Should Public Transit Be Free?

Should Public Transit Be Free?

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How do people get around in your community? Are there different forms of public transit, such as trains and buses? Is it more common for people to drive or cycle to and from work and school? Does your community have shared forms of transit like ride-share services, taxis or shared bikes?

Do you think your community should make public transit free for everyone?

In “Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?,” Ellen Barry writes about cities in Massachusetts that are experimenting with offering free public transit:

Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Ms. 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,” Mr. 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.

A handful of experiments in the United States in recent decades, including the cities of Denver and Austin, were viewed as unsuccessful, because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; new riders tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press.

But in another sense, they were successful: They increased ridership right away, with rises between 20 and 60 percent in the first few months. That statistic accounts for its revival among a new wave of urban progressives, who see transit as a key factor in social and racial inequality.

Some cities are drawn to the idea because they have seen a decline in ridership:

The idea also appeals to moderates in places like Worcester, the state’s second-largest city, which is struggling to persuade residents to use its buses. Ridership has dropped by 23 percent since 2016, and the buses now run half-empty, according to a report released last May by the Worcester Research Bureau, a nonpartisan policy group.

At a City Council meeting last week, a parade of citizens lined up to express support for a proposal to make Worcester’s buses free for three years, as a pilot program. Revenue from bus fares is so low, and the cost of collecting them so high, that it could be replaced by an infusion of $2 million to $3 million a year.

Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston has expressed concern about the potential profit loss, saying that in 2019 bus fares in his city generated $109 million:

“There’s no such thing as free,” Mr. Kane said. “Someone has to pay. Boston has the highest-paid bus drivers in the country. They’re not going to work for free. The fuelers, the mechanics — they’re not going to work for free.” Advocates of free transit have suggested that the cost could be offset by a gas tax increase; but replacing $109 million would mean raising the gas tax by 3 and a half cents, Mr. Kane said. And all the while, he said, the system is straining to cope with the current demands.

“I hate to be the guy who says, ‘eat your peas,’” he said. “But that’s where we are.”

Proponents of the idea argue that Mr. Kane’s numbers are inflated and that the true replacement cost would be closer to $36 million. That gap, they say, could be covered by a 2-cent rise in the gas tax.

“That’s where something controversial or impossible a few years ago now seems possible,” said Stacy Thompson, the executive director of the LivableStreets Alliance, a transportation research group.

The Boston Globe editorial board, which endorsed the idea of making Boston’s buses fare-free this month, suggested the cost could by covered by philanthropy.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to the different perspectives presented in the article? Do you think that public transportation should be free, or do you have concerns about the financial burden on cities? How much does it cost to ride a bus or train in your city? Do you agree with the fares?

  • How do you get to and from school? How does your family get to and from work? What are other times when you have to travel around your community? Do you have a sense of how much these trips cost you, either in fares or in gas money? Is that something you pay for, or your family pays for — or is it provided by your school or local government?

  • Some people support free public transit as a way to have fewer cars on the road and to reduce carbon emissions. How important is that to you? Try this Carbon Footprint Calculator from the Nature Conservancy to see your travel carbon footprint. If you select the “Advanced” settings, you will be able to enter miles for specific forms of public transit. Experiment with changing miles spent driving a car versus miles spent riding a bus and see if there is a significant difference or impact.

  • In the article, Dionisia Ramos, 55, uses the bus twice a day to get to and from community college. Ms. Ramos has appreciated the access to free buses and said that public transportation was “not a luxury,” but a “basic need.” Do you agree with her statement? How do you imagine public transit fares affect people like Ms. Ramos, who receives an unemployment check for $235 once a month and has bus fares of $2.40 a day? Are there other solutions you can imagine that would support someone like Ms. Ramos?

  • The article states that for some people, free public transportation is a way to create social and racial equality. What do you think? How do people view public transit in your community? Are there beliefs or stereotypes about the kind of people who use public transportation or about the safety and quality of those services? Or is public transit normalized and used by a wide variety of people in your community?

  • In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (M.T.A.) hired an additional 500 police officers to patrol subway stations for fare evasion and crime, even though New York Police Department statistics indicate that crime in the subway has decreased. The New York Times editorial board has come out against the increased policing, saying that:

Adding hundreds of officers to the transit system without good cause could also lead to the sort of over-policing of black and Hispanic boys and men that the city has seen before. Already, between October 2017 and June 2019, black and Hispanic people made up more than 90 percent of those arrested on charges of fare evasion.

What do you think? Have you observed a connection between policing for fare evasion and race or socioeconomic status in your community? Do you think that making New York City trains and buses free would eliminate these issues or create more problems?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.