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We May Not Be Ready for Fare-Free Transit, Though TDM Tactics Can Replicate Effects - MobilityLab


WMATA, like many transit agencies in the US, has not collected fares on buses since March in an effort to protect drivers and riders from COVID-19. The agency, however, is considering bringing back fares in addition to implementing budget cuts in order to meet a nearly $200 million shortfall. The idea of making transit system go entirely fare-free has gained popularity in recent years, with systems in Europe such as Tallinn, Estonia, and the entire (admittedly small) country of Luxembourg doing so. In the U.S., recent examples include Kansas City, MO and Olympia, WA. Though going fare-free can boost ridership, major systems such as WMATA should prioritize Transportation Demand Management initiatives instead of eliminating fares in order to gain some of the benefits.


What are the Arguments Surrounding Fare-Free Transit?

Fares are just one more barrier to transit use that drivers don’t have to confront, and proponents of the idea believe that eliminating fares altogether could make transit more competitive with driving. In theory, going fare-free is indeed an attractive idea. Eliminating fares would make riding transit cheaper and easier, and shifting to other funding sources can potentially be more equitable. Unfortunately, today’s fares are regressive because each rider generally pays the same regardless of their ability to pay. Fare collection can often be a significant budget line item itself for the public, and enforcement is often inequitable, falling disproportionately on people of color.


However, the evidence that eliminating fares leads to greater ridership and a more equitable transit system is mixed. Research indicates that eliminating fares can increase ridership, but the devil is in the details. One major study from 1982 found an increase in ridership, but the scheme did not meaningfully reduce car trips. This result was also found in a 2013 review of various free transit schemes in Europe and in a 2017 evaluation of Tallinn’s fare-free scheme. In short, transit ridership increased, often significantly, but at the cost of walk and bike trips, not cars.


While growth in ridership is good in that it indicates people are taking more trips on transit and are less impeded by cost, this shift is not leading to the transformation of the overall travel mode-share. In these examples, eliminating fares has not made the transit system that much more appealing compared to driving.


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