U.S. cities ponder future of free public transport beyond COVID-19

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 March 2022 10:00 GMT

Nurses prepare to board a fare-free public bus in Richmond, Virginia. Handout photo by GRTC Transit System.

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Many cities went to fareless systems to protect public health or boost flagging ridership, but are now focused on equity

  • COVID-19, equity concerns boosting fareless transit movement

  • Low-income families spend up to 30% of income on transportation

  • No-fare transit a 'lifeline' for some residents during pandemic

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, March 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the transit system in Richmond, Virginia, decided at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to stop collecting fares on its buses, the initial motivation was to have the public board through the rear doors to keep bus drivers safe.

But it quickly became clear the effects were far broader, with ridership on local routes rising higher than it had been before the health emergency, officials said, even as public transport use was plummeting all over the country.

"People were still catching the bus, even though the majority of the city was working from home. We realized the only reason they'd get on the bus and risk transmission is they had to be essential workers," said Faith Walker, executive director of the Richmond advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit.

"I see the horribleness of the pandemic, but fortunately it also allowed us to have this kind of conversation" around scrapping fares for good, she said.

After switching to no-fare transit to try to slow the COVID-19 outbreak, some cities are seeing signs that the move could improve social equity and boost local economies - and they are now wondering if the future of public transport is free.

Walker shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation recordings her organization made of riders who had used Richmond's free transit.

The city's "Zero Fare" bus service, which went into effect in March 2020, was a "critical lifeline", said one rider named Wyatt Gordon.

"Having the bus be available and free and easy to get around has been really transformational to my ability to get to all of the things I need to do, whether it's shopping or getting to work," he said in the recording.

About three-quarters of the Richmond system's riders make less than $50,000 a year, according to a 2019 survey by the GRTC Transit System, said its communications director Carrie Rose Pace.

A public bus driver wearing mask and shield waves during a route in Richmond, Virginia. Handout photo by GRTC Transit System.

With Zero Fare, "full-time workers are still using the bus and now can use it even more because they don't have to penny-pinch to go to the grocery store, go to the doctor," Rose Pace said by phone.  

"Now they can do it all. That barrier has been removed."

This past December, Richmond received a state grant through 2025 to continue studying the effects of free public buses, "including, hopefully, after the pandemic crisis period," said Rose Pace.

The American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit with 1,500 public and private sector members, has not tracked the number of transit systems going free, but it supports local decisions on the issue, said spokesperson Chad Chitwood.

The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment.

ACCESS FOR LOW-INCOME RIDERS

There is no comprehensive tally of the transit systems that have reduced or eliminated their fares over the past two years, but they have included public transport in some of the nation's largest cities.

In January, Los Angeles wrapped up a nearly two-year no-fare program on its Metro bus services, and is currently studying the results.

And starting this month, Boston's transport system eliminated fares on three bus routes for two years, an expansion of a smaller pilot, after new mayor Michelle Wu made the issue a central plank of her campaign.

A rider prepares to enter a public bus through the rear doors amid pandemic policies in Richmond, Virginia. Handout photo by GRTC Transit System.

"There's a lot of discussion on this nationally. This is a movement that has been intensified by the pandemic," said Josh Baker, general manager and CEO of the DASH bus system in Alexandria, Virginia.

The DASH system went free in September 2021 with a commitment to remain so for four years – and a hope that it could stay that way "indefinitely", Baker said.

"This is a change in the way we see public transit," he said. "It doesn't need to make money, but it needs to be there to help the community and visitors in a way that generates economic growth and revitalization."

The issue has also percolated up to Congress, where a proposed law would create a $5 billion fund to help transit agencies that want to go fare-free.

Low-income families spend up to 30% of their household income on transportation, Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, co-author of the Freedom to Move Act, said in a statement.

It's still too early to measure the impact of dropping fares, said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

"(But) there is evidence that free fares will allow people, particularly those with low incomes, to dramatically expand their access to things like healthcare and other needs," he said.

A 2019 experiment in Boston, for instance, provided low-income riders with half-off transit cards and found they took about 30% more trips, particularly to medical and social services.

A rider waves aboard a public bus in Richmond, Virginia. Handout photo by GRTC Transit System.

'WE LOVE THIS'

Some worry the new focus on free public transport could have the opposite of its intended effect, with systems forced to reduce their already infrequent and limited services to make up for lost revenue.

"The policy discussion about fareless transit in the U.S. is really a distraction from the more important obstacles to transit ridership," said David Bragdon, executive director of the national research and advocacy group TransitCenter.

"If you really want to improve equity in the U.S., you have to increase transit service. A bus that doesn't charge a fare but only runs every two hours – that's no bargain."

There were reservations when Mountain Line, the public bus system in Missoula, Montana, first went fare-free in 2015, said communications specialist Shanti Johnson.

When the idea was first broached, it was widely panned by Missoula residents, many who felt that if people wanted to take the bus they could pay for it, she explained.

So officials created a demonstration model that depended on sponsorship from local businesses.

Ridership climbed by more than 70% in the first three years, Johnson said, and public opinion soared, too, as people saw the benefits for poor and elderly residents and the potential impact of reduced car ridership on local air quality - a key concern in the valley town.

In 2020, officials asked voters if they should make the zero-fare system a permanent, taxpayer-funded service - and the measure passed by a 20% margin, she said. That change is slated to happen this year.   

"It became a point of community pride," she said. "(People said) 'We love this. This benefits all of us – even people who aren't riding.'"

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(Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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