Should Transit Be Free?
This article reports on research about the effect on ridership of making transit free, and concludes that it isn’t always a good idea, and goes on to review other ways cities enhance and nourish their transit systems. A few tidbits:
In Dunkirk, population 100,000, ridership increased by 85% immediately after the introduction of fare-free transit. But in Tallinn, population 426,000, ridership has only increased by 3% in the five years since transit was made free….
Raising the cost of driving also has a tremendous effect on transit ridership. Public transit ridership went up by 18% in London after the city enacted a toll on drivers entering the center city. And across the US, the cost of parking in central business districts tracks well with transit ridership, suggesting more people are willing to take transit if the price of parking goes up. Read the article.
TransitCenter, Jan 28, 2019
The city is launching research into a plan that could set free the Metro, bus, and suburban rail system across a metropolitan area that’s home to over 11 million people, making the Paris region the largest free public transit zone in the world. Of course, all this hinges on the results of the study, which will be delivered at the end of the year. Read the article.
By Feargus O’Sullivan, CityLab, May 16, 2018
- LA May
- Dunkirk France may be one of the first to go fareless.
- Dunkirk is still on course to start free transit in September.
- Estonia’s doing it
Is this a good use of SF’s money?
Comment: With a total City Budget of $11 BILLION should be able to find $300 million for Fareless Muni
Comment: By and large, I don’t think money is the issue. Muni’s problems and solutions all boil down to giving Muni a greater share of the road. Dedicated and red-carpet lanes would increase bus and driver utilization (since they would not be as stuck in traffic), which would allow more and faster runs with the same equipment and personnel – and little or no increase in costs.
Comment: While I am not opposed to a free Muni, I have far higher priorities for Muni’s budget, and for the city’s budget. Off the top of my head:
- Either WiFi or signs in all the subway stations telling riders when connecting surface buses will arrive.
- More red carpet lanes.
- Dedicated lanes with physical barriers.
- Better Muni priority enforcement.
- Better light timing at multiple Muni lines, especially the N, and the T South of the ballpark.
- Cleanup and maintenance of the Muni parts of Muni / BART stations, especially brighter lights.
- Cleanup and maintenance of external Muni stations.
- Better park maintenance.
- More housing and transition services for homeless.
- Public toilets and associated cleaning.
Once all of these are paid for, free Muni would indeed be nice to have – and maybe the better vehicle and driver utilization some of these changes would allow could give Muni the capacity to handle the increased loads that may result.
Are there more and better ways to improve Muni?
Comment: In addition to agreeing with the above comments, I want to say: frequency, frequency, frequency. Providing more frequent service (which costs money) is a great way to alleviate other ills:
- less overcrowding
- less overcrowding means a faster, more reliable bus
- a missed run doesn’t impact riders as much
- a broken down bus doesn’t riders you as much
- an unreliable transfer doesn’t impact riders as much
- the bus is competitive with Uber
- more access for people with disabilities
- the impact of turn-backs [where the bus/train turns back before it goes to the end of the line] is less. Turn-backs are a great way to fix built-up service issues, but are unconscionable if that means people will have to wait 20 minutes for the next one.
Muni should hire more drivers (redundancy) than they need (to support missed runs) and should plan for significantly more service. In Zurich, peak frequency is 7 minutes and night frequency is 12 minutes. Muni has 20 minute evening frequencies, and even day-time frequency is 12 minutes (ideally, but in practice 15-20 minutes). No wonder it’s always overcrowded.
For Muni to be competitive with traffic and Uber, it just needs to provide more and more frequent service.
Comment: The notion that a bus should never be empty, else it’s a waste of tax dollars, is bunk. Other than subway systems, most of the world class surface transportation system are never packed to the gills as Muni. Muni reminds me of my childhood growing up in a poor country.
Instead of prioritizing free Muni generally, SFMTA should instead:
- Ensure there are easy ways for lower income individuals to travel freely or cheaply (social justice) and instead raise the fares for everyone else (potentially means-tested) to support increased service.
- Create deals or requirements with educational institutions, employers, apartment complexes to get group rates so that non-riders subsidize riders in the same group. It creates the same effect as Free Muni on those groups (no incremental cost of ridership).
- Create Free Muni for all children. This is already the case for lower income children, but I do think it’s worth removing the limits, for several reasons:
- In the absence of a school bus system, this can be sponsored with school-related taxes.
- It removes any excuse for parents to shuttle their kids to school with a car (“I have 5 kids”, etc.). While a single fare is always cheaper than cars/Uber, that’s not true for families. Free rides for kids means that public transit is competitive with cars/Uber, even for families.
- The more kids riding Muni, the more security in numbers (e.g. children riding with their friends). That’s important in reducing the culture of driving kids to school.
- It primes and educates kids to ride for life which is a good thing for future adult ridership.
- It lets kids mingle with people of all socioeconomic classes, creating more empathy and opportunity later in life.
- Children don’t earn income, so it is socially just to not charge them.
- People are definitely more willing to pay taxes for the good of children.
At some point, perhaps all fares can be replaced with a progressive taxation system where we all pay a transportation tax dependent on our income (regardless whether we ride), but for that to succeed Muni needs to be a competent excellent system first, so that tax-payers feel their taxes are justified. It may also require >=50% (66% if Prop 13 applies) of the population to ride regularly, for this to be popular and sustainable (Muni ridership today is <30%).
Would it really help get more people onto transit?
While I have no philosophical objection to free Muni, fares are not the most important barrier to ridership: Uber is stealing potential transit riders. If increased taxes to provide free Muni is somehow more palatable than paying for increased service, then so be it, but otherwise it’s a misguided demand. In fact it may become a barrier to these other fixes, as there are usually limits to how much taxes can be raised.
How to Pay for Free Muni
One suggestion: charge for curbside parking spaces and use some of the money to provide free transit neighborhood people. https://www.sfchronicle.com/ opinion/openforum/article/How- to-improve-San-Francisco-one- parking-space-13149747.php? utm_campaign=email-premium& utm_source=CMS%20Sharing% 20Button&utm_medium=social
Comment: “First, we have to ask ourselves how come we give away so many very desirable parking spaces for almost nothing while we charge most people to ride Muni? Next we should ask, how is SFs ‘transit first’ policy served by reserving most neighborhood curb sides for parking only by neighborhood residents, who will get in their cars to get in the way of Muni buses? Shoup may be unrealistic to expect $250 a month for a curbside space. But consider: if about two thirds of the residential priority permits rented for $1,000 a year, then roughly 60,000 times $1,000 equals $60 million, not enough but a good start. Now, we can make permits available to anyone willing to pay and further we use a Shoup tactic of limiting the number of permits available in any neighborhood to 90% percent of the curb spaces, to make spaces really available and worth something. This should at least double the total curbside rent to $120 million a year.
For 2019, which predicts $208 million in fares, this would leave us about $88 million to fund in other ways. This starts to show that when you really implement ‘transit first’, Fareless Muni becomes very practical.