Should Transit Be Free?

General discussion of passenger rail proposals and systems not otherwise covered in the specific forums in this category, including high speed rail.

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Should Transit Be Free?

Postby MaineCoonCat » Fri Sep 11, 2015 6:27 pm

Okay, what say ye?

At 09:00 AM EST on Sunday, Jul 27, 2014 In an article entitled "Listen up, America: It’s time to start making mass transit free!", Henry Grabar of the Salon staff wrote:
Listen up, America: It’s time to start making mass transit free!
Though it might seem counterintuitive, city governments have much to gain by letting riders off the hook
Henry Grabar


Image
(Credit: pisaphotography via Shutterstock)

In March, when a cloud of particle pollution settled across Western Europe, Paris took a radical approach. The Ile-de-France region introduced alternate driving days (odd-number plates one day; evens the next) and eliminated fares on local trams, buses, trains and subways.

Traffic dropped by nearly 20 percent in Paris; congestion on the Périphérique ring road fell by 30 percent at rush hour; large-particle pollution fell by 6 percent. Measured by the impact on the roadways, the emergency measures worked as intended.

And on the rails? Unfortunately, the open-gate policy meant that the transportation authority didn’t count how many travelers boarded trains, subways, buses and trams during the fare-free days. The city performed a huge experiment in transportation policy, and nobody bothered to watch.

It doesn’t matter much in context. We can’t expect the traffic-choked French capital to make a habit of such initiatives. Alternate driving days are an intolerable hassle for car-dependent commuters; lost fares and the provision of supplementary service to the tune of 600,000 seats on the Métro, the tramway and suburban rail system cost the region nearly $3.5 million per day. Fares cover nearly half the operating costs of the RATP, the state-owned transit operator, so eliminating them would put a tremendous hole in the annual budget.

And yet, Paris would have been a valuable case study. The consequences of eliminating transit fares remain surprisingly obscure. Can a fare-free policy transform a regional transportation picture? Can it pay for itself? Or is it merely a publicity gimmick that inflicts needless financial woes on local transit agencies?

Many people reject the idea out of hand, saying free rides are a problem, not a solution. But “free” transit, of course, is only as free as public libraries, parks and highways, which is to say that the financial burden is merely transferred from individual riders to a municipal general fund, a sales tax or local businesses and property owners. A free ride policy represents the culmination of a long shift from thinking of transit as a business sector — one that was quite profitable in its heyday — to considering it an indispensable public service.

Today, nearly all public transport systems are heavily subsidized, and make only a fraction back from riders. Most mid-size American cities don’t clear a 30 percent “farebox recovery ratio”; several U.S. transit agencies recoup less than 5 percent of operating costs through ticket sales. At that point, a transit agency might well spend more money selling tickets (machines, printing, secure money boxes, employees) than it earns. The dozens of small American towns that have free transit service usually aren’t forfeiting much revenue by doing so.

For bigger cities, the principal motivation for scrapping fares is not to save money but to increase ridership, and harvest the associated positive externalities: less traffic and pollution, more parking and mobility. In the handful of American cities where such programs have been tried on a short-term basis, the ridership surges have been huge. When Topeka made transit free for May of 1988, ridership rose 98 percent. When Austin made transit free for the fall of 1990, ridership increased by 75 percent. A similar experiment in Asheville, in 2006, recorded a passenger surge of 60 percent.

But where do the benefits of free ridership accrue, if not to riders themselves? To drivers, who enjoy less congested roads and free parking spaces? To local businesses, who reap the benefits of increased mobility and local spending power? To everyone, in the form of clean air? It’s not an abstract question when the bill comes due, and answering it has proven a formidable obstacle to cities, like San Francisco and Portland, that have studied the possibility of making transit free.


Read the rest of the article at the Salon web site
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby electricron » Fri Sep 11, 2015 6:42 pm

Paris did more than just eliminated fares, they also implemented an even/odd license plate scheme for all vehicles. Free transit, by itself, isn't going to get everyone out of their vehicles.
That was a relatively harsh measure to take. Which will probably work well in cities where families only own one vehicle, but not where families own two, three, or more vehicles. About the only city in America where most families own one or less vehicles is New York City. We don't need a federal law to implement a similar law there.
In cities where families own two or more vehicles, the family could use just the vehicle appropriate for each day, driving everyone in the family to their daily destinations and back home. That assumes everyone follows the law. There will be many ignoring that law.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby bdawe » Fri Sep 11, 2015 7:18 pm

No, driving should be expensive. This reduces the amount we have to subsidize the road network, and by not subsidizing the competition as much we improve the economics of transit, and can provide more of it for a given amount of subsidy. The fact that most American transit systems fail to pull much rider revenue is due to the fact that they have to compete with artificially cheap car travel, and because they use antiquated operating practices like stopping every two blocks or staffing up with conductors. If the playing field was not as tilted against them, and if they were run in a more business-like fashion, rather than the welfare agencies they often are, they would not lose nearly as much money.

My local transit system brings in a half-billion in fares annually. I like to put it towards my left-leaning friends who advocate the end of fares, if you had $5 billion dollars over the next ten years to spend on transportation, what would you spend it on? I can think of much more than $5 billion in capital projects that I would like to see rather than $0 fares.

And, in the grand scheme of things, the less transit is systematically dependent on political funding, the more latitude it will have to run better, sustainable service. I'm not demanding that money losing routes be cut, but most else being equal I'd rather have fares and more financial independence than not
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby ExCon90 » Mon Sep 14, 2015 2:18 pm

I think fare-free travel would end up in the This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things category. Some cities, (Seattle is one, I think) that have instituted fare-free zones downtown found that the vehicles were used as handy places for layabouts to hang out while seeing the sights, leading to increased demand which was not foreseen when the plan was instituted. Saturday nights and New Year's Eve were particular problems. Of course there would be increased demand if the plan were successful, but the question arises whether the net effect would be an increase in ridership in excess of the reduction in automobile traffic. It's a great pity that Paris didn't take traffic counts to measure the correlation between reduced car trips and increased transit trips. The increased costs of fare-free operation could be startling.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby mtuandrew » Tue Sep 15, 2015 11:21 am

Interesting question, one I don't have answers to.

Moderator's Note: Greg and I will be watching the thread, but thank you for being respectful.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby SemperFidelis » Tue Sep 15, 2015 2:03 pm

As an old school type socialist I would like to submit an emphatic (though tempered with a very respectful tone towards the many aboard this forum who disagree) YES!
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby electricron » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:18 pm

SemperFidelis wrote:As an old school type socialist I would like to submit an emphatic (though tempered with a very respectful tone towards the many aboard this forum who disagree) YES!

You do realize that nothing comes free, there's always a price to pay. While the trains and buses may be free, something else has to become more expensive to pay for it. Who knows what the politicians will choose to be more expensive?
In Dallas (DART's service area), almost everything became 1% more expensive with the 1 cent sales tax.
In Honolulu (HART), almost everything became more expensive with the half cent GET tax.
Just about every transit system in America taxes almost everything else more to pay for public transit as it is, eliminating fares will mean either raising those taxes or cutting services. I have yet to ever read about any transit agency willing to cut the taxes they are using to subsidize their services.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby SemperFidelis » Tue Sep 15, 2015 3:34 pm

Have nowhere near the energy to argue the point. That's why I made it with great respect to those who disagree.

And, no, I hadn't realized nothing was truly free. Missed that life lesson somehow. :-D

Chill out, my disagreeing brother. The topic ought to be fun enough provided people don't get all up thier own backsides with preachy comments asking others to defend thier positions rather than simply articulating one's own. :-D

Best wishes until I have the energy to speak / type.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby MaineCoonCat » Tue Sep 15, 2015 7:19 pm

As the discussion continues, I just want to plant the reminder that no form of passenger transportation operates without some form of subsidy. I think it might be interesting to see if there was a way of calculating the true cost of the various modes of commuting, including the maintenance, air quality effects, accident damage remediation, and even the traffic law enforcement. I think bdawe makes good point about car travel being artificially cheap.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby Gilbert B Norman » Mon Jul 04, 2016 12:14 pm

NO!

"Been there done that around these parts" for Seniors.

viewtopic.php?f=61&t=58872

Obviously this waste has been repealed. However, I'm all in favor of what evolved. Illinois has a program called "Circuit Breaker" for Seniors that is attached to "litmus", or need. The program offers an array of benefits such as free vehicle registration and free mass transit throughout the state.

All Seniors around here enjoy half rates, which is Federal law if any Federal funds have been granted to a mass transportation agency.

I think that covers all of 'em.
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Re: Should Transit Be Free?

Postby Passenger » Wed Jul 13, 2016 5:07 am

Just saying transit should be "free" skips the hard part.

A more honest formulation of the issue:

How should transit be paid for?

I'm not trying to be difficult about this. I can see there is a rational case for the answer not being individual passengers on a per ride basis at all (bearing in mind that fares do not pay the whole cost even now).

But how to pay for it?

Sales tax in the area served? A targeted tax on businesses in the area served?

If that issue is not addressed, you have nothing.
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