The movement of free public transport is gaining momentum

Passengers boarding a Metrobus in downtown Washington on Wednesday, December 7, 2022.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais | AP

Washington, DC is on the verge of ending bus fares for city dwellers and joins other US cities working to make subway buses and trains free.

Boston, San Francisco and Denver are already experimenting with zero fare. In late 2019, Kansas City, Missouri became the first major US city to approve a toll-free public transit system.

The “zero fare” movement has garnered support from business groups, environmentalists, Democratic leaders and others, who say public transport boosts local economies, mitigates climate change and is a necessity for many people. The idea gained traction during the pandemic, which underscored the crucial role public transport plays for essential workers who don’t have the luxury of working from home.

But despite the zero-fare movement’s growing popularity, it has generated political opposition in some areas where policies don’t easily fit into budgets or local laws.

DC’s zero-fare law was proposed in early 2020, about two weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a downward spiral in transit budgets nationwide.

“I won’t burden you if you need the fire service, but we will still make sure there is a fire service if you need it. That’s how you have to think about it,” Charles Allen, one of the DC City councilors who introduced the law, said in an interview with CNBC.

The DC measure aims to eliminate the $2 fare for bus travel beginning in July. The City Council unanimously approved the measure and is awaiting a formal response from Mayor Muriel Bowser, who can either approve the bill, veto it, or return it unsigned.

Bowser initially expressed reservations about funding a zero-fare system that would also serve Maryland and Virginia without receiving funding from those states. The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In any case, unanimous support from the council is enough to override a mayoral veto.

The bill would provide $43 million per year to make the DC Metrobus free for all riders and add a dozen 24-hour bus routes. The money comes from excess tax revenue. The DC Council is still considering adding a $10 million subsidy program that would provide every city dweller with $100 a month in credit for the DC Metrorail.

The public transport crisis

Kansas City’s bus system, called RideKC.

Source: Kansas City Department of Transportation

In many cities, the coronavirus has sent subway and bus ridership to historic lows, largely as employees are working from home rather than commuting to the office. This left essential workers, usually of middle to low income, as the main drivers of public transport.

As fare revenues plummeted and transit budgets shrunk, state and local government subsidies, along with federal Covid relief funding, became necessary to keep essential workers traveling.

Toll-free transit has since also become a concern for environmental groups that want to take cars off the road, unions that want to keep transit drivers socially distant from passengers, and business groups that want to attract more customers.

Alexandria and Richmond in Virginia have successfully incorporated toll-free transit into their annual budgets. Boston, Denver and others have tested pilot programs. Boston’s zero-fare experiment will remain in place on three of the city’s bus routes through 2024.

Meanwhile, Denver introduced temporary zero-fare holidays such as “Zero Fare for Better Air” and “Zero Fare to Vote” on election days in November.

Trendsetter for free

Kansas City’s bus system, called RideKC.

Source: Kansas City Department of Transportation

In Kansas City, zero-fare transit has become a hallmark of life.

“It feels a lot more like a community space, and I think that’s because you can hop on and off freely,” said Matt Staub, a founding member of Kansas City’s toll-free streetcar and owner of a marketing business that used to spend money in between $60 to $70 for monthly bus passes.

Kansas City first experimented with toll-free transit in 2016 with the introduction of its streetcar, a two-mile fixed rail line downtown that allows passengers to hop on and off for free. The city is investing $400 million to expand the streetcar route to more than six miles by 2025.

Since the streetcar began construction in 2014, $4 billion has been invested in downtown development, including hotels and restaurants. The resident population of the city center has grown from around 21,000 in 2014 to around 32,000 in 2022.

“At least from our point of view, the tram is more than a means of transport. It’s more than just getting from A to B. It’s an economic driver,” said Donna Mandelbaum, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Light Rail Authority.

The zero-tariff bus started in December 2019 as a pilot program. Then, after Covid struck, the city’s bus authority kept it permanently as a safety measure as it reduced physical interactions between bus drivers and passengers.

How to drive for free

Making a US city zero-tariff takes a combination of funding and political support.

Kansas City had both. According to Richard Jarrold, vice president of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, fares accounted for only 12%, or about $8 million, of the buses’ operating budget. Meanwhile, the city was spending $2 million to $3 million annually on fare collection, according to Mayoral Chief of Staff Morgan Said.

Similarly, DC fares account for less than 10% of the district’s transit budget, the state said Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. In Richmond, Virginia, which has had toll-free buses since the pandemic began, fare revenue accounted for just 8% of the transit company’s total budget.

“For some smaller transit companies that don’t really collect much cash anyway…they spend almost more to collect the fare than they actually get in revenue,” said Grant Sparks, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Transportation.

That made the economic argument easier to sell in these cities. Still, Allen, the DC council member, ultimately wants to “move toward a ticket-free system for all public transit.”

Why free fare isn’t for everyone

Kansas City’s bus system, called RideKC.

Source: Kansas City Department of Transportation

While the idea is gaining traction, toll-free transit in America is the exception, not the rule.

In New York City, where a subway ride currently costs $2.75, officials have been exploring ways to make fares more affordable. The city launched the Fair Fares program in January 2020, which provides discounts on public transportation to eligible low-income residents who apply.

But the city’s transportation infrastructure depends on fares for about 30% of its operating budget, a sum that’s difficult to subsidize.

“Until a new public transit funding plan emerges in New York that would allow the MTA to be less reliant on fare revenue, there is no way to consider eliminating a key revenue stream,” said Meghan Keegan, a Spokeswoman for the MTA.

Even in places like Virginia that have been successful with single-city zero fares, scaling the system to a statewide level has proven difficult. Virginia law limits how much the state can pay to WMATA, the transit agency that operates bus routes throughout Virginia, DC and Maryland.

Denver also plans to stick by tariffs for now, even if there are occasional tariff holidays.

“In the absence of a significant new source of funding, fares will remain an important part of RTD’s operating income,” said Tina Jaquez, a spokeswoman for Denver’s Regional Transportation District. Denver 2023 Operating budget of the transit consists of 10% tariffs.

The conversation is also taking place at the federal level, although the debate has been split down the aisle.

As part of its spring 2020 Covid relief package, the federal government provided $25 billion in funding for public transit. This summer, Democrats attempted to rally support to expand federal support. In June 2020, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Presley, both Massachusetts Democrats, presented the Vested Benefits Act, which would provide grants to states and cities to set up free public transportation. It was referred to a Senate committee in April 2021 and has not progressed.

Republicans weren’t as optimistic about the idea of ​​going to zero. A budget proposal in Republican-leaning Utah, which would make the state’s transit system toll-free for a year, met with opposition from Majority Leader of the state’s Republican House of Representatives, Mike Schultz. He said the transit system was already sufficiently subsidized and “nothing comes for free”. according to local station KUTV.

Zero-fare transit has also drawn criticism from advocacy groups such as the Transit Center, a nonprofit in New York City. In a survey of 1,700 public transport drivers, the organization found that people would rather have it better transit reliability and frequency instead of zero tariff.

The divided debate means a federal zero-fare policy is unlikely to be implemented any time soon.

“There may be some European countries doing this on a national level. I don’t think we’re going to do that in the US with 50 states and many more local jurisdictions,” said Virginia State Senator George Barker. a democrat. “We still have a long way to go to get into this league.” The movement of free public transport is gaining momentum

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