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Why Shouldn’t Public Transit Be Free?

Dozens of cities have abolished transit fares. Their experience makes a compelling argument more should follow suit.

Free Public Transit: And Why We Don't Pay to Ride Elevators
Jason Prince, Judith Dellheim (eds.)
Black Rose
Jun 2018

For those who shill out ever-increasing amounts of cash to ride the bus daily, the notion of abolishing transit fares might sound like a pipe dream. But fare-free public transit is more common than many North Americans realize. At least 97 cities around the world operate fully free public transit systems, the largest being Tallinn, capital of Estonia (with nearly half a million residents). Free public transit in that city has been so successful – advocates say its generated tens of millions euros a year in profit – that its being expanded across the country.

And that’s just the cities where transit is entirely free. Many other cities operate variations on the theme. Sometimes it’s particular parts of a city in which transit is free – a popular downtown core, say, or routes to and from the airport. In other instances, particular groups are exempt from having to pay fares – often children, seniors, youth, post-secondary students. In Greece, registered unemployed persons became eligible for fare exemption under the Syriza government.

Sometimes fares are suspended at particular times – some Chinese cities have experimented with free transit in the early morning and evenings in an effort to tackle rush hour congestion. Or specific days might be designated fare-free in an effort to boost public transit use or to generate environmental awareness. In the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca (with over 300,000 inhabitants) public transit was, for a period of time, free — if you read a book during your transit. Many of the jurisdictions where transit fares have been abolished are in Europe, but there are also several notable examples in South America, China, and Australia.

What all this illustrates is the surprising frequency and creative range of approaches to free public transit around the world. Several of these examples are explored in the collection
Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators, which draws contributions from a number of different countries. The collection includes a number of case studies of free public transit systems, as well as more policy-oriented analyses looking at how free public transit might affect land value, impact car use, and and improve health and accessibility in cities. The superb collection is a public policy planner’s dream, and the data it compiles makes a powerful case for the benefits not only of expanding public transit systems, but of abolishing fares entirely.

Cities abolish transit fares for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s motivated by public health concerns (car pollution takes an often underrated toll on public health, and studies are clear on the improved health outcomes that result when car usage is reduced). Other times it’s in response to traffic congestion problems, untenable rush hour traffic, or public anger at heavy traffic in particular parts of a city (a downtown shopping core, for instance). Some jurisdictions will eliminate transit fares for short periods in response to construction or road work going on that increases traffic congestion and delays. In this case, abolishing fares is partial compensation to the rider for the delays they experience, but it also boosts ridership and decreases car use, thereby helping to alleviate the intensified bottlenecks.

Other jurisdictions, however, are motivated by broadly progressive ideals — to reduce and ultimately phase out car use, and to make cities more accessible for all residents. The collection makes a stirring case for boosting free public transit as a means of ultimately phasing out cars. The advent of the car industry has had a devastating impact on cities in many respects. In the United States, car companies worked assiduously with local politicians to shut down public transit systems – especially the tram lines that had sprung up in most growing American cities in the early 20th century. Cities also underwent restructuring as massive swathes of land were given over to parking lots. The result was a loss of common space and green space, coupled with hefty costs incurred by cities which often wound up paying the bill for parking-related developments, not to mention the expenses incurred by monitoring and enforcing parking fees.

In our present era, the realization that climate change is dangerously driven by fossil fuel use has burnished the determination of a growing number of urban advocates and policy-makers to reduce and ultimately abolish car use entirely. An innovative ‘right to the city’ movement in Mexico City drew up an urban bill of rights, which explicitly designates car users as those least deserving of consideration when it comes to policy development (pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users take priority in this paradigm).

Yet one common lesson that emerges from jurisdictions that offer free transit is that free transit by itself will not necessarily reduce car use in significant ways. The cities that have been successful in doing this have approached free public transit as part of a broader strategy to shift transportation from cars to public transit. This often involves additional measures like re-routing roads; designating certain roads and lanes as bus-only; moving parking spaces out of areas where car use is to be discouraged or hiking parking fees, and expanding transit routes so as to ensure they are able to meet the needs of the city’s wide plurality of residents. Examples of cities which effected significant shifts in resident behaviour through such strategies include Hasselt, Belgium, and Bologna, Italy.

Some of the book’s contributions focus on the strategies adopted by movements for free public transit. The policy has proven popular across a broad political spectrum, and has been endorsed by groups ranging from conservative political parties to anarchist activist groups. (Even The Economist describes Tallinn’s free public transit policy as “Expensive, but worth it”). Yet for several jurisdictions it has actually not proven expensive at all in the long-run, and has even generated savings (or profits, whichever way one chooses to look at a fiscally efficient public service). Fare collection and enforcement requires a significant cost in technology, infrastructure, staffing and legal work, and simply eliminating all that can be a very prudent fiscal decision, especially when one factors in the inevitable boost to a jurisdiction’s GDP, employment rate, and economic activity when residents are able to get around town more easily to work, access services and spend money.

Hence the book’s subtitle: elevators don’t cost money because we want people to get up and down the inside of buildings; otherwise there would be no point to building multi-storey buildings. But shouldn’t the same logic apply to horizontal, not just vertical, movement around our cities?

Unfortunately, resistance to the idea of free public transit is prevalent as well, and often assumes purely ideological forms. This is one reason there are so few fare-free jurisdictions in the United States (although there are some). Capitalist and neoliberal reactionaries have been so determined in parts of North America (and elsewhere – Italy being a recent example) to strike pre-emptively against anything that carries a whiff of socialism. (Never mind that free transit has been shown to make great business sense.) Some jurisdictions have adopted restrictive policies requiring public services to pass on certain minimum percentages of their operational costs to passengers in order to access public funds, effectively barring free provision of public services. In other cases, municipalities have been stripped of the powers of taxation (or never had them in the first place) necessary to be able to generate the revenue to operate a fare-free public transit system.

How should transit advocates and activists most effectively push for free transit? While the notion has been endorsed as common sense by politicians and parties from across the political spectrum (especially in Europe), in some jurisdictions it’s required a struggle by an organized movement. Achieving majority control of municipal government is key, the analysts say, and organizing on a local neighbourhood level is an integral method of building municipal movement strength. Jurisdictions that have seen the successful build-up of powerful, progressive municipal reform movements – case studies in the book include places like Montreal, Canada and Bologna, Italy – have seen broad-based organizing take place at a neighbourhood level, block by block.

Building a strong municipal political culture was key to maintaining a progressive approach to municipal governance in Bologna (a city that abolished transit fares), where the leftist government, once in power, devolved many of its previously centralized functions to the local neighbourhoods. This made municipal government services more accessible to residents – they no longer had to travel across the city to access out-of-the-way, centralized government offices, but could access the services within a short walk or bus ride in their own neighbourhood – and helped to generate a more vigorously engaged municipal population.

Some of the contributions to Free Public Transit explore fare resistance movements, and the creative tactics they have adopted in cities like Stockholm, Montreal, and Toronto. These have ranged from encouraging people to ‘pay it forward’ by swiping transit passes for strangers, to actively encouraging fare dodging. In Sweden, an activist movement organized a ‘strike fund’ against transit fares whereby fare-dodgers who subscribe and contribute on a regular basis can have their fines covered from the fund in the event they get caught.

Sometimes the transit authority’s response to organized fare-dodging movements has been to engage in a bit of an arms race: transit companies determined to charge fares install expensive, high-tech gear (surveillance equipment, full-body glass doors instead of simple turnstiles, etc.) or increase security staff to try to cut down on fare-dodgers. However, these are tactics that the fare-dodging movements will often just as effectively counter. In light of the significant costs incurred by expanding fare-enforcement infrastructure, it tends to simply bolster the argument in favour of free transit, which does not require any of this expensive technology, infrastructure, or staffing costs related to fare collection.

Of course, nothing is ‘free’ – everything comes with an associated resource cost – so who should pay for free public transit? There are a variety of responses to this question too, and a range of different strategies have been deployed to generate the revenue necessary to run the transit systems. Generally these involve taxation of some kind – either funding the transit system from a city’s general revenue (which ultimately comes mostly from taxation anyway), or from targeted taxes on businesses and landowners that benefit from the enhanced land value and economy activity resulting from free public transit. Sometimes businesses above a certain size will be charged additional taxes to cover the cost. Additional fees and taxes levied on tourists – hotel taxes, for instance – are often used, in recognition of the fact that tourists might be availing of the services which tax-paying residents fund on an ongoing basis.

Budgets are always a matter of priorities, and the money to make public transit free is always easy enough to find where there’s a will. It’s simply a matter of whether it ought to be diverted from some other area of spending, or generated through targeted taxes on some portion of the beneficiaries of the service. And if so, whether the rich should pay more than the poor.

The biggest drawback from Free Public Transit is the assumption, implicitly accepted by several of the contributors, that self-driving vehicles are an inevitability. The contributors consider the impact these will have on transit and traffic debates, and generally make an argument against private ownership of self-driving vehicles, arguing that if publicly controlled, they could constitute a useful part of a public transit system. They envision a system in which smaller self-driving vehicles are used to transport neighbourhood residents, free of charge, from their homes to the larger bus or light rail terminals that allow them to complete their daily journeys.

Yet there’s a certain naïveté in the tacit assumption that self-driving vehicles are inevitable, as well as the hope that they will contribute in utopian ways toward a positive public transit future. If anything, the lessons in this book – especially those drawn from the ruthless campaigns of car companies to eviscerate public transit systems and restructure urban space for the benefit of their product – are that new technologies, especially when pioneered by private interests, rarely prioritize the public good over private profit. It is just as likely that self-driving vehicles will simply continue the struggle of private industry against public transit.

Moreover, the utopianism inherent in the vision of a self-driving public transit system ignores the very real human cost that could result from removing human oversight from the system. Does anyone really think that corporations seeking to profit from self-driving vehicles would pay to have human monitors on those vehicles, for security and safety purposes, if they weren’t forced to? No technological innovation is inevitable, and the rather naïve utopianism of some contributors around self-driving vehicles is the only jarring part of this collection. That is not to say that self-driving vehicles shouldn’t be part of the dialogue, but future versions of the collection would benefit from having some more critical analyses of the corporate hype surrounding self-driving vehicles.

Labour unions representing transit workers have been fighting against automated transit systems with varying levels of success; there’s potential for a strong alliance against the automation of our cities’ transportation networks. Given the reckless accidents already being caused by experiments in self-driving vehicles, and the tremendous risk of hacked vehicles being used in criminal or terrorist activities, there’s immense potential for galvanizing an urban movement to ban self-driving vehicles that could easily stop the technology in its tracks. The future of self-driving vehicles, and their role in transit debates, deserves a more holistic debate than we see in the present environment, in which developers of the technology are allowed to forge the agenda and transit advocates merely try to add some progressive touches to an agenda already shaped by private industry.

That aside, Free Public Transit is a delightfully thought-provoking collection, packed with data and innovative ideas alike. It’s a refreshing source of inspiration for those who rely on public transit, and a must-read for anyone with an interest in urbanism or public policy.