Should Buses and Subways Be Free to Ride?

Written by Michael Graham Richard

Sometimes the smartest way to improve transit is not to plow millions into more stations, more buses, more trains, etc (though we’re certainly not against that!), but to simply change how things are done in the existing system. That can have a cost too, but if done the smart way, the gains can be worth it.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about a step in that direction in†Slate. He argues that a proof-of-payment system would be superior to the current pay-per-ride system that is used almost everywhere in the U.S. (and in many other countries too). The main benefit, as he explains it, is that “people can board the vehicle very quickly because they simply step on board. The transactional hassles of payment and validation are handled during otherwise wasted waiting time.”

This brings many benefits: “[Over] the course of an entire route, speeding the boarding process can make a really substantial difference. And that’s important because faster speed sets off a virtuous circle. For starters, a faster transit mode is more attractive to riders and will collect more fares thus allowing a given level of subsidy to provide more service. Second, faster speed lets a fixed quantity of vehicles and drivers provide more frequent service. That increases the value of the line which, again, attracts more riders and more revenue and allows for more service. So even though it seems like a small change it can actually have quite large benefits for your system.”

But if that’s good, what if we pushed this even further? This is what an Economist writer known only as N.B.†suggests, arguing that making buses and subway free (at least in Manhattan) would work even better than proof-of-payment:

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Fares bring in a lot of money, but they cost money to collectó6% of the MTA’s budget, according to a 2007 report in New York magazine. Fare boxes and turnstiles have to be maintained; buses idle while waiting for passengers to pay up, wasting fuel; and everyone loses time. Proof-of-payment systems don’t solve the problem of fare-collection costs as they require inspectors and other staff to handle enforcement, paperwork and payment processing. Making buses and subways free, on the other hand, would increase passenger numbers, opening up space on the streets for essential traffic and saving time by reducing road congestion.”

The benefits of increased ridership and more efficient use of the current infrastructure would go a long way to compensate for the cost of such a measure, and the difference could be made up elsewhere (if you want to kill two birds with one stone, you can have congestion pricing in downtown areas to help raise some of the money). Or maybe a hybrid system could be tried; have proof-of-payment on the subway, free buses, etc.

Sounds like an idea worth at least considering. It might not make sense everywhere, but where it does, it should be tried.

This post was originally published at TreeHugger.


Photo from Thinkstock

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Myriam G.
Myriam G.2 years ago

Dear Carmen N,
in Montréal, where I live, students get a discount on the city public transport system, but only until they are a certain age (25, if I remember correctly). I think this discount also applies to people over 65.
Personally, I'm all for free-or-very-low-cost public transport system in cities; this measure usually makes cities a lot less polluted and a lot more congenial.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

Carmen n has a good suggestion. But I think they should mostly be run as a business and be self sustaining. They same about the post office, they should come mostly off the government payrolls.

Carmen n.
Carmen n.2 years ago

What I would like to see happen is a prepaid system that charges on a sliding scale, and/or issues passes for those who cannot afford to pay anything, such as students, the elderly and the homeless. Is this the present reality anywhere, I wonder?

Christine W.
Christine W.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

'Great White' Earth Being
'Great White' 2 years ago

Scott h.,

When ALL tax payers (I would prefer everyone) pay the reasonable costs (which if you have ridden on a USA Public Transportation and being honest) then the costs are nothing. In fact, I just found out, that The USA pays a ton more on building roads, streets and highways/another wards on automobiles that CAN only hold 7-passangers at most and rarely does, than Public Transportation.* Of course, all of that needs a ton more resources devoted to all of them, as any USA citizen being honest about riding on roots breaking through, pot holes and cracks will tell you.
However, if you charge riders for riding (to pay for the costs, more than taxes- here in South Florida, I would be surprised if that is not true, for all Transportation costs), then the costs are outrageous!

*- Longhorn Network’s (I am NO WAY a Univ. of Texas Fan/Diehard Miami Hurricanes MOSTLY ONLY SPORTS Fan) series ‘Hot Science Cool Talks’ ‘Robert Bullard’episode.

'Great White' Earth Being
'Great White' 2 years ago

Biby C.,


Biby C.
Biby C.2 years ago

Well, someone HAS to make some money from it. After all, it's the American way! Someone has to make money out of everything. And make lots of it! And the disease has spread across the globe!

Scott haakon
Scott haakon2 years ago

Nope pay the way. people never think about it. But mass transit has a big downside. Costs.

'Great White' Earth Being
'Great White' 2 years ago

Kelly P.,

Since the President at the time was President there it was about being like Capitalist Corporations. That is not to say that there were not AWESOME people within it, though if they taught against resource making for FIU, then they were slowly replaced. Really unless you saw those Physically Challenged Students struggle to travel the blocks to enter FIU (again, against The USA Constitution's ADA Law) and Etc., then you really only know so much. Which another reason leaving out that it was FIU works better.

Kelly P.
John B.2 years ago

Great White: I googled Florida International University, and it seems to have a major presence in Florida. Too bad it feels the need to parasitize its students in such a petty way.