Is Fare-Free Transit Worth Reduced Transit Service?

Transit advocates worry that the movement to eliminate fares will come at a high cost to transit-dependent riders who rely on frequent, reliable service to reach jobs and services.

November 19, 2021, 5:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


SMART Bus

Mysid / Wikipedia

While many transit agencies are considering reducing or eliminating fares to boost ridership, some policymakers worry that the lost revenue will have a negative impact on transit service and the people who rely on it, writes Luz Lazo in The Washington Post.

Local transportation and political leaders say that while the pandemic has harmed transit, it also highlighted its critical role for 'essential' workers. Many kept riding to get to jobs at grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals as workers with more flexibility stayed home. Bus ridership has fared better than rail ridership during the pandemic, in large part because of service workers.

With fare revenue sometimes covering as much as a quarter of transit operations, agencies that eliminate fares must rely more heavily on other local, state, and federal funding sources. In the Washington D.C. region, Lazo writes, "loss of fare revenue would translate to nearly $170 million that jurisdictions would need to find from federal, state or local sources."

Lazo details the fare reduction proposals of various D.C.-area agencies, but cites surveys showing that frequency and convenient routes play a more important role in whether people choose to use transit than cost. Reduced fares can encourage more people to use public transportation, but only if it takes them where they need to go. Meanwhile, riders who rely on it worry that reduced service will make it even more difficult to get around.

The concept of fare-free transit picked up steam during the pandemic as transit agencies sought ways to bring riders back. Advocates say eliminating fares is an important step toward transit equity. And, to be clear, the structural deficits of transit operations still threaten the future of public transit.

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