Opinion: Transit Needs to Be Better, Not Cheaper

With many U.S. transit agencies facing severe gaps in service and budget shortfalls, some advocates argue that improved service matters more than free fares.

2 minute read

June 9, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Los Angeles Metro Bus

The Port of Authority / Wikimedia Commons

Despite a "growing movement" to make public transit fare-free, Henry Grabar argues in a piece for Slate that getting rid of fares would not help the poorest and most underserved transit riders. Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit planner and author of Human Transit, agrees. "I’ve heard people describe the free fare movement as being a movement for free, terrible service, and that’s how the trade-off ends up working if you expect this to happen inside the budget of an impoverished American transit agency." While research shows that low-income riders do use transit more when offered discounts, they also "overwhelmingly said reliability was a bigger concern than affordability."

Advocates for free transit argue that it's a matter of priorities. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for example, "spends many times its bus budget on capital projects and highways, funds that could easily be reapportioned to bulk up its transit offerings." Yet "[m]ost transit experts support targeted discount programs for low-income riders, like the one operated by King County, Washington, which runs transit service in Seattle. They also admit they haven’t done a great job helping people access such programs, a point in favor of a 'free school lunch' analogy; benefits are only good if people can get them." Improving accessibility and service, writes Grabar, could do more to increase ridership than free fares. Ultimately, "[r]iders say they want better service, not cheaper service."

Steven Polzin also wrote a detailed cost-benefit analysis of reduced- and free-fare transit for Planetizen in 2018.

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