Note: this may turn into a long series of posts about public transportation fare systems and payments.
From time to time, people propose free public transport. Supporters have a variety of motivations, including an attempt to mirror cars (“do state roads charge tolls?”), ideological socialism, positive externalities, and the efficiencies of getting rid of fare collection.
In reality, making service free at the point of use means spending money on subsidies from other sources – money that could be spent on other things than zeroing out the fares. There are opportunity costs, and robust public transportation networks do not gain much efficiency from being free. If there is money to make service free, there is money to spend on service improvements, including more metro lines, higher frequency, and wheelchair accessibility where it isn’t already present.
A tweetstorm from two days ago includes references to a number of studies on this issue:
- After Tallinn made its public transportation network free for city residents, ridership rose 10% while car traffic fell 15%.
- Trenton and Denver’s 1970s experiments with free off-peak fares led to 15% overall increase in ridership, and 45% in the off-peak, but no change in car traffic – ridership was entirely induced.
- A report by Jennifer Perone citing American examples including Trenton and Denver as well as Austin’s 1989-1990 experiment concludes that “it is nearly certain that fare-free implementation would not be appropriate for larger transit systems,” citing joyriding and an increase in harassment in Austin rather than any diversion from driving.
Proof of payment
One argument for free transit is that it simplifies operations because no fare collection is needed. Front-door boarding and paying the drivers slow down bus boarding – each passenger takes 2.6-3 seconds to board (source, PDF-p. 20). Rapid transit systems also suffer from the complexity of fare collection infrastructure: batteries of faregates create chokepoints and require maintenance, and usually rapid transit agencies also have to hire station agents to watch the gates.
However, proof-of-payment fare enforcement, or POP, gets around most of these issues. If passengers do not need to pay at entry, everything becomes much simpler: they can board buses from any door, and get onto the train without crossing faregates. Berlin has all-door boarding and open, unstaffed U-Bahn stations. There are fare-vending machines, which are not free, but they are cheap. There are fare inspectors working on consignment – they get paid by catching non-paying riders.
Better uses for money
New York City Transit has $9.1 billion in operating and maintenance expenses as of 2016, and $4.3 billion in fare revenue (source). Ile-de-France Mobilités has a total of about €10 billion in annual operating and capital expenses, with about 10% of this being capital and the rest operating, and €2.8 billion in fare revenue. As of 2015, BVG had a total transport income of €1.344 billion (PDF-p. 7) and an additional subsidy of €620 million (PDF-p. 21).
In all of these cities, if there is money for fare elimination, there is money for further improvements in service. A disability rights advocacy group in Paris estimates the cost of making the Metro accessible at €4-6 billion, or 1.5-2 years’ worth of fares. Parisian construction costs for further Metro extensions are such that the budget for free fares could instead be spent on adding around 14 annual kilometers of new tunnels. In Berlin, a third S-Bahn trunk line running northwest-southeast would require about a year and a half’s worth of present-day fares to construct; adding service to guarantee 5-minute frequency on all trunk lines even on weekends and evenings would require a small increase in operating expenses.
New York’s construction costs are much higher than those of Paris and Berlin, and even its operating costs are elevated, but then it also charges higher fares. If there is $4.3 billion a year for free fares, there is much less $4.3 billion a year for boosting off-peak frequency on every named route (2, 4, A, etc.) to at worst 6 minutes, with 2- and 3-minute off-peak frequencies on interlined trunk lines. As with Paris, there is also a dire need for wheelchair accessibility; thanks to very high costs, full installation would not cost just 1.5-2 years’ worth of fare revenue, but more like 3 years’ worth.
Cities with and without public transport
The above discussion centers where the vast majority of public transportation takes place – that is, in cities with serious public transportation systems. The argument changes completely in smaller cities, which run the occasional bus but not at the required speed, coverage, or frequency for it to count as a real public transport network.
In Germany, there is no free transit, but the difference between big-city and small-city fare enforcement is telling: only relatively big cities have POP systems. Small-town Germany makes bus passengers pay the fare to the driver, and runs trains with conductors checking tickets. The reason is that roving inspectors only work on systems with enough frequency and coverage, or else they can’t efficiently ride the buses and trains and check tickets.
If POP is not possible, then the cost of collecting fares rises: buses are slowed down by every additional passenger, and trains require a second crew member. Such systems often have very low farebox recovery in the first place, and a very low-income rider profile, since everyone who can afford to drive drives rather than waits 25 minutes for the bus. In Los Angeles, total fare revenue on Metro (which includes most buses) is $350 million a year and total operating and maintenance expenses amount to $1.57 billion, and the average public transport commuter has about half the average income of the average solo driver. In that specific use case, making public transport free may be justified.
The one caveat is that if the plan is to convert a city from one without public transportation to speak of to one with a good system, for example in Los Angeles, then in the future, revenue will become more important. Even if free public transport is a good idea in the conditions of 2019, it may not be such a good idea in those of 2035, at least if grandiose transit city plans materialize (and I don’t think they will – the state of American local governance just isn’t good enough for cities to follow through).