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

Black and white Rideshare Pick-Up Zone sign

The Slow Death of Ride Sharing

From the beginning, TNCs like Lyft and Uber touted shared rides as their key product. Now, Lyft is ending the practice.

June 1, 2023 - Human Transit

Red on white 'Room for Rent, Inquire Inside' sign

In Most U.S. Cities, Archaic Laws Limit Roommate Living

Critics argue laws preventing unrelated adults from living in the same home fail to understand the modern American household.

May 24, 2023 - The Atlantic

Vancouver Chuck Wolfe

Ten Signs of a Resurgent Downtown

In GeekWire, Chuck Wolfe continues his exploration of a holistic and practical approach to post-pandemic urban center recovery, anchored in local context and community-driven initiatives that promote livability, safety, and sustainability.

May 24, 2023 - GeekWire

Self-driving Mercedes semi truck on highway with white semi truck behind it

California Moves to Limit Autonomous Trucks

A bill passed by the State Assembly and moving on to the Senate would require autonomous semi trucks to have a trained human operator in the vehicle.

June 2 - The Sacramento Bee

Minnesota state capitol building with red flowers on green front lawn

Minnesota Budget Includes Significant Transit Investments

After a contentious debate, the state legislature passed a budget that changes how transportation projects are funded and supports increased transit service in the state.

June 2 - Governing

A vacant lot between two one-story brick buildings with graffiti in Detroit, Michigan

Proposed Land Value Tax Plan in Detroit

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan proposes hiking property taxes for vacant land and buildings while lowering the rate for occupied homes and businesses in a split tax plan he contends will resolve many of Detroit's blight and high property tax woes.

June 2 - The Detroit News

Project Manager III

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

UDO Transportation Planner

City of Charlotte - Charlotte Area Transit

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.