How Fair and Viable Is Free Transit?

Without other dedicated funding sources, U.S. transit agencies likely can’t sustain fare-free programs.

1 minute read

February 27, 2024, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Row of four red and white MUNI ticketing machines in transit station in San Francisco, California.

Ticketing machines for SFMTA in San Francisco, California. | Walter Cicchetti / Adobe Stock

As federal funds that supported some pandemic-era free transit programs wind down, transit agencies must evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability of free fare programs. As Tim Henderson explains in Stateline, free transit rides can be an important lifeline for low-income workers who depend on transit to get to work and access other needs.

Critics of free transit question the effectiveness of making transit free for all riders, including high-income users who could afford to pay fares. Free transit programs may make less sense in cities with more affluent commuters, according to Brian Taylor, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies. But in many places, transit riders are overwhelmingly lower-income. Proponents of free transit also argue that eliminating fare collection and enforcement would lower operational costs, making up for lost revenue.

To make free transit sustainable without sacrificing service, agencies will have to find other dedicated sources of funding to replace fare revenue.

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