(An underground station of the LA Metro by Thomas Hawk on Flickr)
For a brief period earlier this year, it looked like my home city of Washington, D.C., was going to make all public transit buses free inside the city. That's been delayed because of fights about the money to pay for it, wider regional discord about the transit agency’s priorities within each state (WMATA operates in DC, Maryland and Virginia) and a looming funding gap.
I’ve written a lot about the ongoing transition to EVs, but when it comes to reducing emissions, public transit has other things going for it, including being less deadly than the giant — and increasingly battery heavy — vehicles that dominate American roads.
So would making buses and metro rides free increase their popularity and therefore lower car trips — including gas cars — immediately? And what’s the status of America’s public transit systems as the pandemic shifted where they live and work?
While thinking on these questions, I found a "perspective" article from Joshua Schank and Emma Huang published at San Jose State University’s transit research institute. Both used to work at the Los Angeles Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation and now work at InfraStrategies, a consulting firm.
In the 2022 article, they argue that free transit is a popular idea that requires transit agencies to really consider what goal they're trying to solve for when actually turning that into policy. (It’s short and direct, I’d recommend reading it).
I jumped on a video call to discuss more about free transit and potential impacts on a city’s transportation emissions last month. We didn’t discuss ebikes, bikes and scooters, but those are now part of the equation in some cities. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
(Lots more local climate news links today after the interview — this is what happens when you don't publish for a few weeks.)
TKB: What's the status of funding for transit systems across the US right now? Are some doing better than others?
Joshua Schank: Depends on how they're funded. Systems that are funded by sales tax as a primary source of revenue, are generally doing a little better than systems that are funded by farebox revenue, because the systems that have depended a lot on farebox have lost a huge chunk of that (NB: One estimation puts public transit ridership nationally at about 80% of where it was pre-pandemic, but those numbers vary depending on agency). The federal infusion of money that's come in last few years has obviously helped: there was a bailout from the operations side and there’s also been capital funding. So there's been a lot that's postponed the fiscal challenges that transit agencies are likely to experience over the next few years. But they're all in some various state of fiscal uncertainty.
LA Metro, where we both used to work, is almost exclusively based on sales tax. I think that it’s a $8 or 9 billion budget and you have, about $250 million from farebox revenue. So it's a pretty small amount of the budget. There are some agencies like New York, DC, Boston and Chicago, that depend a lot more on farebox revenue for a substantial portion of their income.
TKB: Your perspective identified a couple different ways free transit can be combined with other policies. Was there a particular combination that you found most convincing or most relevant to public transit agencies that are considering this?
Schank: My theory on fareless transit has been that if you're going to do it, you should do it because of something specific you want to achieve. There is a tendency to embrace fareless because it sounds good, like you're doing something that's good for equity, something good for environmental outcomes.
You can, but focusing on what you're actually trying to do is the key to constructing a good policy. From a cost-benefit perspective, I am a big fan of the idea of providing discounts on fares during off-peak times or during times when there's not as much demand, because I think it accomplishes a lot of those goals at the lowest possible cost. You got a big system, and you're running a lot of service in the middle of the day that isn't being used. Then you offer people free rides [at those times]. You're likely to pick up more riders than you had before. You're likely to get some people who otherwise would not have been riding transit to do that. And you're likely to target the people who need that assistance the most, because that's who tends to travel in the middle of the day. So it's kind of a neat little policy option that I think not enough places have looked at.
Emma Huang: If improving emissions is your primary goal, fareless transit might not actually be the way that you accomplish that, in terms of what mode share is right now.
When you ask a transit agency what they're trying to achieve, they're going think about what's in their realm, what's in their scope, and managing automobile [use] may or may not be something that they think they're responsible for. For the transit agencies that want to do fareless, I don’t think they’ve identified reducing emissions as the primary goal.
TKB: If the goal is increased ridership, does that lower car usage? Are those usually tied together?
Schank: So the thing about transit and reduced car usage is that it's a more tenuous connection then you might think. If you got rid of WMATA - DC Metro — tomorrow, yes, more people would drive cars. But when you add more people onto DC Metro, that doesn't necessarily reduce the number of car trips being taken because there's such great demand for travel by personal vehicle.
There are a lot of people who are not taking trips right now because of traffic congestion or they don't have a good route or lots of other things keeping them from driving. And then once the some people who now choose to go on transit — instead of driving— leave the road, they're like, “Oh, actually, this is a better route for me. I can drive now or I will take this trip that I wouldn't have taken.” It’s much more fluid than you might think.
So as a general rule, transit does not do a great job of reducing the number of people driving. What it does do is provide people with helpful alternatives to driving. And that's where fareless can be effective in the sense that there are people out there for whom the main barrier to transit is that they cannot afford to ride it as much as they would like. Then, by reducing the fare or eliminating fare, you might get more of those people to choose that option, and thus create a benefit for them.
Huang: I think the disconnect is just how kind of popular the idea has become — how it has been used as a campaign promise, because it is such an enticing message — and trying to figure out what the outcomes are that you want [from fareless]. That is a more complicated conversation that doesn't often get borne out in the public. Fareless is just a very easy thing for people to understand. There have been some [advocates], I think, that are a little bit more aware of policy ramifications and want fareless not to be something that results in less service. It does become a pretty complicated policy choice, when on the surface it can be seen as like a very obvious, like why wouldn't you want this?
TKB: Does geography or city specific factors matter here?
Schank: Yeah, yeah, it absolutely matters. Right now as a society and almost pretty much everywhere in United States, we are dramatically subsidizing the use of private vehicles. They don't pay the full cost of what the toll that they take on society with respect to emissions or injuries and fatalities or sprawl… lots of impacts. And they also pay very little for the use of the roads compared to the cost.
For example, in a place like New York, where there is a strong incentive not to use a car already, if you were to get rid of public transit fares you’d be forgoing a substantial amount of revenue, you'd starve the system of that revenue, [but] you would continue to still subsidize cars.
Whereas a place like Los Angeles is very, very cheap to drive. And if you want to get some kind of parity, it might make sense to make it even cheaper to ride public transit. Because it's so cheap to drive, you’re effectively subsidizing cars to the point where the revenue from public transit is very meager and it's only coming from the lowest income people in society. So yeah, it absolutely matters where you are.
TKB: One of things that you mentioned in that article was congestion pricing in New York City. To your point, it’s already pretty expensive and to have and drive a car in that city. What about Los Angeles where there’s not as developed as a transit system. How do we avoid pricing out lower income folks who like need a car when you have congestion charging?
Huang: When we were leading a congestion pricing study in Los Angeles, that was obviously first and foremost on our minds, just because a lot of research shows that there are folks that are very low income but once they get enough money, they do buy a car because that can have kind of like exponential mobility benefits for them. But they're still really low income.
We framed the potential pilot as focused on equity. And so what that means is having a really robust kind of menu of options for folks that are low income where they are getting some sort of credit or they're getting a discount. What's tricky with congestion pricing — as you have more exemptions, you're basically having more people be able to use that road that you're trying to manage.
And so it is a good question to think about, how are those folks benefiting overall if if you know, traffic is more contained and more controlled? They are paying, but now they're able to maybe not sitting in traffic, and can do another round of work or make some extra income? I think it's a little bit more of a complicated way to think about it.
But we've seen in programs internationally where you get a discount or maybe they'll give you incentives to use transit. I think there are ways that you can avoid penalizing the lowest income or most vulnerable but still driving.
Schank: What you don’t want to do is subsidize rich people in order to subsidize poor people. You don't make driving free for everybody, but you try to make it less expensive for low income people. In New York, I would argue there's very little equity challenge with congestion pricing because it's a very small number of people who are driving into the city. And there's very, very robust alternatives to driving. So in a place like that it's less of an issue.
(NB: congesting pricing in Los Angeles is uh, contentious to say the least, based on these comments shared with the Los Angeles Times).
TKB: Are there other places in the US that you think would be a good candidate for this particular combination of subsidizing transit and charging through congestion pricing?
Schank: I think there's a lot of cities that need this, especially in the post-pandemic era, because what you're seeing now is that people are taking just as many, if not more trips than they did pre pandemic, but they're doing more and more by car, and a lot fewer than by transit. And that combination is pretty devastating for cities in a number of ways. So the only way you fix that, in my mind, is by having people pay something closer to what the cost is of doing that for society. And until we do that, you're gonna have people overusing the roadway system and under utilizing the transit system. Certainly, San Francisco has looked at this, Washington DC has looked at this Seattle's looked at this, Boston's talked about it. Any big city where you've got a real congestion problem that is hindering economic growth should we be looking at
TKB: Some leaders in DC have pushed for making buses within the city limits free. Does that make sense for you?
Schank: Personally, I'm not a big fan of that, because I feel like again, what are you trying to accomplish? If you're trying to make certain modes free because there are more low income people on those modes? Then you might want to ask yourself, well, why are there more low income people on those modes? Maybe it's because those modes aren't very good, right? Maybe it's because they should be improved, service isn’t frequent enough, maybe those buses are stuck in traffic, and aren’t very useful to people [of all incomes].
So if I'm DC, I'm thinking rather than spend money on getting people free buses, what can I do to improve those buses so that more people will ride them? If really targeting low income people is your goal, that why should low income people on buses be treated differently than low income people on trains? You should be helping low income people across the board.
Huang: I do think though, that if you're doing it in like a phased approach, where maybe you have like the political will to start out on a small scale, with a few bus lines or maybe for specific routes that serve like schools. It’s an entry point into this idea. I think sometimes it's just a little bit more palatable for folks. But I think like ultimately, if it's being considered as a long term policy, then thinking about the whole system is better.
TKB: Anything else anything I'm not asking you about this, especially when it comes reducing emissions via transit?
Schank: I do think you can reduce emissions via transit, if you price the roads. It's not the transit can't play a role in reducing emissions, it just can't do it by itself. If you price the roads more effectively, and you run good, effective transit alternatives to driving, then yeah, you can have an impact.
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