More American Cities Considering Free Public Transportation

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When I was last in New York City, I heard a sadly common display of class privilege when a woman waiting in my chiropractor’s office initiated a rant on the topic of free public transportation. The drift of her gist:

What do these people want? Do they think everything is free? Who do they think pays for it? We’re the ones who do and we already pay too much in taxes.

I wish I could reproduce the sneering tone of voice.

It appears she never got the memo that transportation is subsidized. She would not be able to fly absent government gimmies and recently, serial bailouts.

Nor has she seemed to work out that the servant classes, like cleaning staff and even nurses in hospitals, restaurant workers, housekeepers, and building employees typically depend on public transportation to get to their jobs. More costly and less frequent rides translates into her having to pay more for their time. New York City is about to raise the cost of MTA rides to $2.90. For those in menial jobs who can’t afford a monthly pass, that adds up.

In fact, user fees almost never cover public transportations system operating costs, let alone fully-loaded cost (including reserves for capital expenditures). While the variations are extreme (one system serving Victor Valley area in California collected $300,000 in passenger revenue v. $185 million in expenses), a colleague guesstimated that across the US, customers pay only 20% of public transportation costs.

Free public transportation is a boon to business in other ways. It makes cities more friendly to tourists and lowers the cost of local to make trips to shop.

Despite the prevalent anti-poors sentiment in the US, some cities are warming to the idea of free public transportation. This shift is after a lot of pressure to privatize government services, which has produced fiascoes like a terrible deal by Chicago for the sale of its parking meters and toll roads that routinely get little traffic and go bankrupt. Another instance of hoping to shift more costs to use was the end in 2012 of Seattle’s downtown free ride zone. As critics noted at the time, the change would hit the “poorest of the poor” hardest.

One reason for the change in attitude is climate change. From Wired in 2022:

Road transport makes up a tenth of global carbon dioxide emissions, with soaring fuel prices also putting a squeeze on already stretched household budgets.

This is why cities and countries around the world have been edging toward free fares. Spain is the latest to join the list, offering free train travel on a selection of routes for a few months to relieve pressure on commuters as the cost-of-living crisis bites. Officials in Germany introduced a 9-euro-a-month travel pass, Ireland slashed fares for the first time in 75 years, and Italy doled out a 60-euro, one-off public transport voucher for lower-income workers. Luxembourg and Estonia ditched fares to get commuters out of cars years ago, which is the same motivation for Austria’s 3-euro-a-day Klimaticketfor countrywide transport, launched last year.

Wired points out that it’s not clear if these programs really reduce driving. Increases in ridership in some cases appear significantly due to less walking and bike use.

CNBC in 2020, so before “work from home” became a thing, presented free public transportation as pro-consumer:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American spends 25.9 minutes a day traveling to work one way — that adds up to just over four hours every week spent in transit for work. They’re spending around 15.9% of their typical budgets on transportation costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and married couples with children spend closer to 17.1%. And as more Americans migrate to larger cities, public transportation use is up. Since 1997, public transportation ridership has increased by 21%.

CNBC described some of these programs, such as Kansas City’s:

In December of 2019, Kansas City, Mo., became the first large U.S. city to implement a universal, systemwide fare-free scheme after a unanimous City Council vote. The bus system previously cost travelers $1.50 per ride or $50 for a monthly pass.

The move was a top priority for Kansas City’s recently-elected Mayor Quinton Lucas, who relied on a combination of public and private funds to make his “Zero Fare Transit ″ program a reality. In a recent speech, he detailed that the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority contributed nearly $5 million, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City contributed nearly $1 million to the project.

“Public transportation would allow Kansas Citians to access opportunities for employment and education — which lead to better quality of life and, therefore, better health for our community,” he said.

NonProfit Quarterly devoted a new article to Boston’s “Free the T”. Mayor Michelle ran and won on this idea. Predictably, what’s gotten done so far is effectively means tested, by providing free service on routes that serve poor areas. At least it doesn’t have the usual complex eligibility requirements. From NonProfit Quarterly:

Transportation accounts for 27 percent  of US greenhouse gas emissions, the most of any sector. Personal car ownership produces a great deal of other pollution and deaths, and is a serious financial drain on people already struggling to afford basic necessities—particularly given the recent spike in gasoline prices.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, elected in November 2021, ran on fare-free public transit (“Free the T”) to improve these transportation issues and the direct burden of daily bus fares. It was a way to get more people out of cars and onto Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority system. Her campaign centered this policy as part of a comprehensive, municipal Green New Deal plan to bring sustainable jobs and much-needed climate and environmental justice to the City of Boston….

Mayor Wu followed through on her campaign’s promise and was granted $8 million in federal stimulus funds through Boston City Council to make MBTA Bus Routes 23, 28, and 29 fare-free for two years from 2022 through 2024. These three routes were chosen because they have some of the highest ridership in the MBTA and serve transit-dependent, lower-income communities of color…..

Mayor Wu’s “Free the T” program is an expansion of a pilot that Acting Mayor Kim Janey had initiated with Route 28 beginning in August 2021. The initial results from the Route 28 pilot were promising, especially in arguably the most important metric: ridership increased by 38 percent (compared to 15 percent for the entire bus system).

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive drop in public transit ridership around the country, and in most places, it has struggled to recover. But thanks to the fare-free program, Route 28’s ridership has returned to 99 percent of its pre-pandemic levels—the largest recovery of any of MBTA’s bus routes. Decreased ridership and disinvestment in public transit is troubling in and of itself. It has the potential to cause a feedback loop of reduced ridership and revenue, leading to reduced routes and service, which further reduces ridership and revenue, and so on—it’s a death spiral. Consequently, recovering and expanding ridership is an important priority for transit agencies..

Free transit can increase ridership not only by lowering costs for riders but also by making service a safer and more efficient experience…In the Route 28 fare-free pilot, dwell time per passenger went down by 20 percent.

Fares also create costs for building, maintaining, and enforcing collection systems. For example, New York City spends hundreds of millions of dollars on police officers to combat fare evasion with its subway system. Given how US policing disproportionately harms Black, Brown, and poor communities, eliminating fare enforcement is not just an economic issue but a racial justice demand….

Washington, DC recently eliminated fares on the Metrobus system while expanding its service, and North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Transit went fare-free 20 years ago and has never looked back. Their ridership more than doubled from 2002 to the onset of COVID-19, reducing pollution and increasing equity simultaneously.

It turns out there were other motives for the Boston free fare experiment. From Wired:

In Boston, an extension of a free fare trial was in part inspired by a $1 billion new ticketing system, Mcarthur says—a serious investment when bus fares bring in only $60 million annually..

One perceived obstacle to making public transportation free in US cities is that for ones with subways, free access would facilitate the homeless taking up residence. Many see bums-as-eyesores as a quality of life problem; some find them threatening and believe vagrancy encourages crime. Whether true or not, negative perceptions would deter some riders.

But the “soft on crime” concern ties in inequities. Again from Wired:

In the US, the divide between the haves and have-nots often falls along racial lines, meaning free fares could support racial equity. But while that’s true on financial grounds, there’s more to the story. As community organizer Destiny Thomas notes, US transit systems “rely on the criminalization of poverty as a primary source of revenue,” with operators issuing significant fines to those who lack the funds to buy a ticket. In 2019, the city council in Washington, DC, voted to slash fines and remove the risk of jail for fare evaders following evidence that nine in ten court summons for failing to have a ticket were given to African Americans. By removing fares entirely, transit operators avoid the risk of discriminatory enforcement.

NonProfit Quarterly ended its piece with a “dare to be great” speech:

Fare-free public transit is a way to decommodify one of life’s basic necessities, start to repair inequities, and take important climate action at the same time. In doing so, it is a policy that can help construct mobilized political constituencies by providing experiential evidence that a better world is indeed possible: a means and an end. This is the premise of the Green New Deal as a concept, and local initiatives like Mayor Wu’s “Free the T” use policy as a foundation to win the imaginative and transformative changes needed to create a habitable planet where everyone can thrive.

Wired closed on a similar note:

But setting aside figures about costs and statistics about ridership, there’s another way to look at it: Public transport should be considered a human right, alongside access to health and education. It’s necessary to life in a city, says Mcarthur. “Public transport is an extremely efficient way to get people around,” she says. “Buses and trains are not only efficient for people who use them, but also people who don’t.”

But what about people in the boonies? Maybe we can start by keeping their Post Offices open.

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  1. Carla

    Wonderful news, and thank you for this very informative piece, Yves. Great way to start the day!

  2. Ignacio

    I would say: run for it! I particularly use very much urban and peri-urban trains with a place for a bike to do the shorter commuting paths between stations and destinations. When in SF I used the BART quite a lot in this fashion. Even if biking can be somehow strenuous in the Bay area hills.

  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Highly recommend the following article by Linda Baker on February 1, 2009 Scientific American.
    Opening graf:

    Conventional traffic engineering assumes that given no increase in vehicles, more roads mean less congestion. So when planners in Seoul tore down a six-lane highway a few years ago and replaced it with a five-mile-long park, many transportation professionals were surprised to learn that the city’s traffic flow had actually improved, instead of worsening. “People were freaking out,” recalls Anna Nagurney, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who studies computer and transportation networks. “It was like an inverse of Braess’s paradox.”

    Several more paragraphs are available and the rest are paywalled.
    Also, several years ago I read an interesting article. Now, for the life me, I cannot find the cite.
    Basically two, I believe statisticians, calculated the amount of time pedestrians and drivers wasted in Manhattan waiting for traffic lights to change. The number was staggering.
    Ultimately, they ran series of simulations, and discovered that the optimum mix resulting in a decrease of wasted time several order of magnitude would be:
    * Free Buses;
    * Cheap Subways, and
    * Expensive cars.
    If anyone in the NC Commentariat can locate the original I (and quite a few other people) would be grateful.
    Unfortunately, the people who make the rules in the Big Apple consist of people like the woman mentioned by Yves in her intro anecdote.

    1. Revenant

      This should not have been news!

      When the IRA bombed the City (Bishopsgate bomb) in the 1990’s, the government threw up the Ring Of Steel TM, a rather impertinent set of one lane road chicanes with a manned kiosk, a lowerable barrier, bollards etc. These significantly throttled traffic capacity on the City’s major arteries. To add insult to injury, many minor roads that had provided useful rat runs were closed at their junctions with major arteries. The intention was to funnel all traffic past watchful eyes and reduce terror and damn the congestion. The outrage at the congestion was immense. Until the scheme actually began and congestion fell!

      It turned out, once the government listened to some networking theorists (like Professor Frank Kelly, famous for IT networks and involved in the founding of Cisco but applying his stats chops to transport networks too) that removing links in a network can improve the overall properties of the network and that is what the Ring of Steel had done.

      It is a testament to our mobile phone-enabled self surveillance that the Ring of Steel fell into disuse long before smartphones and its decrepit kiosks stand as totems of a bygone era (one hopes). They are left in place just in case, I feel – the 2007 bombings saw them reoccupied briefly for reassurance and I imagine the 2012 Olympics did too but I cannot remember.

  4. Stephen

    Very off topic but linked to your first sentence do you find chiropractics helpful?

    I have major back problems owing to one foot being longer than the other, which causes pelvic adjustment issues and can lead to serious pain with nerve endings hitting my spine. In the past I used to see an American trained chiropractor in London.

    But I got a bit worried about the cumulative impact of the adjustments he made and the business model struck me as “interesting” in a way that created dependency. So I stopped. In the interim, I also lost a lot of weight and that seems to have stopped the pain recurring too. He did cure my initial problem and diagnose it though, so I was very thankful I went to see him in the first place.

    Having had serious back pain though I also sympathize with anyone who might have similar or worse issues and I have no systematic evidence to dispute the benefits of chiropractics either. Just interested in thoughts on that profession.

    The UK NHS tends not to offer it by the way so my usage was via employer health insurance and then through own payment given that the insurance only coveted a few visits.

    1. Alex Cox

      You might want to check out John Sarno MD and his book Healing Back Pain. Some back pain sufferers have found it very helpul – including me.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I don’t have back pain.

      This chiro does pretty mild adjustments (except for the neck which can be noisy) and adjusts all joints, including knees, feet, elbows, even thumbs. She muscle tests to see what needs to be adjusted. It seems like a weird method but the results are strong, when she tests some spots, the mild resistance I am applying (like holding one leg off the table) collapses.

    3. fjallstrom

      Not much experience with chiropractics, but a suggestion. If the cause of your problems is that one foot is longer than the tother, I would think there are orthopaedic shoes or insoles that evens out the load your legs, pelvic and back has to deal with.

      Just a thought. Random advice from a stranger on the internet, so take it for what it is worth.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Some of us don’t tolerate the corrective devices but for those that do, they are good remedies.

        The problem is if you’ve had that sort of asymmetry, you’ve developed a lot of compensating mechanisms that may work pretty well all in. For instance, after I got my new hips, everything on paper is better aligned (pelvis not rotated back as before). But the change in my gait has resulted in a harder heel strike (which is what the hip position was trying to avoid) and has made my knee problems worse.

  5. Jake

    This sounds like a great idea and surely will work in many cities. But their are some cities this will not work in, like the city I used to live in, Austin, Texas. People talk a lot about the homeless problem in Austin, but what they really have is a drug addiction problem. When I think of a homeless person, it’s someone who could be provided housing and assistance, and their life will improve. But when you take a city like Austin and add in some policies like allowing camping in all public spaces (except city hall of course) with no plans for the resulting flood of people who prefer to live on the street, you end up with a city full of people who prefer to live under the highway, get handouts from nonprofits, and panhandle for money to buy meth. Over time these people make life a living hell for the homeless people that are forced to live with them under the highways and in the creeks and greenbelts. Add in a socialist DA that refuses to enforce any laws (checkout the Rami Zawaideh story) and you get a city with a large population of drug addicts that are more than happy to die of drug addiction while living under the highway and making life hell for anyone who gets withing their range. Now add in 110 degree summer days. If you add one more thing, free bus rides, our public transportation is completely overrun with people looking for a place to stay cool while they die of drug addiction. It’s already pretty bad on many routes in Austin and that’s why a lot of people I know that live in Austin will not take the bus. And that’s why CapMetro decided not to offer fare free service, because it is a safety issue in the city of Austin. It’s not just that people ‘don’t want to look at the poors’ or ‘they just hate homeless people,’ it’s that many of us know or ourselves have had our lives threatened, been physically attacked and feel lucky to have survived (, or have simply been bullied day in and day out by the same people and can’t get anyone to do anything about it. If your city already has a problem with violent drug addicts taking over the city, be aware that free fare public transportation can turn into a public transportation killer.

    1. bdy

      Me and fam love the free bus and trolly here in Tucson. City did it at the beginning of the pandemic for fear of fomites, and the city council just made the measure permanent without much opposition. Bus drivers and Cops are in support. It turns out most disturbances arise when people can’t pony fare.

      Spouse and I find it really smoothes the single car household op. One commute amounts to $20/week. $1G/year ain’t nothing.

      Anyway I looked at the numbers and our homeless pop seems comparable to Austin, per capita, with similar cultures (I’ve spent a fair share of time back and forth). Austin is almost twice as big and we got a little more than half their number of urban wildernists, as best I can figure from local sources. They sweep em out of the parks here once a year before the Gem Show so the campers aren’t completely dug in. It’s awful really but keeping up appearances yada yada.

      It’s plenty hot here but haven’t seen a massive beat the heat move into public vehicles, and we’re use it in and around downtown where one would expect to encounter that crowd. Spouse, 7 y.o. boy and I ride regularly and are never uncomfortable (aside from drunk, maskless students, weekend afternoons between the bars on University and the bars on 4th Ave — it’s like the Jersey PATH). I know you’re not in Austin anymore but wherever you landed I hope your city gives it a chance. Also, I hope that you find cause to use it and are pleasantly surprised. Public goods are Public Goods.

    2. NoFreeWill

      Maybe there wouldn’t be a homelessness and drug addiction problem if we built proper public housing and legalized drugs while making quality drug addiction treatments freely available instead of handouts to a private sector that merely warehouses addicts temporarily. Everyone who is an “evil socialist who wants to let people get away with crime” supports all of these things, people like you who consider the homeless (drug addicted or not) a nuisance and not human beings are the ones who oppose all these measures. They don’t want to solve the problem, they just want it to go away magically by adding cops who only make things worse.

    3. Adam Eran

      Switzerland de-criminalized heroin and crime around the clinics (where they dispensed heroin) declined 85%. The addicts reportedly have an easier time re-integrating into society too.

      Portugal decriminalized all drugs, and rehab is widely available while policing costs went down.

      The U.S. has decided to handle the “drug war” as it has with all other wars, with force and violence. In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of its prisoners, five times the world’s per-capita incarceration rate, seven times the age-demographic identical Canadians. So…is Canadian crime much worse? Nope, about the same.

      I’ll also note the U.S. has a half million medical bankruptcies annually, while single-payer Canada has zero. No one in Canada has to start cooking meth to pay his spouse’s hospital bills (the plot of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix).

      Crime and addiction are systemic problems. The criminals and addicts may account for some of the problem, but a predisposition to make “war” on a problem is all-too-gringo thinking (arrogant, piecemeal and presumptuous). Systemic solutions are available, but seldom brought up. The political right would have us believe systemic problems don’t exist. Margaret Thatcher famously said society doesn’t exist, only individuals and families–something roughly equivalent to saying you have no body, only cells and organs.

      I don’t disagree with your assessment of Austin’s problems, but when a society oppresses people, it makes them desperate. Desperation leads to crime, addiction and worse.

      And this is not confined to Texas. From 1982 – 2017 U.S. population increased 42%, while spending on police increased 187%. It’s not like “Law & Order” or “Perry Mason,” either. Police clear 15% of crimes. I think it was Ian Welsh who pointed out that, despite an increase in their budget San Francisco police are making even fewer arrests. The lack of consequences, the lackadaisical attitude of the police makes a perfect vicious cycle: Crime increases, so their budget increases.

      I’m not sure what solution would fix addiction. It may be buggy biological software (see “Supernormal stimuli“), it may be the rapacious capitalists who believe profit excuses all bad behavior, and it may be the addicts themselves.

      In any case, it’s always good to remember Anatole France’s saying: “The law, in its magnificent equality, forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the street, and stealing bread.”

    4. Jorge

      Being homeless and jobless is boring and depressing, and people turn to drugs to ease the pain and boredom. This is really normal.

      Being homeless and jobless is, surprisingly, a very regimented life. This shelter is open from 8-4, that place gives out food at 7am and noon, on and on. They have to plan out their day of trundling around from place to place.

  6. spud

    how dare they do this, how you gonna pay for it! don’t ya know america was built by rugged individuals that tamed the west by going from federal fort to federal fort, with massive subsidies to the railroads, then to the highway system, and then the airlines, all built by rugged individuals, sucking on the federal teat, pulling themselves up by their own boot straps!

    hell, the rugged individuals running the airlines have had only a couple of massive bailouts in the last few years, again proving america is a country of rugged individuals!

    same with wall street and the banks, without their rugged animal spirits, where would we be today if FDR and truman had not interrupted them with a massive bailout because they failed once again, like every seven years or so!/SARC!!!

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    After reading nothing more than the title of this post, my first thought was: “Free public transportation would be very nice … but it would also be very nice if the u.s. had a working system of public transportation.” I know that is a little unfair, but after traveling to a few other countries in Europe and the Asia and experiencing relatively well-designed, well-maintained, and efficient public transportation in those travels I have difficulty applying the designation “public transportation” to the clumsy cobble of train, subway, and bus transport the u.s. suffers. [And a little off-topic — how about what the u.s. calls its highway and road system?]

  8. Joe Well

    Re: homeless people in subway stations, there have been numerous violent crimes among subway loiterers (who knows their housing status) in Boston’s T over the last few years, including at least one death recently.

    Personally I have seen one of them blow his nose on a platform and I once had to leave Downtown Crossing Station because of a stabbing that led obviously scared employees to hustle everyone out.

    On top of cigarette smoking on platforms, bicycle riding in corridors, massive violations of the mask rule when it was in effect, and news reports of train derailments, ceiling panels falling onto people’s heads, escalators eating people’s toes…of course it should be free, in fact they should pay people to ride it! But no, misbehavior should not be tolerated. Fun fact: there are many many homeless people and you don’t recognize them because they are not being a nuisance, and they depend on this public space more than anyone.

  9. JR

    I find myself agreeing with the notion that bus and light rail transportation should be free to the users of the transportation services.

    Of course, providing the service is not “free,” as tax revenues will be required to pay for the initial and ongoing capital expenditures, maintenance and good salaries and benefits for the bus drivers, rail car drivers, maintenance workers, station attendants, janitors, and the police needed to police the system, and the like. This expenditure is of course a subsidy to the businesses that hire the users of the transportation services and to the individual users of the free transportation services. And, because the tax base supporting the “free” transportation will be regional, there will be many people who pay for the transportation services, but do not use them (which will of course generate resentment). Given the enormous subsidies handed out to the very wealthiest via the US Tax Code (basis step-up, non-recourse borrowing against appreciated property, immediate expensing of capital goods, to name but a few), it is hard to say that society’s poorest segments should not get this transportation benefit.

    To me, there is another reason to make this transportation free, and that is good order. I contend that a social order where progressive ideas predominate requires good order. In my neck of the woods, much of the bus transportation has been made free, but the rail transportation is not free. This has led to massive fare evasion for rail transportation. It is very interesting to watch people evade fares. Some just do it easy-peasy, while others seem to go through an internal back and forth and then see if the station manager is (or police are) there and willing to enforce fare evasion rules. This is not good order, which I think is inandof itself corrosive. Since, I think light rail should be subsidized, our rail system should transition to free fares ASAP and end the disorder of fare evasion.

    Finally, I do agree that making the transportation services free will bring other problems with it, but I do believe those issues must be actively addressed and that the positives will outweigh the negatives.

  10. Glen

    You would think cities that have huge empty office buildings MIGHT figure out that this is one of the ways to get those buildings used.

    Maybe if we attach the slogan free for billionaires to this, it would get funded more often. Because this is America, if it’s not going to benefit billionaires, it’s not going to happen.

  11. Irrational

    I live in Luxembourg. Yes, it is nice not to have to buy a ticket. But: since public transport was made free the bus network has been seriously crapified and because no one buys tickets, no one tracks which routes are most used.
    It routinely takes me 1 hour door-to-door to work and I live 12 km (8 miles) from work.
    Oh, and on weekends buses run at 1-2 hour intervals, so forget about using public transport to go hiking, because you will most likely be stuck.
    I would rather pay the 300 euros I used to pay (yes, I realise that is cheap) for an annual ticket and have decent service.

  12. Synoia

    I recall a report in London in the late Sixties. The fares collected covered the cost of collecting and accounting for the fares. The remainder of the cost was state paid.

  13. Felix_47

    When it gets cold the homeless look for a warm place. Often public transit is an option but not having the right fare can be a hindrance. For example, Union Station in LA is shut down now after 1 AM for all but people with an Amtrak ticket. If it is cold the homeless will buy as 5 dollar Amtrak ticket to Santa Ana (the cheapest on I am told by the homeless). But if they cannot afford that they can try the bus to Montclair Ca. and the round trip takes about four hours and the fare is 75 cents. And if that is not convenient they can always call 911 and complain of chest pain and then we get them and we do a $5000 emergency workup and they get a night in the hospital, warm food, new clothes and some cash on their way out the next day. One way or another we all are paying for the homeless and it is not cheap. In my town in Southern Ca they are building a home for the homeless. Each one room unit for one homeless person is costing the government around 900,000 and that is no typo. And most of them will not want to stay there because there are rules, apparently. It was better when they could be involuntarily committed to a state hospital. Some people cannot be left to live on the street.

  14. Ellery O'Farrell

    There’s another angle. I’m an NYC subway rider–they’re generally more than OK, given what they have to contend with–and have noticed a rather substantial post-official-Covid uptick in fare beaters: people jump over the turnstiles in full view of a staffed ticket booth, and no one even tries to stop them; it’s just accepted.

    IOW, what’s happened is that people have concluded that the law won’t be enforced and the norms have changed. That’s very bad, as without norms we don’t have a society. If there were no fares, there’d be no fare-beating. Which I think would help.

    Guess this picks up on JR’s remark about the corrosiveness of fare-beating….

    1. Starry Gordon

      One of the things that happens when a substantial number of people are forced into destitution is that, in the interests of survival, they generate a culture of poverty. In areas where fares are charged, that culture specifies fare-beating and provides techniques for it. The more it’s done, the more it seems all right to other people. Similar things happen in other realms. And this is only the beginning of the descent. Much worse things are going to happen, because, as the Dao De Jing observes, “The heavy is the foundation of the light; the low is the foundation of the high.” The consequences of letting the poor rot will not be pleasant. And you probably can’t do much about it, because your betters are going to ride it all the way down, whatever you may think. And you’ll probably keep voting for them.

  15. JBird4049

    We have a transportation problem and a homeless problem. We also have a healthcare problem. We have these problems and massive, which is generally ignored by the media. But we have to start somewhere.

    I get why people are complaining about the homeless people being a smelly nuisance, sometimes a violent problem, on public transportation. Taking the Muni in San Francisco can be such an entertaining experience (oh look, it’s puke); the commuter routes going to and from the city are almost always on time, clean, and dull. Of course, those riders have money.

    It feels like the various public transportation agencies have throughout the Bay Area are adjusting their routes, times, and fares often with not that much coordination between the various agencies. It has been several years since I was a rider. Maybe they got better, but considering the previous four decades, I doubt it.

    I can say that having been really, really poor in the past that the cost of public transit often had me seriously economizing on food; the greater Bay Area has such a population density and area that having a single, unified, and coordinated transportation system, but for reasons of politics, empire building, and NIMBYism, we don’t. This means spending an entire day using public transportation or using my car for half a day. Multiple fares or a tank of gas as well.

    So, I am a true believer in free (and organized) public transportation in the Bay Area. I also think that the entire system should have the same level of service, which would push the management to give the same* clean, comfortable, and functional vehicles for routes in the poor areas as they do for the wealthier ones. Both drivers and maintenance workers always do good work, but the dingy, smelly buses are noticeable.

    *A reason for public housing being successful in places like Vienna is that the quality of the housing is geared towards the higher classes and not just the poor. People with money and status get treated much better in practice than the working and poor classes.

  16. Hepativore

    Conversely, and I might catch hell for this…perhaps there should be some sort of program to financially-assist people who live in areas with populations under a certain amount to aid them in buying a vehicle.

    We cannot simply ignore people who live in very rural places, and biking 16+ miles on highways with no shoulders in the dead of winter of the Upper Midwest is out of the question for most people.

    I imagine that even in parts of the world such as Europe or Asia that are known for their public transportation systems, their citizens that live in non-urbanized areas have to have personal vehicles. This can be a major financial drain, because if the vehicle suffers mechanical failure they have no means to get to work or go grocery shopping, to say nothing of vehicular repair costs.

    For better or for worse, there is no way that people that live out in the hinterlands like myself would be able to survive without a car.

    1. JBird4049

      There is nothing to feel defensive about. Tens of millions of Americans live outside of the cities and deep in the countryside. It is true for California, and it true for every other state, and it certainly true for just about every country on Earth.

      If anyone wants complain about this, please don’t. And if our supposed betters actually could put forward real changes in our transportation system other than mandating electric car without creating the infrastructure for it, this would good.

  17. Scramjett

    I think the biggest problem with public transit in America is that it sucks. Making it free won’t fix that and I’ve heard, both in public comments and privately, that people would rather pay fares if it means that it will improve the service. Now, I don’t know how effective fares would be at improving service, since, as Yves points out, fares don’t really contribute that much to transit budgets. But, maybe that’s because of low ridership? And maybe the low ridership is because it sucks?

    I’ll illustrate my point with my personal experience. When I got my first job in LA’s San Gabriel Valley, I deliberately found a place around 3 miles from where I’d be working so I wouldn’t have to drive far. But even the LA area’s surface streets are traffic choked, as I quickly discovered after my first couple weeks, especially true around schools(1). I decided I’d had enough so I looked into taking the bus(2) only to discover that it would take over an hour to get to work (remember, it’s only 3 miles away) with one or two transfers depending on the route I took. Versus a 15 – 20 minute car drive (30 if the traffic was especially bad). I quickly abandoned that idea.

    See, here’s the thing though, I had the option to drive (as much as it sucked, and it did suck!). The poor and the desperate(3) often don’t have that choice. And if they do, they choose expensive car ownership over public transit(4). I’m not sure how much of an impact free transit would have if people are worried that unreliable service means risking being late to work. I’m in the Sacramento area and one of the common complaints I see on SacRT’s monthly online transit chat (web forum) is buses that don’t show up and light rail trains that are often one or two cars too short and already at or near capacity. Most of their trains are nearly 40 years old and we’ve been told that their maintenance staff has to get creative with parts. But that still translates into unreliable service that people will avoid if they can. I got so fed up with it that I just started riding my bike on my 10 mile commute (and I bought an e-bike, which made it as fast as driving and much faster than transit, although our bike infrastructure is garbage, so it was terrifying).

    America treats public transit like a charity to the poor. And like all other charities to the poor, it is stigmatized, neglected and chronically underfunded. I personally predict that most public transit agencies in America will be dead or dying within the next decade. But nothing, I think, captures the legitimate anger I feel about how we treat transit than a video (link below) from YouTuber Not Just Bikes(5) on business parks. It reminded me of my LA experience and, like him, at that time, I just treated it as normal. The bus just sucks because it is a city bus. But now that I know better, I feel the same level of anger that he does.

    (1) Thanks to the end of school buses. I rode a bus to school almost every day from kindergarten to high school (except Junior and most of Senior year) and that was even after my parents moved us into the country, in California.
    (2) Unlike most suburbanites, and because of riding school buses most of my childhood, I felt no stigma towards riding the bus, despite protestations from my PMC suburbanite coworkers, most of whom I’m sure would sound like the lady Yves brings up.
    (3) The servant class, as Yves puts it.
    (4) And what makes it worse for the poor and desperate is that they often can’t afford new cars, which means someone in the household has to be handy (but car parts have also got expensive) or they pay far more for maintenance and upkeep than your PMC suburbanite with their Audi’s, Bimmer’s, Lexus’, and Acura’s. The cost of car ownership I’ve seen recently averages around $10,000/year.
    (5) It’s a really great YouTube channel and I highly recommend his series on Strong Towns, the organization founded by Chuck Marohn, a “recovering engineer” who has done a lot of work in the last decade to talk about how suburban sprawl, which he calls the “suburban growth Ponzi scheme,” is driving debt and inequality in our cities. Other YouTubers of note are: City Beautiful, RM Transit, Alan Fisher (aka Arm Chair Urbanist), and a new guy who lives in LA, Nimesh in Los Angeles.

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