Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Why fare-free public transportation is a bad idea

Public transportation is a taxpayer-subsidized public service, like police and fire protection, parks and libraries. Farebox revenues only cover a fraction of a transit authority's operating costs, and none of its capital costs. So why not make public transportation fare-free? More people would be encouraged to use the service if it were free, the thinking goes, thereby reducing congestion, improving air quality and enhancing overall quality of life. So why not eliminate the time and cost required for collecting fares and just make the service open and available to all?

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 for
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.
Exactly. 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.

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.


fpteditors said...

Free transit discourages riders? Not true. Instead of just going with your feelings, look at the data. Transit has to compete with the auto? No. No one can compete with a system that has $trillions in subsidy. For every 10 transit riders, there is one who is just one block away from riding. Those are the ones who will increase the ridership. As ridership increases, political power of transit increases, demand for better service increases. People don't value what is free? Then we should start charging for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Thomas said...

Actually, I *have* looked at the data. Most experiments with free fares at the system-wide level, at least among transit agencies in the United States, have been abandoned because of funding shortfalls (going to my first point) and because people were abusing the system (i.e. joyriding, making frivolous trips, using buses as gangbanger hangouts, etc., going to my second and third points).

And yes: in order to attract choice riders, transit has to at least approach the level of mobility provided by the automobile. A system that is limited in terms of the area it serves, the frequency of its service and the span of its service will not be considered as a convenient option among people who already own their own automobile. See the Second Edition of the Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual for more information.