2020: The Year of Fare-Free Transit?
As of January 1st, public transportation in Olympia Washington is officially fare-free. When considering the cost of replacing transit fareboxes with electronic fare card readers, the city decided it wasn’t worth it to invest in a system overhaul. Instead, they decided to remove the payment system all together. Transit fares account for less than two percent of the agency’s operating value so making the switch to fare-free isn’t going to have a dramatic effect on operation costs. Olympia residents essentially pay for their bus rides when they shop locally thanks to a sales tax increase that was intended to improve bus services.
The Northwest region is certainly no stranger to fare free-transit. Washington, Montana, and Oregon all have existing fare-free services, each of which have seen varying success. The largest fare free system in the region has been implemented in Corvallis, Oregon, where bus ridership increased 38% within the first year. This success doesn’t come as a major surprise given that Oregon State University is in the center of the city. Fare free transportation systems tend to do quite well in university and resort cities, in part because they’re designed around high-demand locations.
It’s too soon to say whether the fare change will lead to greater ridership in Olympia but as the system is already under-used, it’s naive to assume that making the services free will automatically boost ridership. For cities that want to increase ridership it’s important to investigate why the services aren’t being used in the first place. Do buses run on time and in a frequent manner? Are routes meeting the needs of where people wish to go?
In Kansas City, the soon to be largest city in the US to offer free transit, the answer to both of these questions is no. Only 1.2% of city residents use public transportation to commute to work. In a recent study shared by Harvard Business Review, they revealed a large gap between people who express a willingness to change their commute habits and those who actually follow through with it when given the option. I expect that the switch to fare free transit may prove similar results.
Most Kansas City buses run every 30-60 minutes which can make things especially difficult for riders who need to transfer buses at any point. “If you reduce barriers to access to a system that doesn’t do a great job connecting people where they need to go, it’s only helping people so much.” Says TransitCenter think tank spokesperson, Ben Fried. Already, the city has operated its light rail service as fare-free since its opening in 2010 and offers free bus rides to high school students and veterans. For those who fall outside of these boxes, bus fares are $1.50 per ride, or $50 for a monthly pass. It’s not costs that are prohibiting riders from using the bus, but a lack of services that meet the public’s need. Kansas City is ailed with same malicious disease as other cities across North America: sprawl. What can be done to curb the legacy of this problematic development? Improving mobility access is a major step in the right direction and fare pricing is of course part of this. Here’s hoping that this decision will inspire a shift across the nation to provide better mobility access for all.