Buses Shouldn’t Be Free

The push for fareless transit is downstream of a larger failure: American urban elected officials have struggled to improve government services, especially infrastructure development.

A crowded bus captured from the outside, its many passengers framed by windows
Washington Post / Getty

The library is free; parks are free; no one has to pay for police or firefighters to show up at their door. So why not make transit free? This week, Washington, D.C.’s city council asked and answered that question by voting unanimously to eliminate payments for riding the bus. If the decision is enacted, the nation’s capital will be the largest American city to make all rides free rides.

Fare-free transit sounds great in theory, but American bus networks are far behind global leaders in offering good service. Focusing on zero-dollar rides is like overseeing a library system stocked solely with out-of-date self-help books in crumbling buildings and wondering if a fresh coat of paint will improve morale.

What is the point of a bus? If you ask an environmentalist, it’s to reduce emissions from personal car use. If you ask a suburban commuter, it’s to reduce the number of cars on the road. If you ask someone who actually rides the bus, it’s to get them to where they need to go. To meet any of these goals, transit agencies need to attract more customers. The best way to do that is to run more buses and ensure that they arrive and depart in a timely fashion.

Bus riders are consistent on this point. One 2019 study of transit riders asked respondents to name the most important areas for improvement and found that the quality of the transit service came first. To increase satisfaction and, consequently, transit use, riders wanted more frequent, safe, and reliable service. Significantly lower on the list of priorities? Concerns about fares.

Now, obviously, transit policy can have multiple goals. But there are trade-offs; as the transit researcher Alon Levy put it, “If there is money to make service free, there is money to spend on service improvements.” In D.C., free bus service is expected to cost $43 million in 2024 and increase slightly each year thereafter. For comparison, expanding service for about a dozen lines to include night service costs roughly $8.5 million. And of course, taxpayers are still paying for the bus; it’s just not happening at the farebox. Perhaps most important, making the bus free might exacerbate the very issues that frustrate bus riders, potentially making transit less reliable, less frequent, and maybe even less safe.

Fare-free-transit advocates cite a few anticipated benefits: inducing more people to take the bus instead of driving, generating time savings, and reducing contact between fare violators and law enforcement. Because fare-free transit has been tried before, evaluating how much stock to put in any of these claims is actually pretty easy. (Hint: not a lot.)

Eliminating fares without otherwise improving service is unlikely to push very many drivers to take more trips via bus. Instead, evidence suggests that increased ridership will mostly come from people who already take the bus choosing to do so over biking or walking. That’s fine, but it doesn’t do anything to reduce congestion or emissions. In Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, fare-free buses led to a 40 percent reduction in trips made on foot and reduced the number of car trips by just 5 percent. In Trenton, New Jersey, and Denver, Colorado, experiments with free fares likewise showed no change in car traffic, despite significant increases in ridership.

And increased ridership may be a short-lived phenomenon that can overwhelm the system, thereby actually harming the very people who consistently rely on it. In some experiments with fare-free transit, boarding time decreased, but higher usage meant the bus had to stop more frequently, potentially erasing those gains. In other experiments, the proportion of buses observed to arrive late went from 25 percent to 45 percent.

The idea that fare-free bus transit is the best way to save time beggars belief. Policy changes such as running more buses, establishing bus-only lanes, and stopping less frequently all significantly increase bus speeds, with the added benefit of reducing emissions and congestion.

Another time-saving measure is proof-of-payment fare enforcement, in which passengers can board at any door unchecked but are expected to retain some sort of pass or receipt. In Berlin, for instance, riders board seamlessly; every once in a while, fare inspectors come around and ask all the passengers for proof of payment. If they don’t have proof, they get fined. Despite this system, Berlin appears to have lower rates of fare evasion than D.C., according to a February 2022 report. Some people will dodge fares, but the time saved on boarding and the convenience afforded to passengers more than make up for that.

Perhaps the strongest reason for eliminating fares is reducing contact between law enforcement and riders. Police won’t stop people for evading fares if there aren’t any, which eliminates the possibility that a mundane fare violation will spiral into a much more serious and potentially brutal outcome. Further, fare-evasion fees won’t pile up for low-income riders.

But I doubt that any system will eliminate the demand for police activity on public transit. Fare-free buses may actually increase the desire for security services. Some agencies that experimented with this system noted increased “rowdiness”; in a couple of American cities, “bus drivers became highly critical of the program because of an apparent increase in the occurrence and severity of on-board harassment … particularly by young people.” While “rowdiness” may only increase in proportion to the increased number of people using the bus, transit agencies, bus drivers, and even other passengers could conceivably ask law enforcement to keep crowded, student-filled buses in order.

Many proponents of fareless rides point out that drivers expect free or subsidized parking and do not directly pay for the cost of maintaining roads or other necessary infrastructure. Nor do they have to pay for the environmental and congestion costs externalized onto everyone. These are all great arguments for congestion pricing and for requiring drivers to pay to reserve space for cars in desirable locations, not good arguments for fare-free transit.

If fare-free transit isn’t a great policy, why are so many places looking to pursue it? In America, the bus is for poor people, and policy reflects that by focusing on subsidization instead of improving quality. This is frustrating both because low- and moderate-income riders deserve high-quality public services, and because if mass transit remains relegated as the transit option of last resort, then the U.S. will never meet its emissions and congestion goals.

I also suspect that the push for fareless transit is downstream of a larger failure: American urban elected officials have struggled to improve government services, especially infrastructure development. Navigating the mess of regulations and other political constraints makes building and operating transit networks extremely difficult; that’s precisely why political officials so often turn to “demand-side policies” such as subsidies for the bus. Demand-side policies can be great. But if the goal is to give money to low-income people, we should give money directly to low-income people. If the goal is a well-functioning transit network, we should fix the problems that bus riders tell us are plaguing the system.

But politicians also know that demand-side policies like making the bus free can be political winners. Riders will know they have politicians to “thank” for a free ride, whereas they may not even notice incremental improvements to bus service.

Transportation and transit networks organize society in explicit and implicit ways, shaping our choices before we’re even old enough to walk. Fare-free transit won’t destroy bus networks, and so focusing on the drawbacks may seem strange. But we need to think seriously about trade-offs. Building a sustainable and well-run transit system is an economic and environmental imperative—any policy that doesn’t conclusively seek to do that is a waste of time.