December 3, 2019 8:53 AM   Subscribe

“Public transit is one of the most powerful sites of struggle that we have in our cities, given it’s the backbone of how many people get to work, grocery stores, schools, and social activities. The physical nature of the service – requiring strangers to congregate in bus shelters and train stations, often anxious about delays and costs – represents a site of highly effective collective power if harnessed.“ The demand for free transit is just the beginning
posted by The Whelk (62 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
My local buses are going fareless on January 1st, and it's absolutely going to get me to ride the bus more often.

Bus fares accounted for less than 2% of of the total transit budget, and upgrading the fare-collecting-machines was going to be so costly, charging a fare would have ended up just making the upgrade break-even. So the city decided that breaking even to spend that money to make others spend money made no sense when you could just remove the devices to collect a fare and let people ride for free, a solution that also breaks even.

The only potential downside I see is that we're in the midst of a homelessness crisis here on the West coast, and I'm wondering if ridership will increase but then drop if people are faced with buses full of homeless trying to escape the cold. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing or would dissuade me from riding the bus, but considering the anti-homeless rhetoric I'm faced with daily, I'm absolutely sure someone else will make a stink about it, if it comes to that.
posted by deadaluspark at 9:04 AM on December 3, 2019 [37 favorites]

deadaluspark that is super interesting, where are you located? (you can DM me if you'd rather not post publicly.)
posted by mr. manager at 9:16 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Meanwhile St. Louis still doesn't have turnstiles or reloadable fare cards, is shutting down lines, and we spent an exorbitant amount of Federal money for one egomaniac's vanity trolley project.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 9:17 AM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

In my town the local university's students get free-to-use transit when they show their student IDs, as they pay a small annual fee. Recently the local transit company has been posting an extra employee in the busses to scan the cards to make sure people showing student cards are still active students. The potential loss-recovery from doing this can't possibly pay for this parson to be doing this. It often feels like exerting control is more important than providing the actual service.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2019 [47 favorites]

I'm excited that this idea is getting new attention -- the ripple effects would be huge.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2019

last time I was a student, a bus/transit pass was mandatory and paid for from my student fees, so it certainly felt free.

I loved how it changed my relationship with transit. I didn't have to worry about buying tickets/transfers (which had time and zone limits), I was just free to use the grid as it suited me. The city felt more open to me, inviting. Everything about it just felt natural.

If there's any future for so-called civilization, I suspect we'll look back on the time before universal free transit as absurd. What were they thinking?
posted by philip-random at 9:43 AM on December 3, 2019 [22 favorites]

Chicago does really well on this (not free) but kids under 6 are free, low income seniors are free and people with disabilities who are low income can also get free fare or reduced fare relatively easily. Students can also get reduced fare. Normal fare is a flat 3 dollars one ride two transfers (train to bus or bus to train, I think just buses ended up being cheaper I think) within two hours which will almost get you anywhere in the city. That is the normal rate.

Overall, It works really really well. I have been surprised by other transit systems (looking specifically at you, DC) where it was just so expensive to ride.

However I've been appalled when I've witnessed public bus drivers complaining that's middle school/high school were trying to get to school with no fare! (They did let them on, but the conversation made me irate)

In addition, Chicago doesn't address is low income adults who are just trying to get by, and undocumented adults who will not qualify for free services regardless of income, age or disability. A 6 dollar commute to work a part time low wage job is expensive. Unemployed adults or those on food stamps or just normal people - it can end up being expensive. Free fare would make a huge difference in their quality of life.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:46 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

If the concern over free transit is homelessness, perhaps we should work on a solution to homelessness... like, I dunno, providing homes as well?

This isn't sarcasm. There's more unoccupied homes in the US than there are homeless people, and Housing First programs have been shown to work.
posted by SansPoint at 9:48 AM on December 3, 2019 [37 favorites]

The "transit" * district near me is inching towards this.

They've recently eliminated fares for people under 18 going to/from school and school activities.
They were checking school IDs but now they basically just seem to assume you are a student during certain hours.

They already have free for everyone during major events (sporting events, festivals, etc).

The next step would be eliminating fares for everyone, but there are several hurdles to overcome.

First is the loss of revenue from fares. It is admittedly not a large portion of the budget, but a 4-5% loss is still noticeable.
Second, and probably more significant, is the amount of push-back they would get from businesses within the taxing district. Being funded in large part by a payroll tax, I can imagine the hue and cry over "freeloaders" from the same people who oppose any modernization of services.
There are answers to this, including expanding the tax pool, but they may not be politically palatable.

Finally there are the small issues, use of buses as an impromptu homeless shelter is probably up there, there is a major revamp of routes happening at the moment, and probably somewhat of a lack of leadership in the organization itself.

*It's a bus line, but "Transit" sounds more modern and fundable.
posted by madajb at 9:48 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am all in on free transit ... except ... here in Toronto it's a fucking crush for hours a day already. Transit should have been free decades ago just like they should have been constantly building more of it. But they don't, and shit is falling apart and the PRESTO card rollout is a colossal fuckup and and and and ....

Frankly I don't know how TO is going to dig its way out of the next five years of absolute transit shittery. Damnit Jen Keesmaat better be our next mayor or we're fucked.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:03 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Our bus system costs $2.50 a ride. But the system is setup so that it's often impossible to get anywhere without at least one transfer which costs another $1.00. So a round trip can cost $7.00 a person. That's more than an hour's take-home pay for a lot of low-wage workers.
posted by octothorpe at 10:05 AM on December 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

Now I have a monthly pass, but before I would have to balance out paying $3.50 each way vs parking, which cost only slightly more. And then if you have a few adults, and you need to transfer, or you need to do more walking than you would with a car, etc? Any individual ride you can change to public transit is a good.
posted by jeather at 10:17 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m trying to remember a time when I rode the bus in the 35 years I lived in the states. Maybe when I lived in San Francisco, but I know I had a car there, so...
I was always thinking about the lack of public transportation over there, part of the war against the poor. The last 10 years I lived in a new suburb in Southern California, and there definitely were no buses there, or trains, or even any cyclists. You either had a car, or two, or fuck you.
Then, 5 months ago, I moved to Copenhagen, and the first thing I did after jet leg, was buying a “rejsekort”, a travel card that can be used on the bus, train or metro. It’s cheap, and until I bought a bike, I used it all the time. The trains and buses run all over, and nearly all the time. It’s wonderful. It also makes me feel good because I know that this is how it’s supposed to be.
posted by growabrain at 10:21 AM on December 3, 2019 [11 favorites]

I’m someone who has been a transit rider my whole life and I think dismissing concerns about the homeless as “not being used to poor people” is unfair. If very smelly people with a lot of stuff camp in a car, it is unpleasant for everyone else — rich, poor, middle-class. I don’t blame the sufferers themselves — no one wants to be so unwashed they clear the car. But it’s giving people homes that will fix that; not guilting those concerned about serving as many as possible.
posted by dame at 10:24 AM on December 3, 2019 [21 favorites]

seanmpuckett: How long ago did Andy Byford leave Toronto? He's been having such a tough time of it here in NYC dealing with fucking Andrew fucking Cuomo (the Governor of NY who controls the MTA, but claims not to) that I wouldn't be surprised if he up and quit and went back to you folks.
posted by SansPoint at 10:26 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Octothorpe is right, our bus system is exorbitantly expensive for single rides. My husband pays about $100/month for his fare pass which is still a ton, especially having to pay it all at once rather than piecemeal.

If you're associated with a university here, though (and that's a lot of people) your student ID doubles as a fare card for free transit and it's great. I have worked at various universities here for literal decades and use the buses to go even short distances if I'm in a hurry or it's raining (it's Pittsburgh, it's always raining). I want that for everyone. On the routes I ride, almost no one is paying a fare. Seniors are also free, as are public school students. Is it really that much of a stretch to extend this to everyone else as well?

Pittsburgh already has surprisingly high transit ridership (literally everyone from Pittsburgh is surprised by this stat as we think of our transit as sucky) and we're constantly battling the state government (dominated by Republicans from rural areas who haaaaate the cities) for funding, so I probably just answered all my own questions.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:54 AM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I’m someone who has been a transit rider my whole life and I think dismissing concerns about the homeless as “not being used to poor people” is unfair.

Indeed, but the bigger problems regarding homeless passengers come from untreated mental illness, drug and alcohol use, aggressiveness and violation of personal space along with some using the buses as storage and hang out space. I ride the bus every day and know many of the bus drivers well and it can be a lot of added stress for everyone when there are people riding who don't follow procedures that allow everyone to feel comfortable. But it isn't at all just those that are homeless that cause problems, as anyone who rides the late buses in a college town could tell you. Drunk groups of students are terrible to ride with.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:58 AM on December 3, 2019 [18 favorites]

There's more unoccupied homes in the US than there are homeless people

"Empty homes" and "homeless people" are not evenly distributed.
* SF Bay Area had an estimated 28,800 homeless people in 2017.
* Detroit has an estimated 31,000 empty houses.

You cannot just move San Francisco's homeless people to houses in Detroit.

That said, yes, "just give people housing" would solve a great deal of the homeless crisis. There may not be 30k empty homes or even rooms in the SF Bay Area, but there are buildings that could be converted to dorm-like housing and managed a lot cheaper than the current amount cities spend on both emergency services and attempts to keep homeless people in "acceptable" areas.

Free transit would fix so many problems. Even more, if the cost is "$1 if you can afford it; free if you can't" - set up a bill/coin collector and don't bother enforcing it. That lets people who are weirded out by free services pay for it and feel happy that they're personally subsidizing the city.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:58 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

SF Bay Area had an estimated 28,800 homeless people in 2017.

An estimated 100,000 homes are sitting empty in the San Francisco metro area
posted by The Whelk at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

Free transit is about much more than transit: an end to austerity, a refusal of police power, and a demand for decommodified and universal public services.

YES let's all remember that this would reduce police power, economic suppression, and do its little bit to chip away at the carceral state (or Our Several Carceral States in the U.S.). How many teenagers who get caught jumping turnstiles now have a criminal record, which affects their sentencing/gives authoritarian judges an excuse to be jerks and derail their lives whenever they're accused of what would otherwise be a first offense.

Not to mention how punitive fines at the wrong time can screw you over in all the usual ways an unexpected expense does when you're living touch-and-go.
posted by Tess of the d'Urkelvilles at 11:07 AM on December 3, 2019 [24 favorites]

Not to mention how evading a fare gets you a $400+ ticket but leaving your car like litter on a street where it isn't welcome is like $15. Oh and there's no such crime as vehicular manslaughter. Tells you everything you need to know about the state of transportation in this city/province.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:13 AM on December 3, 2019 [18 favorites]

Just the other day I took a poll that my local transit agency sent me ostensibly on conditions on a bus route I frequently take. The actual conditions that matter to me like frequency, hours, condition of the buses, and so on were never addressed because it jumped right into questions about how much fare evasion I've witnessed and how concerned I am about it. Then the 2nd page of questions was the same as the first with the disclaimer "How would you feel if you knew that we lose $40 million a year to fare evasion?"

Basically I got push-polled by a public transit agency, which just sucks a ton considering public transit is such a fundamental public good, and one that only gets more useful the more there is of it. The main goal of agencies that run transit should be encouraging more people to use it, but it seems like to many of them are more concerned with dickering over 1% of their budget and getting passengers to blame other passengers for whatever problems come up. Every second and dollar they spend getting worried about fares, who's paying them, who's not, and who's responsible for making people pay is being stolen from all of us to no truly useful purpose, and often pretty bad ones. They should absolutely be gotten rid of.

Plus, everything about the fare collection apparatus, from the ticket machines to the card readers to the web service I use to get my pre-tax transit benefits, is some combination of frequently broken, difficult to use, and completely opaque to the user. It seems like maybe if they really cared that much about fares that might be a place to start, instead of dumping a ton more money than will ever be recovered into having a bunch of cops alternate between standing around pointlessly and beating up Black and Hispanic kids.
posted by Copronymus at 11:21 AM on December 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

Also a Canadian, but splitting time between Montreal & the west coast.

In my experience those most likely to complain about transit are also those least likely use it. I love having having people tell me that my plan for the day is an untenable mess because I'm going to spend 90minutes of it on transit.

Almost as much as I love the fact that the only disability/community organization in the country that has successfully lobbied for free/reduced fare transit is the CNIB. My ID also has "this is not a drivers licence" stamped all over it; it would mean a lot to me on a personal level to have an affordable transit pass without having to apply for a disability pension. The problems I have with the disability pension schemes across the country are a whole ' other kettle of fish.
posted by mce at 11:22 AM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Chapel Hill, NC has a fare free bus system and it's awesome. It's largely propped up by UNC, but it also makes it so much more accessible to everyone else. Also it means kids start using it earlier. According to my sister and nephew the big right of passage in middle school is taking the city bus home with friends rather than the school bus. Those kids who learn how to use public transit early in life are more likely to use it later too.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

Copronymus: inorite? Also - where is my poll that asks (on a scale of 1-5) how annoyed I am that (in my locality) we'll spend nearly $3billion on infrastructure to reduce congestion that
  • won't help
  • wouldn't be necessary if we hadn't underfunded transit and actively underprice parking
posted by mce at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

... Andy Byford ...
posted by SansPoint

I ran into him at my favorite karaoke bar about a month and a half ago... I think he was tickled pink* to be recognized and have someone ask to take a picture with him.

And now, having done some googling about him, I'm realizing he might have been out celebrating handing in his resignation letter! It appears he has since reconsidered tho.

* - At least, I hope that's how he felt about it!
posted by Grither at 11:32 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am all in on free transit ... except ... here in Toronto it's a fucking crush for hours a day already.

I don't think there'll be a large number of people joyriding on the TTC during rush hour just because its free. I'd expect the bulk of any new ridership at those times to be people who couldn't afford to use it otherwise. At least not on Line 1. That being said no one is using the Sheppard Subway so maybe repurposing it as a warming centre for the homeless would be a better use of it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:37 AM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Whelk, that number is for the entire MSA, giving the area an estimated 5.6% vacancy rate. That's among the lowest in the country (45 out of 50), with San Jose MSA (the other part of the bay area) at 4.2%, which is the lowest of any major metro (50th of 50). Of the 100k mentioned, 28k (1.6%) are only empty because they're currently on the market. Considering renters, if people move on average every five years, and everything is perfectly efficienct (say 1 month between tenants, x2 because the place you're leaving and the place you're moving to both need to be vacant) that's a 3.3% minimum vacancy rate, and you'll have near zero choices of places to live... and high prices.

Long story short, 100% occupancy isn't possible or desirable... it would gridlock all mobility of any kind in a region... research point to ~95% being a peak figure, with ~92% being healthier.

Anyhow, to tie this back to transit, BART has huge crime and cleanliness problems, strongly associated with fare evasion rates. This isn't isolated... other large cities that have tried free transit plans have seen corresponding increases in vandalism, staff turnover from lack of safety, and slower overall service. "Problem riders" aren't just a question of discomfort with other SES groups.

Yes, this is probably highly related to the lack of social safety nets in the US,but it's also not ignorable in setting transit policy.
posted by zeypher at 11:45 AM on December 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm another Pittsburgh person who gets free transit through working at a university. For a few years I decamped and worked in the local hospital system instead, and got a pre-tax bus pass benefit instead, and I was always stressed out that I'd have to lose my bus pass and pay cash for the rest of the month, going to pick it up was a pain in the ass, etc. Having my staff ID just automatically double as free bus fare is amazing.

The bus has been my primary form of transportation since I moved here in the late nineties and currently it gets me almost everywhere I need to go. There were a few rough years when the system was so cash-strapped they had to cut way back on routes and my daily commute got a lot longer, but getting some cash back into the system really helped. I don't know if free rides are under any consideration here but I'd be enthusiastically for it if we could find a way to do it without tipping our precarious transit budget over the edge into major cuts again.

The experiences I hate about my bus ride* are usually inconsiderate yelling high school kids, not the occasional homeless person trying to stay warm and dry. I try to be chill about the yelling teens, though; I was an inconsiderate yelling teen once too, it's the circle of life.

*we are excluding the Christmas Bus from this conversation as it's unrelated to fees and ridership, but fuck the Christmas Bus forever, it's worse than any yelling teen
posted by Stacey at 11:58 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Fares are usually a very small part of an agency's overall revenue stream, true, but given the way that federal transit funding is set up they can have a significant impact on the overall budget. The feds match every local buck with four more for capital projects (buying buses, shelters, etc.) and usually won't pay for operating (drivers, gas, etc.) at all if you're a large enough system. Operating expenses are by far the lion's share of a transit agency's budget.

One answer is, as the article states in so many words, alternative local and state revenue streams via taxes, roadway congestion fees, etc. But then you're fighting the battle on the "but I don't even ride transit!" front which is a battle I fight a lot and it sucks ass. Another answer is fixing how our federal transportation bills fund transit, which is about how you think a congressperson from Montana thinks transit should be funded.

Since most of us can't fix federal transportation funding formulas: advocate for local funding, and advocate for prioritizing everything over single occupancy vehicles in American cities. More important in my mind than free transit, though certainly not in competition with free transit, is just better transit. A free ride on a garbage system is still a garbage ride.
posted by gordie at 11:58 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


The majority of "Problem riders" most likely links back to issues of homelessness and mental illness, both of which need to be addressed (imho) as more pressing social concerns than if you have to pay a transit fare or not.


I have many thoughts about this, but I fear by the time I have digested the article and come to any conclusions, this FFP will be on page 3 or 4.

I suppose it just seems that over the past few years I have been hearing more and more cries from activists for making all manner of items free or very low cost. Healthcare, water and or electricity, internet access, transit... And at the end of the day, I can't disagree that many of the things being called for could be considered human rights, and a cruelty to withhold from those that need them. But they also are things that have huge infrastructure costs, both to build and maintain. Everyone should have access to clean water, but someone's gotta pay for the pipes and the treatment plants. Everyone should be able to ride the subway for free, but someone has to pay for the extensions as the suburbs grow.

If all the basics for a decent life are covered by the state, what are the revenue streams that pay for it all? Honestly curious, as you run into issues of things like...the higher the taxes on gas or car usage, the more people who switch to mass transit or electric cars, which means lower tax receipts.

Do we end up with massive VAT taxes on basically all consumer goods and services that aren't included in the basic "quality of life" package? Even higher taxes on real estate? How much more can we squeeze out of corporations and the super-wealthy to fund free or low-cost services that more and more people are saying are needed to create a society that doesn't punish people for just being born in the "wrong" social class.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 12:09 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

When the discussion focuses on the cost of ridership as recouped by fares, there's rarely, if ever, a discussion of the cost of collecting fares and ensuring collection of those fares. Also, what is the delay to the system efficiency because of fare collection? Subways push the bottlenecks upstream, so getting on or off is not slowed down with ticketing, as buses or other trains can be.

But the elephant in the room is what is the cost of increased transit use against decreased personal vehicle use? From the article:
It’s not some utopian demand. Over 100 transit systems operate fare-free around the world, including much of Estonia. Dunkirk, France, became one of the largest examples, when it introduced free buses to its population of 200,000 last year. About half of riders surveyed said they were new transit users and were using it instead of driving a car, a clear indication of the policy’s power to reduce transportation emissions in a city.
Emissions is a great hook, but so is the cost of infrastructure. $40 or $61 million in fare evasion -- those are big numbers. But do you know what is bigger? Capacity-expanding roadway projects.

I've recounted this anecdote before in other threads, but I talked to a local transit planner to ask if they had thought of making the system fare-free. His said that they had a limited-time trial, and they had, in his words, "too many users."

I wanted to shake him, or hug him, and say "that's the sort of problem I want you to have! Then you can justify buying more vehicles! Increasing bus frequencies, even in lower density areas! Get transit projects prioritized above roadway construction projects!"
posted by filthy light thief at 12:22 PM on December 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

Three cheers for Philadelphia ditching the prosecution of fare evaders! I love this town more and more every day.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:38 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

How much more can we squeeze out of corporations and the super-wealthy to fund free or low-cost services that more and more people are saying are needed to create a society that doesn't punish people for just being born in the "wrong" social class.

Amazon paid zero tax this year and Google is sitting on literal trillions so let’s start with “some , at all, any” first.
posted by The Whelk at 12:41 PM on December 3, 2019 [35 favorites]

And at the end of the day, I can't disagree that many of the things being called for could be considered human rights, and a cruelty to withhold from those that need them. But they also are things that have huge infrastructure costs, both to build and maintain.

Asking who pays for it is an okay question, but I think it tends to overshadow the point that if we didn't have a transit system, there would be a much more significant cost. Transit systems (among other systems) deliver far more value than they cost. It's just that the value of people being able to move around a city doesn't get reflected easily on a balance sheet.

I make this point in conversations around the newish NYC Ferry. When the accounting came out in the past year or so, it revealed that though each ride costs a passenger $2.75, it costs the city something like $12-20 in subsidies (depending on route). This, to me, is fine: transit cannot and should not pay for itself at the farebox.

(The problem with the NYC Ferry, though, it's that it's heavily subsidized high-cost/low-volume transit for wealthy neighborhoods, with the accounting going public around the same time that the city started mumbling about prosecuting farejumpers on the busses and subways: a very, very bad look, nearly a direct statement about who the city is willing to subsidize and who they want to imprison.)
posted by entropone at 12:49 PM on December 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

I rode a free mass transit system every day for years, and I had like three adverse encounters with people who seemed mentally ill. To me, that does not seem worse than my experiences driving.
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on December 3, 2019 [22 favorites]

Transit where I live is always one of the first things cut. They had service on some holidays, but that got cut. They had more buses and it hooked up easily with a few small towns. Now it’s pretty awful in terms of scheduling. Yes, you will get unhoused people who have not bathed in the last decade. Not enjoyable for me, but what’s really bad about transit is we have one of the higher sex offenders not in prison or jail populations. This makes riding busses scary at times. It’s $1.00 regular fare one way. You can get transfers. One system, which links the Rez, is $1.00 donation. Others are free, others 1.00 or free with a disabled reduced fare pass. I’ve had more trouble on the bus with people who are sex offenders than with the unhoused. The next pain in the dupa catagory would be mouthy teenagers. Being retired, I can now avoid the. They were a pain in the dupa when I did work. My own kids could not stand them and walked to school. In the mornings I walked to work and took the bus in the afternoon. Those school runs make money for transit. We have pretty decent drivers here.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:01 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

It is worth noting that the Staten Island Ferry, which must cost a bajillion dollars to run, is free.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:03 PM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

BART has huge crime and cleanliness problems, strongly associated with fare evasion rates.

This is an embarrassingly sloppy reading of the linked article. It says that a grand jury (perhaps not the most scientific of institutions to begin with, and dealing with limited evidence, as spelled out in the article) found that crime had increased on BART in the past five years, and that there is a fare evasion rate that some people think is high. There's no attempt to "associate" them, much less strongly; if they were "strongly" associated, you would expect an increasing fare evasion rate to go along with the increased crime, but no increase is mentioned anywhere in the article.

Even if fare evasion were linked to violent crime, I'm not sure where "This isn't isolated... other large cities that have tried free transit plans [have problems]" even comes from, as BART...isn't free (hence the fare evasion).
posted by praemunire at 1:15 PM on December 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

And lo, from a 1997 NYT article about the newly free ferry:

Hardly anyone credited Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who decided to eliminate the ferry fare in conjunction with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's switch to free transfers. The Mayor said it was only fair that people in all parts of the city pay the same amount to commute, though the decision also provided an election year gift to Staten Islanders, whose support was crucial to Mr. Giuliani's victory in 1993.

''Look, the big deal is the free transfers, not the free ferry, and that's not Rudy Giuliani's sole doing,'' said Raul Calderon, 26, a store manager. ''I mean, the man would take credit for my graduating from college during his administration, if he could.''

What makes Staten Island so special? It is the whitest borough.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

Here in Tokyo, if you have a full-time job (and even certain part-time jobs), it's standard practice hat your employer pays for your train/bus fare. Let me repeat that: your employer pays. You get a lump sum, usually via reimbursement, that is tacked onto your monthly pay, or the company pays for a train/bus pass for several months. Even if you decide to walk or ride your bike sometimes, you still get that transportation money. The latter is taking advantage, maybe, but I've tried to come clean with my company about it and offered to decline the money for those days. They waved it away and said, basically, "Oh, don't worry about it. The paperwork would be too complicated and no one wants to do it."
posted by zardoz at 1:29 PM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I guess, as a transit rider from a transit-exclusive household, I'd rather have free bus rides with more homeless people on the bus than pay $2.75 a throw with some homeless people on the bus, if that's the only choice. "Free, but with people in crisis" versus "costly, but with only some people in crisis" isn't a great pair of options but I'd rather have the money TBH.

And if you think the only people in crisis on public transit are actually homeless, well, that's not the case. Honestly, I'd rather deal with a homeless person who maybe hasn't bathed than some of the housed people who are obviously in such terrible emotional pain that they cannot interact with others without cruelty. Or the phone calls you overhear where people are asking for help with the rent or begging for something. It's terrible and there isn't much you can do in the moment.

For another thing, I can usually do something for a homeless person in the moment, whereas a housed stranger whose life is just totally fucked up and painful, I have to just sit there and listen to the phonecalls and the fights. I'd rather give somebody a couple of bucks if it's all the same to you.
posted by Frowner at 1:30 PM on December 3, 2019 [16 favorites]

TBH, this time of year I would rather have every unhoused person riding a warm bus all day instead of the usual sight of people joylessly killing time on the pavement until the nearest shelter opens up at night. Even more so after the median daytime temperature drops below freezing.

Public transportation, public libraries, and any other public service, already house and provide basic social services to the unhoused population anyway. Adding dropin services on heavily used lines, or at major transit hubs, seems like an obvious synergy to me. (Synergy is still one of the buzzwords to get MBAs to like things, right?)
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

I went to ride a bus today, and found it is free in Bakersfield, for all of December! Someone wrote for a grant, and it happened. It was the first nearly full bus, I have seen. I can ride all day for $1.70 because I am a senior citizen. Others pay more than three dollars per ride. Even a dollar bus ride for everyone would fill the buses. Tomorrow I will ride more than 15 miles way out to a physicians office, for free, and then back, for free. It would cost me at least a full fare bus ride, to ride my old van out there. *Sniff*, it got me off the streets! Besides, riding the bus in this town, is like being in a Steinbeck novel.
posted by Oyéah at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

$40 or $61 million in fare evasion -- those are big numbers. But do you know what is bigger? Capacity-expanding roadway projects.

In 2010, the Republican governor of Wisconsin turned down $800 million in federal money for high-speed rail. Just two years earlier, the Marquette interchange highway project over a couple of miles in downtown Milwaukee was completed for roughly the same amount of money (reported at $810M?)--and was celebrated for being "under budget".
posted by gimonca at 2:30 PM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

> Do we end up with massive VAT taxes on basically all consumer goods and services that aren't included in the basic "quality of life" package? Even higher taxes on real estate? How much more can we squeeze out of corporations and the super-wealthy to fund free or low-cost services...

We aren't squeezing at all right now. The US government subsidizes them. By actual subsidies and lax regulation, but more fundamentally, by designing system to perpetuate its low-wage underclass via systemic denial of healthcare, housing, legal justice, and education.
posted by scose at 4:11 PM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Good morning from Admiralty station.

One of the most quietly unsettling effects of the Hong Kong protest movement has been the deploying of low-key fare-evasion monitors at the turnstiles (unarmed and from private contractors, of course - this is still Hong Kong) in MTR stations, especially galling given how much money the MTR makes from its property holdings. The MTR has been a problematic corporate citizen since the Yuen Long attacks in July and whatever happened, still a mystery, at Prince Edward station on August 31st. My local station had its interior and exterior pretty heavily damaged and the lift leading from the concourse to the street is still out of commission.

Interestingly, we get a subsidy for public transport from the government delivered to our Octopus cards in every station and public transport interchange like ferry piers. Seniors and passengers with disabilities ride for an HKD 2/~USD 0.30 flat fee across the whole system and kids under 11 and students pay half price. Overall it works, but the economic and political choices that led to this state of affairs are related to laws about land ownership, eminent domain and the total dependence people have on the system in a city where 90%+ of people don’t drive; I don’t even know anyone who owns a car.
posted by mdonley at 4:38 PM on December 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

I have a lot of thoughts about public transit as a nearly lifelong rider (summer vacation was usually Mom taking the kids on transit to places, since we were a one-car household, and she didn't have a driver's license anyway; I started taking transit on my own when high school started.)

Lately, I've been thinking more and more that a good public transport network is an unalloyed good. It's certainly better for the environment; it's clearly much more efficient at moving large amounts of people to and between hubs; it reduces congestion, leaving clearer roads for freight and ambulances and work vehicles; and it's probably safer overall!

Yes, it takes longer than driving (I've had a bad 1h30m one-way commute which I managed to shave to 1h10m in the mornings with a bit of sprinting; the same commute would likely take me no more than 40 mins driving). But you get some of that time back: it's where I can catch up on my book or send that email just unwind after a long day.
posted by invokeuse at 7:56 PM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Huwwo fwom Austrawia.

I just checked my home state's PT budget. Fares cover very nearly 1/7th of the cost of a system that is generally agreed to be inconvenient and insufficient. Even in quite densely-populated suburbs, buses and trams switch to an hourly schedule in the evenings - or stop running at all. Most of our lines are laid out on a hub and spoke system with the hub being central Melbourne, so many trips are about 50% longer than they ought to be. It's not great!

Trams in the city center are free, so that's one good thing, but you need to pay when you take public transport outside this area. We've just undergone the second or third update to the payment system since the days of conductors, so you now need a stored value card that can be bought and and recharged at convenience stores. If you don't have one, and need to take public transport to reach a store, well ... To be fair, very recently they released an application for Android phones that lets you do this online; iPhone users are out of luck. Fare payments are enforced by teams of roving inspectors dressed in greatcoats and jackboots. I think whoever designed the uniform was having a little joke.

I think fares probably make a net financial contribution to the Victorian PT budget, even taking the undisclosed cost of collection, enforcement, machine maintenance etc. into account. I don't think it's worth it, though: make PT free, for the excellent reasons given above.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:21 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Trams in the city center are free, so that's one good thing,

Committed Melbourne public transport user here. Free CBD trams are not a good thing. It's just enabling the top end of town to drive in to work, and then get in my face at lunch-time. Doesn't create revenue, doesn't increase patronage, doesn't get cars off the road.

The impression that I get is that Melbourne transport wonks are generally not in favour of free transport, until the frequency issue has been addressed.
posted by pompomtom at 9:02 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

EU fare box ratios (percentage of operating costs covered by fares) generally range from 15 to 45% in analyses I've seen, so a bit too substantial to just go "screw it ride for free" outside of very rich cities. But what improves ridership is reducing friction - make monthly, quarterly or annual passes available, and don't force people to fish them out every time they board a vehicle. Less cognitive load, more people willing to opt for the public option.

Which someone should inform Bologna about. A major tourist and international-student city without bus ticket machines or any online option to buy bus tickets slightly floored me and forced a 500 metre detour to the nearest newsagents, in the rain, with luggage. Compare to Milan's tap-in-out system with any contactless payment card, where I didn't even have to buy a ticket at all.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:38 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here in Tokyo, if you have a full-time job (and even certain part-time jobs), it's standard practice hat your employer pays for your train/bus fare. Let me repeat that: your employer pays.

Common here in the Netherlands apparently. It is based on how far you live from work. They will also chip in and buy you a bicycle if you don't have one.

What I do like about the Netherlands is the unified transport systems. I know its a small country but it is super convenient to just use one chip card for all trains, trams, metro and buses in the entire country.
posted by vacapinta at 11:06 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh boy. As someone working in PT planning and provision, I don't believe it's "condescending" to point out that basically, you need to look at what you're trying to achieve with fareless, and how you'll handle potential knock-on effects. This is because those of us on the operational side, regardless of how we feel about fee-at-point-of-access, have to figure out how to provide an extremely important service whilst following policies which aren't under our control and which PTAs do not necessarily back up with funding or greater flexibility. Fare-free isn't a fantasy, but it needs to be handled intelligently and sadly sometimes isn't. It's not just "wonks" who will tell you this.

- As the article says, fareless transit is a vitally important discussion, both in terms of economic justice (fares can be seen as a form of regressive taxation, and I myself am of that opinion) and as a purely operational question when fares account for 4% or less of total revenue. The latter is partly because, as others have pointed out, without constant optimization or very high recovery, fare enforcement is likely costing more than you're recouping in...fares. Enforcement also indeed tends to be racist as all hell, to say nothing of homeless who get hit coming and going (sometimes literally). There are real advantages to eliminating fare controls and fareless or not the police need to be removed from that process NOW, YESTERDAY.

- OTOH, unless you're able to get your operation, fuel, maintenance, and personnel costs to zero, short of immediate luxury gay space communism there is no such thing as Free Transit. I am all about removing barriers to use and access, but that money--yes, I'm sorry Briarpatch Magazine--is going to have to come from somewhere else, usually taxes, which sometimes pass and sometimes don't (thanks, Koch family err "Americans for Prosperity"). The difference, if not made up elsewhere, can determine the hiring or firing a driver or two, which for smaller networks (and for the drivers!) is a big deal.

- In my neck of the woods, networks I have personally worked with or observed in transitioning to fare-free models (including Dunkerque which the article cites as an example of a successful fare-free network), find that this mostly shifts modal share away from walking esp in urban cores ("it's raining, instead of walking these three blocks let's hop in the bus"). It doesn't get people out of their cars en masse.

- However, this is probably partly because these networks have progressive fare structures with reduced prices for a certain percentile of the population. That is to say, people for whom cost would have been the most significant barrier (rather than service level, or comfort, or being a bougie asshole) ALREADY had access to free or nearly free passes. This is not the case in much of the world and especially not in the US. When I used to commute to work in the Seattle area, the cost (especially on Sound Transit, i.e. the only service which could feasibly get me to work on time) was so exorbitant I actually skipped shifts because it would have cost me money to show up. They have since introduced low-income fares and it's about goddamn time, because that's the reality for millions of people and it's enraging.

-Peak-time overcrowding IS sometimes a problem in transitioning to fare-free. Yeah, in some ways that's a good problem to have, but only if you've got a PTA with the will and the wherewithal to increase service accordingly. Many don't or won't, and the crowding just becomes one more reason for non-riders or transit-curious folks not to take PT, as it drags down your commercial speed and reduces on-board comfort.

In short, eliminating fares for all but the most heavy-duty networks with significant rider revenue is probably not going to spell the instant death of those services. Depending on your fare structure, it's also a serious issue of economic and social justice. However, unless the political will and funding exist to back those policies up with concomitant service adjustments, we've got to face the reality that over the long term, fare-free ON ITS OWN is not the solution to what ails us, and risks further degrading service levels for an already obscenely underfunded public resource. To achieve its ostensible goals (a functioning public service accessible to all) it needs to be paired with a total overhaul in our approach to public service funding (rigorous progressive taxation of individuals and corporations) and taxation (eat the rich).

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk, now I have to go see a man about a bicycle fleet.
posted by peakes at 3:05 AM on December 4, 2019 [32 favorites]

Ah well... luxury gay space communism it is then, I suppose.
posted by pompomtom at 3:47 AM on December 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

There are certainly things that can be done to make transit fares more equitable short of going zero fare. I can go anywhere in the county on a bus for $2.25, with unlimited transfers. If I made modestly less, that would be $1.65 or free. The train is slightly more expensive, and transferring from bus to train does incur the $0.40 upcharge.

How equitable service levels are across the community is certainly a big issue, as is the overall speed of the service. I can say without a doubt, however, that nobody here is giving up a shift because it costs more in cash money to get to work than that person will earn at their job, and that's before considering the entirely fareless services we also have.

Sad to think that transit here can't even be described as adequate, yet still far outpaces many other places in the US.
posted by wierdo at 6:40 AM on December 4, 2019

There are certainly things that can be done to make transit fares more equitable short of going zero fare.

Crank corporate tax rates and top-end marginal income tax rates is the obvious one. I suppose you could reduce fares at the same time, but whatevs.
posted by pompomtom at 6:55 AM on December 4, 2019

seanmpuckett: Not to mention how evading a fare gets you a $400+ ticket but leaving your car like litter on a street where it isn't welcome is like $15. Oh and there's no such crime as vehicular manslaughter. Tells you everything you need to know about the state of transportation in this city/province.

...and just to add to that, from the TTC's operating budget:

Given that 97% of TTC non-subsidy operating revenue is from passenger fares, TTC has relatively limited options to increase revenues outside of fare and subsidy increases. Staff reviewed all opportunities though and have budgeted $17.9 million gross ($13.4 million net) in additional operating revenue in addition to fare increase revenues.

It's a spectacularly underfunded system, with the onus on the farebox to provide the lion's share of operating revenue.

The other problem:

[The TTC's] budgetary math creates a situation where there is strong pressure to keep the subsidy requirements below budget and, ideally, to “give back” unused subsidy to address other City funding requirements. The TTC may aim to improve service and operate according to standards, but this is all “subject to budget”.

*bangs head on desk*

And! Doug Ford just announced that the 401 around Mississauga/Milton is going to have lanes added to it to the tune of just under $700 million, which will only result in induced demand. That money could be funnelled to regional transit infrastructure instead, but of course it won't.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:48 AM on December 4, 2019

Perhaps you could have paid fares (discounts for age/income/whatever) on rush hour and free on off hours, which would help incentivise occasional use.
posted by jeather at 8:58 AM on December 4, 2019

Ah well... luxury gay space communism it is then, I suppose.

Oh yeah that is for sure my preferred strategy. Just trying to figure out how to get people to work until the revolution comes.
posted by peakes at 12:44 AM on December 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

In continuation of my comment above , here's a NYT "Copenhagen dispatch": The City That Cycles With the Young, the Old, the Busy and the Dead
posted by growabrain at 1:29 AM on December 5, 2019

Here’s one of those wonks I referred to, contemplating fareless-at-point-of-service transport.
posted by pompomtom at 10:59 PM on December 6, 2019

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