Free Fares for Buses? Don’t Forget the Trains

Fare-free programs that apply to buses and not trains create a fragmented transit system and encourage more people to use slower, less efficient modes.

2 minute read

December 22, 2022, 7:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Close-up of bus passengers hanging on to red straps on crowded bus

Chatchai Kritsetsakul / Crowded bus

The idea of fare-free transit is nothing new, and has been gaining more traction in cities around the country in the last few years. However, Jarrett Walker, writing in Bloomberg CityLab, calls attention to what Walker believes could be a troubling trend: making fare free on buses, but not trains. “If that trend spreads, we should expect some bad consequences,” Walker writes.

As Walker explains, Washington, D.C. and Boston are both exploring free bus transit, but have kept fares on their train systems. According to Walker, “A certain kind of capitalist would say this is fine: The train is faster, so it should cost more. But when people use a slower service rather than a faster one, it’s not just bad for them. It’s also bad for the transit agency budget, which means it’s bad for everyone who uses transit or benefits from it.”

Buses, which are smaller, will reach capacity more quickly. “Trains, on the other hand, are much more likely to have surplus capacity, especially now that so many suburban commuters who used to pack them are working from home, so they could be serving many of the same people at lower cost.”

At the same time, the distinction between buses and rails also raises questions about who each mode serves. Additionally, many trips require combining both bus and train, and lower-income riders are more likely to have more dispersed travel patterns that are often better served by buses. For these and other reasons, Walker argues, the free fare debate should take place around the whole transit network. “An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2022 in Bloomberg CityLab

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