It's a well-intentioned idea that has been around for as long as public transportation has existed, and transit agencies around the country give it a try from time to time. Kansas City, Missouri is the latest city to experiment with fare-free public transit, and there was a suggestion to make public transportation free here in Houston as well. However, that does not appear likely to happen:
After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.
"It is just not feasible to do free fares," Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.
Proponents argue transit use would skyrocket and reduce overall traffic volumes if transit was free. Riding also would be easier, they say, because buses and trains could open front and rear doors for boarding without the need for users to stop and pay fares.
Metro's analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.
Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency's lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.
Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, "it takes time to order new buses."
The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.It's possible that, as they considered the effects of fareless transit service, METRO staff took a look at lessons learned from another Texas transit agency that experimented with free fares: Capital Metro in Austin in 1989 and 1990. That experiment did not go well, a former Cap Metro dispatcher explains, because it created a host of problems that were costly to solve. "[B]y the time it was over our customers, operators, union, public, police and transit staff were begging for it to end," he says:
Guess what? With free fare, you will need more bus operators. Yes, even with existing capacity on your buses you will need more staff. This is because your newly gained riders won’t conveniently fill the buses during off-peak times when seats are available. They’ll crowd out your regular commuters and local passengers during the afternoon peak. Your system will be overwhelmed during the weekday afternoon peak because this is when everyone likes to ride.Cap Metro didn't just have to find new bus operators, either; they also needed more security:
Security services will have to be expanded because incidents will increase. Operator staffing requirements will increase exactly at the time attrition increases. Field Supervisory requirements will increase as problems multiply. Why? More people, more problems. More medical emergencies (seizures and falls), more theft, more sex crimes, more lost children and elderly, more drunks, more fights, more operator assaults, more service interruptions. You’ll have to increase street presence of supervisory personnel, which come from the bus operator ranks, increasing attrition even more. You may want to reorg to put superintendent-level personnel in the field to supervise the supervisors. Oh, and you may have to hire more staff in the customer service (complaints) department as your system reliability rapidly declines and complaints skyrocket.Reliability is a critical aspect of transit service:
Reliability will take a huge hit. Just because your system is free does not mean customers will forgive poor service. Making a bus system wonderful does not mean making it free. Customers want reliability and safety and are willing to pay for it.
As ridership grows the number of passengers at the bus stop increases. This increases dwell time at the bus stop. Already it is taking longer to get to your destination. This compounds over the length of the route. The longer and busier the route, the greater the impact. This is extremely difficult to schedule properly as morning and afternoon travel times will vary greatly. Anticipating free fare ridership growth and service impact six months in advance is challenging. In the meantime, on-time performance will decline precipitously. As the bus drags down it affects the next assignment for the operator. All these negative effects focus pressure on the afternoon peak. Everything gets later until we reach the highest peak travel time of the day. Trips will be lost as operators try to get to the terminal with full buses. Stops are bypassed in the final quarter of the route as capacity is reached. Some passengers are bypassed by two buses. Adjusting schedules lengthens service hours, conflicting with union work rules and maximum drive times, ultimately requiring more operators.The end result for Austin was that fare-free public transportation ended up hurting the very riders it was supposed to help: it made buses overcrowded, less safe, and less reliable. While this isn't to say the same thing would happen in Houston, given enough time to plan and prepare, or that it will happen in Kansas City (which carries only a fraction of riders as Houston's network), it is a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of good intentions.
All that aside, my misgivings about fareless public transit remain the same today as they were when I wrote about it a decade ago: it reduces revenues which in turn could lead to service cuts, it allows buses and trains to become rolling hangouts for people who aren't actually "going anywhere," and it deprives the system's actual users of any sense of stakeholdership:
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.
There are good discussions to be had about targeted fare reductions (e.g. for students, or during ozone action days), or about how much of an agency's operating revenues should be covered through the farebox (METRO's $1.25 one-way base fare hasn't been increased in years, despite inflation). But eliminating all fares on a large public transportation network such as METRO's would likely create more problems than it solved and hurt the people who depend on it the most to get around.
It will be interesting to see how things work out for Kansas City.