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Opinion | Cities are experimenting with free buses. So far, so good.

Imagine there was a change in Amazon’s policies that suddenly required you to pay a $3.50 surcharge for packages delivered to the second floor. Or picture a high-rise office building where it cost $2.75 to take an elevator to your doctor’s office. As tenants fled, the building’s owner would quickly go bankrupt. So might your doctor. 

While we eagerly embrace the idea that the cost of our vertical transportation shouldn’t be foisted on individuals, we have stubbornly resisted the idea that a substitute teacher should be able to take a local bus to the front door of your daughter’s school free of charge or that if your daughter catches the flu, you should be able to transport her not only from the doctor’s office doorway up the escalators to his office for free, but also from the school to his office.  

The free parking subsidy — the valuable real estate along the curb that cities reserve for cars — is estimated to cost $100 billion to $300 billion, greatly exceeding the sums cities would need to spend to make transit free.

Cities exist because people need to be able to connect with other people. And horizontal transportation across town is as vital as vertical transportation to the 11th floor. Because governments don’t cover the cost of horizontal public transportation, however, American urban areas suffer from a raft of problems connected with residents’ excessive reliance on privately owned and operated vehicles for this travel, including toxic levels of air pollution afflicting 137 million people and traffic congestion that squanders 3.4 billion hours of commuting time. 

It is therefore encouraging to see that a growing number of cities across the country are offering free bus service to riders. In Kansas City, Missouri, which three years ago became the largest free transit city in the U.S., one of the biggest problems — that the demand outstrips the number of buses — demonstrates how popular the program is, especially with the low-income population it most helps. 

With fares no longer a barrier, Kansas City residents surveyed by the Urban League said they can afford to go to new places or to old ones more often, helping them stay connected to one another while keeping their household finances in better shape. Some 88% said they could see their health care providers more often, while 82% said it allowed them to get or keep jobs. Large numbers also cited easier access to grocery shopping and cheaper stores. Though some have expressed concerns about safety as the barrier to entry on buses is removed, the city has found that the system overall has become safer as ridership has increased in off-peak hours, while friction over fare collection has been removed.

Though most cities to experiment with free transit in America have been midsize, several of the country’s major cities are now in various stages of trying out free buses. Washington, D.C., announced this month that buses will no longer have fares starting in the summer. Boston has made some routes free and is looking to expand to more, noting that the no-charge buses have easily coped with an increase in passengers because not having to collect fares makes bus stops more efficient. Los Angeles waived fares during the pandemic, and the new mayor is looking at making that change permanent. New York is considering doing the same.

Unfortunately, a handful of smaller cities that have tried out free transit have backtracked — mostly for financial reasons. Portland, Oregon, instituted a free service for environmental reasons in the 1970s and found it reduced carbon monoxide, but it ultimately ended the free service to raise more revenue.  Richmond, Virginia, and Tucson, Arizona, could also drop their popular programs to save money.   

But those who argue that the price tag is too high aren’t looking at the costs of keeping things as they are — in terms of not only the environment and congestion, but also the subsidies that are regularly extended to car owners. 

Most egregiously, the free parking subsidy — the valuable real estate along the curb that cities reserve for cars — is estimated to cost $100 billion to $300 billion, greatly exceeding the sums cities would need to spend to make transit free. If affluent drivers can’t, and don’t, pay the full costs of their connections with their urban areas, working-class users of transit systems shouldn’t be expected to, either.

Moreover, the fares collected from passengers cover a tiny fraction of the actual cost of public transportation. In Massachusetts, for example, they bring in only 8% of the total bus budget. These fares are simply token fees serving some unstated principle — one we don’t individually exact on other travel, like going up an elevator or crossing city streets in a private car. 

It’s also not a zero-sum cost when the government pays for public transportation. Better public transit gives property values a boost, which then results in more tax revenue and other economic boons. New York City’s planned extension of the subway along Second Avenue to Harlem has already increased rental values by 27%, twice as high as the rises on First and Third avenues. 

The criticisms of free public transit beyond economics are even flimsier. The fact that a common criticism once a city goes fare-free is that riders take longer routes than necessary is particularly strange. No one would think it a sign of failure if a city built a parkway and the net effect was that drivers traveled more miles in an average week. Why should riders’ choosing to travel more miles on a bus system once it becomes free be seen as a problem instead of a success?

And then there’s the complaint that when transit is free, people use the subway or the bus as a place to rest in — or even sleep if they are otherwise homeless. It’s true that if a city provides a better transit system, it will inevitably highlight some of the other existing problems. But that’s not a reason not to improve what it can; instead, the other issues need to be fixed, as well.

Moreover, the needs that free transit satisfies deserve to be evaluated against other solutions to the core urban problem: that cities exist to connect us, but the more of us there are, the more connection we demand. Thus far, experience suggests that free transit is a lot more practical than adding lanes to urban grids as a solution to this inevitable urban dilemma. New York didn’t have the option of improving the number of cars that can travel on Second Avenue — it had to go for a subway, even (at $6.9 billion) a very expensive subway. 

Without decent transit, cities have no choice except to sprawl, which contributes to urban socioeconomic decline and itself is associated with pollution, congestion and less social cohesion. Free transit is an important solution in the toolbox that is the urban future.

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