Free transit: Is it a public good, like libraries or schools?


Millions of Americans depend on mass transit, and an increasing number of cities are considering it a matter of equity to provide it at no cost for all – like libraries or even sidewalks.

The city council in Washington, D.C., unanimously moved last month to make all bus rides originating in the district fare-free starting in July. And in the next 18 months, the district will provide a $100 monthly subsidy for the Metro subway for residents and implement a $10 million expansion of service and service hours to underserved areas.

Why We Wrote This

Washington has become the largest American city to institute free bus fare – an innovation aimed at creating equity for underserved populations. The underlying principle of such programs is to treat mass transit as a public good.

Rio Bronc, a schoolteacher here, depends on the bus system. But she spends $20 a week for unreliable service and must aim for an earlier bus than necessary because buses frequently run late or just don’t show up at all. She welcomes the financial help of free fare and the hope of more reliable service.

The math doesn’t add up for some opponents who argue that money spent on providing free transit would be better spent on improving service overall.

D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who sponsored the bill, is optimistic that other regions and cities will follow suit. Success in the district, he says, “will create pretty significant political will to help move in this direction.”

When Rio Bronc leaves her home in the morning to go to her job as a teacher, she aims for an earlier bus than necessary since buses often run late or just don’t show up at all. Ms. Bronc depends on the bus for her livelihood – and, in principle, it is a valuable resource. But practically speaking, she spends $20 per week for an unreliable commute.

The city council in Washington, D.C., unanimously moved last month to help thousands of bus stop denizens like Ms. Bronc by making all bus rides originating in the district fare-free starting in July. And in the next 18 months, the district will provide a $100 monthly subsidy for the Metro subway for residents and implement a $10 million expansion of service hours and service to underserved areas.

Public transportation should be considered a public good, just like schools, libraries, and sidewalks, says Charles Allen, the councilmember who introduced the bill, Metro for D.C. “I want to make it so people are able to use it for free.”   

Why We Wrote This

Washington has become the largest American city to institute free bus fare – an innovation aimed at creating equity for underserved populations. The underlying principle of such programs is to treat mass transit as a public good.

This ethic underlies similar efforts to provide free transit that cities have toyed with for years. In 2020, Kansas City introduced a zero-fare plan covering all bus lines in its metro area in both Kansas and Missouri, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, launched a free-fare pilot program now being considered for renewal. And many – like Boston and Denver – have offered free bus service temporarily and on certain lines.

Metro for D.C.’s free service and improved operations, says Mr. Allen, address two needs: affordability and access. Free transit creates equity for lower-income and minority riders. And investment in better service will improve access in underserved corridors. Further, he says, systems operate faster when riders board without stopping to scan passes or pay fares, and there is less pressure for law enforcement of the petty crime of fare evasion.



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