Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios
A handful of transit systems in the United States have recently made or are about to make bus travel free, in hopes of better serving riders and addressing critical equity issues.
The big picture: Such programs have been hugely popular, leaving transit officials scrambling to find ways to keep funding them.
Why is this important: Buses tend to serve low-income and minority riders, meaning the free service keeps more money in the pockets of those who need it most.
- The free service also eliminates fare evasion and its related enforcement, which is costly on its own – and also tends to primarily affect those least able to pay fines.
- Additionally, a healthy, well-used public transit system can be the beating heart of a city’s economy, even if it isn’t itself a big money-maker.
Yet non-riders generally don’t want to pay more taxes or tolls to subsidize public transit.
Driving the news: Washington, DC, is set to become the next major US city to offer free bus service, following a unanimous vote by the DC Council on Tuesday.
- Metrobus rides in the district will be free starting next summer, The Washington Post reports — as long as Mayor Muriel Bowser approves the measure. It is not guaranteed; she is skeptical of the potential costs.
- Proponents of the measure nevertheless celebrated the vote. “It’s something that’s one of those rare win-wins,” DC Council member Charles Allen told The Post. “A deep, immediate and meaningful impact for working families across our city.”
If Washington becomes free, it would follow neighboring Alexandria, Virginia, whose DASH bus network introduced free service last year, and Kansas City, Missouri, which began offering “Zero Fare” bus travel in 2020.
- “These programs were triggered by opportunities to strengthen the role of public transit as a social equalizer, providing impartial access to jobs, healthcare, education and opportunity,” said Art Guzzetti. , vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association.
Case study: Like many other transit systems, DASH stopped charging for rides during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many essential workers relied on bus, train and subway systems.
- Unlike most other systems, DASH has decided to keep its buses free.
- “For us, transit fares are more about fairness than conduct,” said Josh Baker, CEO and managing director of Alexandria Transit Company, which operates DASH. “We want to increase traffic while at the same time creating a more useful service. We want to remove barriers.”
- In September, attendance at DASH hit its highest level in more than seven years, averaging around 15,000 weekday boardings.
The Kansas City Experience was a big hit too.
- In a recent user survey, almost 90% “said they used the buses more thanks to the zero fare”, reports Next City.
- “About 92% said it allowed them to shop for food more often; 88% said they could see their health care providers more easily or more often; 82% said it allowed them to get or keep a job.”
Past: Free buses aren’t entirely new — Denver, for example, has long offered free service on MallRide, a downtown shuttle.
Yes, but: Some free cities rely on state and federal funding to make up some of the inevitable shortfall.
- These programs offer little time and money, forcing transit officials to find long-term solutions.
The bottom line: Some financing options, like new taxes or tolls, could be a tough sell to residents who don’t use public transit. But proponents argue that more accessible buses and subways — and the associated economic benefits — are well worth the costs.
- “Mass transit has for so long been considered a business — it’s not,” Baker told Axios. “Yes, our business moves people. But we are something that supports the economy, we are not something that is the economy.”
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