Want People to Take Public Transportation to Work? Don’t Provide Free Parking

Encouraging people to take alternative modes of transportation is an ongoing question. In a culture where cars dominate, how do we provide incentives that make buses, subways, trains and even cycling and walking more attractive than commuting on two wheels?

One option is to provide transit passes, the idea being that if a bus or subway pass is free for a worker than they will be more likely to take public transportation. Or will they? It depends on what kinds of benefits the employee gets. A new study shows that employers who offered both free parking and free transit passes actually saw an increase in the people that would drive to work.

The researchers analyzed data from the Washington D.C. area. According to City Lab, “when employers offer no commuter benefits at all, the probability of driving alone to work is nearly 76 percent, with taking transit at 22 percent.”

While you might assume that parking and transit might cancel each other out if people can freely choose between the two, they don’t. When employees were offered free parking and free transit passes, the probability of driving to work rose to 83 percent. What if people are discouraged from driving? “When a company offers only transit benefits and nothing else, probability of taking the bus or train breaks 76 percent, and driving becomes less appealing,” reports City Lab.

So let’s just get rid of free parking, right? It’s not that easy. The problem lies in the idea of fairness. If some people drive, some people take the bus and some people ride their bikes, the fair option is to of course provide parking, transit passes and bike storage. There are very few places that offer transit-only incentives, and particularly in regards to companies that have people coming in from long distances to work, cars may be one of the only options.

What’s the solution then? One might be not providing any benefits at all.

As the authors of the study write, “benefits for public transportation, walking, and cycling, seem to work best when car parking is not free.” That’s because unfortunately the perks of free parking win out over the benefits of public transportation, at least in the commuter’s mind.

Studies like this are important in addressing the question of public transportation, showing that we have to do much more than simply just incentivize public transit. We really do have to make driving less appealing. Otherwise we will continue in the exact same to-wheeled cycle, with no progress in sight.

Photo Credit: shankar s.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Andrew Meredith
Andrew Meredith3 years ago

Where I live and work, I cannot get to work on public transport. These ideologically inspired "solutions" make things worse and divert people from the actual problems and potential practical solutions.

Rosemary Diehl
Rosemary Diehl3 years ago

Maybe there could be a tiered approach...the person who rides bike gets $100 credit, the bus rider gets $75 and the driver gets $50. Maybe the $50 only pays for parking 5-6 blocks away or they have to add to the stipend to park closer.

Brad Hunter
Brad H3 years ago


Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert3 years ago

American cities and more than that, the Suburbs are designed for the post WWII car culture. Mass transit is still mostly a thing of the East Coast from Boston to DC and the Rust Belt from New York to Chicago. It will be hard in some cases and impossible in most to move Joe and Jane Average to mass transit and away from their own vehicles.

Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago

well said, Edith

Wanda Bagram
Past Member 3 years ago

Brian F.- You have some good points, and I also want to bring up what can happen when people became extremely dependent on Public Transportation, in the case of Public Buses. The best example I can give is the Public Bus system used in San Juan, Puerto Rico called the AMA. I knew soldier who told me about it, he said its best route took off every 10 minutes and a full bus could fit 112 people. He said it sounds great at first but he told me that it had so many issues long term when too many people use it that it was just better to get your own transportation.
The issues were; During rush hour you couldn’t predict when you were going to get on it since at the terminals there would be lines of 300 people waiting for a bus. Also, it was common at the bus stops for a bus not to stop as it was full or to stop and if only one person got off the driver would only let one person on. If a Bus broke down in route it was better to walk the rest of the way to work as it was going to be impossible to catch another bus in less than an hour. The community would not vote to raise taxes in order to able to increase the rate of buses per hour. When the Bus drivers went on strike for a month many were left in a bad spot for transportation. As a rider you had no control over administrative changes to the bus routes which obligated some riders to take an additional bus ride or walk a few additional extra miles they previously didn’t have to.

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thank you.

Brian Foster
Brian F3 years ago

I agree bus service needs to be improved dramatically in many cities. One way to do that is to create BRT bus only lanes that exclude cars. By having bus only lanes in all large cities, it dramatically speeds up the travel time, to get your destination, because cars are not allowed to block and congest the lanes and slow the busses down. Increasing the number of busses during rush hour also speeds up the commute times. I agree that bicycles cannot be ridden in cold weather, or by handicapped people, however if we built physically separated bicycle lanes that have protective barriers, more people would ride their bikes to work. Also electric bicycles now can go 20 MPH, require no insurance, or registration, are much cheaper than cars to maintain, and can allow handicapped people to ride with very little effort.

The ELF, a new electric bicycle car produced in Durham, North Carolina, by Organic Transit, can go 20 MPH, powered by an electric motor. With an enclosed shell, that protects you from the rain. it can go up to 30 MPH when pedaling. Although that is not fast, if we reduced the speed limit to 30 MPH in cities and towns in the USA, the ELF could replace all dirty gas cars, and SUV's in cities. The ELF has many advantages, in that it requires no registration, or insurance, and cost only $5,000. Much cheaper than a car. It can also be parked much easier because it is smaller.

Wanda Bagram
Past Member 3 years ago

This should be titled, “Want People to Take Public Transportation to Work? Improve Public Transportation.” I lived in Europe for a little bit (UK) and worked in NYC for a few months, and although Public Transportation is not stellar, it is better than 95% of the rest of the US. Unfortunately, public transportation is also costly and has to be subsidized via tax money as well so it really isn’t a quick fix option. But the point is before you decide to throw everyone on a public system, first make sure the system is adequate and right now Public Transportation for the most part is not. Even in Europe and New York there are Train routes that run at a loss so keep that in mind. Then you have other factors on public transportation which will require a higher budget such as; increased security measures, expanded machine maintenance, system upgrades, disaster recovery, unscheduled construction work, local government shutdowns, etc.
A simple ‘don’t offer free parking’ is NOT the way to get people to leave the trust of their personnel vehicles and start trusting Public Transportation unless these issues are shown to be addressed.