I have a different take. I think that fare-free public transportation would, in fact, discourage a lot of people from using public transportation.
First, in order make public transportation attractive to "choice" riders (i.e. people who have cars of their own), it needs to provide a level of service that at least comes somewhere within the range of mobility provided by a private car. That's very hard to do, of course, but one way to try to do so is to provide a system that serves as many places as possible and offers service that is reasonably reliable and frequent. The elimination of fares would take away at least a portion of a transit agency's revenues, which in turn would likely lead to service cuts: the elimination of routes, the reduction of frequencies, fewer hours of service, increased breakdowns due to maintenance cuts, et cetera. Far from attracting new riders to transit, it will make the system less convenient to use and end up turning them -and existing riders - away.
Second, fares, nominal though they might be, at least provide something of an barrier to entry. If that barrier is eliminated, then every bus and train will immediately become a rolling homeless shelter and/or rowdy teenager hangout. That, in turn, will make other riders uncomfortable and less inclined to use public transportation.
The third and best reason against making public transportation free, however, comes from one of a list of reasons at Keep Houston Houston:
People don’t value what they don’t pay forExactly. Even if it is mostly subsidized through tax revenues, the fact that a fare is being collected gives transit's actual users a special sense of ownership of the system because they pay for the service twice: once through taxes and again through fares. That, in turn, empowers them to hold the agency accountable for things like shelters that are clean or buses that run on time. Eliminate fares and the user becomes no more of an "owner" of the system than the public at large. This reduces or eliminates entirely the rider's sense of empowerment and leads to a lack of respect for riders' needs. Service quality degrades, and people are discouraged from using the system.
It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Removing fares shifts the public perception of transit away from “something people pay for, which we also subsidize” to “a free public good.” In a sprawling, widely-annexed city like Houston, where most voters have little to no *actual* contact with the transit system (as evidenced by these sorts of crappy proposals), it seems inevitable that fareless transit would ultimately lead to reduced service quality, by eroding peoples’ respect for transit riders’ rights. If you think of transit as welfare, you’ll probably have less of an issue making it as onerous as possible to use – if you want the proof for this statement, just look at what we’ve done with the welfare system over the last 15 years.
Reasonable people can differ as to how to encourage transit ridership or how much of transit's costs should be recovered through actual user fees. But fare-free public transportation is not the solution to either issue. Far from encouraging people to ride transit, it will result in a system that is less reliable, less user-friendly and less attractive to current as well as potential riders.
Kuff is on the same wavelength.