Dec 8, 2022 - Economy

No bus fare? No problem — the ride's free

Illustration of a public bus made of a $100 bill and quarters

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A handful of U.S. public transit systems have recently made or are poised to make bus travel free, in hopes of better serving riders and addressing critical equity issues.

The big picture: Such programs have been hugely popular, leaving transit officials scrambling to find ways to keep funding them.

Why it matters: Buses tend to serve lower-income and minority riders, meaning free service keeps more money in the pockets of people with the greatest need.

  • Free service also eliminates fare evasion and its related enforcement, which is costly in and of itself — and also tends to mostly affect the people least able to pay fines.
  • Plus, a healthy, well-used public transit system can be the beating heart of a city's economy, even if it's not itself a big moneymaker.

Yet non-riders typically don't want to pay more in taxes or tolls to subsidize public transit.

Driving the news: Washington, D.C., is set to become the next major U.S. city to offer free bus service, following a unanimous D.C. Council vote on Tuesday.

  • Metrobus rides within the District will be free starting next summer, the Washington Post reports — as long as Mayor Muriel Bowser approves the measure. That's not guaranteed; she's been skeptical of the potential costs.
  • The measure's supporters celebrated the vote nonetheless. "This is something that is one of those rare win-win wins," D.C. Council member Charles Allen told the Post. "Deep, immediate, meaningful impact for working families all across our city."

If Washington goes fare-free, it would follow neighbor Alexandria, Virginia, whose bus network DASH introduced free service last year, and Kansas City, Missouri, which began offering "Zero Fare" bus travel in 2020.

  • "These programs were sparked by opportunities to bolster transit's role as a social equalizer, evenhandedly providing access to jobs, health care, education and opportunity," said Art Guzzetti, vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

Case study: Like many other public transit networks, DASH stopped charging for rides during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many essential workers were relying on bus, train and subway systems.

  • Unlike most other systems, DASH decided to keep its buses free.
  • "Transit fares, for us, are more about equity than about driving ridership," said Josh Baker, CEO and general manager of Alexandria Transit Company, which operates DASH. "We want to increase ridership by creating more useful service at the same time. We want to remove barriers."
  • In September, DASH ridership hit its highest level in more than seven years — about 15,000 average weekday boardings.

Kansas City's experiment has been a big hit too.

  • In a recent rider survey, nearly 90% "said they rode the buses more as a result of Zero Fare," Next City reports.
  • "About 92% said it allowed them to shop for food more often; 88% said they could see their health care providers more easily or more often; 82% said it allowed them to get or keep a job."

Backstory: Free buses aren't entirely new — Denver, for example, has long offered free service on MallRide, a downtown shuttle.

Yes, but: Some fare-free cities are leaning on state and federal funding to make up some of the inevitable shortfall.

  • Those programs only offer so much time and money, putting transit officials on the clock to figure out long-term solutions.

The bottom line: Some funding options, like new taxes or tolls, might be a tough sell with residents who don't use public transit. But proponents argue that more accessible buses and subways — and the related economic benefits — are well worth the costs.

  • "Transit has so long been viewed as a business — it's not," Baker told Axios. "Yes, our business is moving people. But we're something that supports the economy, We're not something that is the economy."
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