Should Public Transit Be Free？
Dionisia Ramos gets on the 37 bus twice a day, rooting through her handbag to dig out the fare and drop it into the slot, so it came as shock several months ago when the bus driver reached out his hand to stop her.
“You don’t have to pay,” he said. “It’s free for the next two years.”
Ramos had never heard of anything like this: Someone was paying her bus fare? At 55, she lives on a monthly unemployment check for $235. So saving $2.40 a day, for her trip to and from community college, past the hulking mills of Lawrence’s industrial past — that meant something.
Since a pilot program began in September, use of the buses has grown by 24%, and the only criticism Ramos has of the city’s experiment with fare-free transit is that it is not permanent.
“Transportation should be free,” she said. “It’s a basic need. It’s not a luxury.”
That argument is bubbling up in lots of places these days, as city officials cast about for big ideas to combat inequality and reduce carbon emissions. Some among them cast transportation as a pure public good, more like policing and less like toll roads.
The City Council in Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, expressed strong support last month for waiving fares for its buses, a move that would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year in lost fares. And fare-free transit is the splashiest policy recommendation of Michelle Wu, a Boston City Council member who is expected by many to run for mayor in 2021.
Larger experiments are underway in other parts of the country. The cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Olympia, Washington, both declared that their buses would become fare-free this year.
The argument against fare-free transit is a simple one: Who is going to pay for it?
In communities where ridership has been falling, the cost of waiving fares may be less than expected.
Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Wu speak about fare-free transit, asked his regional transit authority how much was collected on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. The answer was such a small amount — $225,000 — that he could offset it from the city’s surplus cash reserves.
“What I like is the doability of this, the simplicity of it,” Rivera said. “We are already subsidizing this mode of transportation, so the final mile is very short. It isn’t a service people need to pay for; it’s a public good.”
Around 100 cities in the world offer free public transit, the vast majority of them in Europe, especially France and Poland.
文／Nicole Daniels 譯／陳韋廷 核稿／樂慧生