This is the second in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, following a post about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, to be followed by the topics of operating aid and an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.
There’s a push in various left-wing places to make public transportation free. It comes from various strands of governance, advocacy, and public transport, most of which are peripheral but all together add up to something. The US has been making some pushes recently: Boston made three buses fare-free as a pilot program, and California is proposing a three-month stimulus including free transit for that period and a subsidy for car owners. Germany is likewise subsidizing transport by both car and public transit. It’s economically the wrong choice for today’s economy of low unemployment, elevated inflation, and war, and it’s especially troubling when public transport advocates seize upon it as their main issue, in lieu of long-term investments into production of transit rather than its consumption.
Who’s for free public transit?
Historically, public transit was expected to be profitable, even when it was publicly-run. State-owned railroads predate the modern welfare state, and it was normal for them to not just break even but, in the case of Prussia, return profits to the state in preference to broad-based taxes. This changed as operating costs mounted in the middle of the 20th century and competition with cars reduced patronage. The pattern differs by country, and in some places (namely, rich Asia), urban rail remained breakeven or profitable, but stiff competition bit into ridership even in Japan. The norm in most of the West has been subsidies, usually at the local or regional level.
As subsidies were normalized, some proposed to go ahead and make public transport completely free. In the American civil rights movement, this included Ted Kheel, a backer of free public transit advocates like the activist Charles Komanoff and the academic Mark Delucchi. Reasons for free transit have included social equality (since it acts as a poll tax on commuters) and environmental benefits (since it competes with cars).
Anne Hidalgo has attempted and so far failed to find the money for free public transport in Paris, and other parts of Europe have settled for deep discounts in lieu of going fully fareless: Vienna charges 365€ for an annual pass (Berlin, which breaks even on the U-Bahn as far as I can tell, does so charging 86€/month).
In the United States, free transit has recently become a rallying cry for DSA, where it crowds out any discussion of improvement in the quality of service. Building new rail lines is the domain of wonks and neoliberals; socialists call for making things free, in analogy with their call for free universal health care. Boston has gotten in on the act, with conventional progressive (as opposed to DSA) mayor Michelle Wu campaigning on free buses within the municipality and getting the state-run MBTA to pilot free buses on three routes in low-income neighborhoods.
What’s wrong with free transit?
It costs money.
More precisely, it costs money that could be spent on other things. In Ile-de-France, as of 2018, fare revenues including employer benefits amounted to 4 billion euros, out of a total budget of 10.5 billion. The region can zero out this revenue, but on the same budget it can expand the Métro network by around 20-25 km a year – and the Métro is as far as I can tell profitable, subsidies going to suburban RER tails and buses. For that matter, the heavy subsidies to the suburbs, which pay the same cheap monthly rate as the city, could be replaced with investment in more and better lines.
The experiments with actually-free transit so far are in places with very weak revenues, like Estonia. Some American cities like it in context where public transport is only used by the desperate and no attempt is made at making service attractive to anyone else. Boston is unique in trying it in a context with higher fare revenue – but the buses are rail feeders, so the early pilot piggybacks on this and spends relatively little money in lost revenue, ignoring the long-term costs of breaking the (limited) fare integration between the buses and the subway.
What’s wrong with free transit now?
Free transit as deployed in the California proposal is in effect a stimulus project: the government gives people money in various ways. Germany is doing something similar, in a package including 9€ monthly tickets, a 0.30€ fuel tax cut, and a cut in energy taxes.
In Germany, unemployment right now is 2.9% and core inflation (without food and energy) is 3%. This is a country that spent a decade thinking going over 2% was immoral, and now the party that considers itself the most budget hawkish is cutting fuel taxes, in a time of conflict with an oil and gas exporter and a rise in military spending.
In the United States, unemployment is low as well, and inflation is high, 6.4%. This is not the time for stimulus or investments in consumption. It’s time for investments in production and suppression of consumption. So what gives?