free transit pilot programs, each agency must now grapple with the question of long-term economic sustainability.

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