Free Transit Is Not a Silver Bullet

Cities around the country are embracing free fares to lure riders back to public transit, but the ridership recovery continues to sputter.

2 minute read

June 19, 2022, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Boston Bus

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has made fare-free transit a cornerstone of her policy plan. | Gerard Donnelly / Flickr

Like other cities, Boston began offering free transit as a way to address historic inequities and boost faltering ridership during the pandemic. But despite the benefits of eliminating transit fares, that policy alone may not do as much to reduce carbon emissions or congestion as some advocates hope, write Lisa Kashinsky and Tanya Snyder in Politico.

Early analysis of Boston’s initial Route 28 bus initiative by both the city and the MBTA showed mixed results: Ridership was up and boarding was quicker during the first four months of the program. Yet only 5 percent of survey respondents said they would have taken a car if not for the free bus trip, undermining the claim that free transit is a climate initiative or a cure for urban congestion.

The authors point out two concerns about free transit programs: “First, while ridership on the free lines usually goes up, generally the boost comes from those who might typically bike or walk, rather than pulling people out of their cars”

“Second, riders — including those with low incomes — consistently say that what really matters to them is whether the bus comes frequently enough to be useful.” Sacrificing service for lower fares doesn’t ultimately serve the people most dependent on transit.

The other major question: long-term funding. Many recent free transit programs were funded by pandemic relief dollars. “When that dries up, it’s unclear where the money will come from to keep these programs rolling.” 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in Politico

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