Free Bus Service Is the Hot New Thing in Transit

Olympia, Washington, is the latest city to roll out a fare-free bus system, with traffic congestion, equity, and the climate in mind.

An intercity transit bus in Olympia

Credit: Intercity Transit

Bus riders in Washington State’s capital can board with their heads up—no more digging around in bags or pockets for coins. The city of Olympia now offers free bus rides, for everyone. The result is faster service (passengers simply get on and take a seat), more money in the pockets of commuters, and, one hopes, a pathway to cleaner air.

It’s no surprise that the program has been popular. “Even without much outreach so far, bus operators are seeing a lot of new faces, which is very encouraging,” says Ann Freeman-Manzanares, general manager of Intercity Transit, Olympia’s bus service. The city has yet to roll out advertising about the free bus program because it was fast-tracked to begin right after the city voted for a sales tax hike in November to support various transit improvements.

Reducing pollution and rush-hour congestion were the primary goals behind Olympia’s move—but there were other local needs officials hoped to satisfy too. In public forums leading up to the decision, community members emphasized that “access and equity were important so we could ensure that our low-income, elderly, and disabled population could get where they needed to go,” Freeman-Manzanares says. Zero-fare addressed those needs, she says.

The city is hoping the program entices more regular car commuters to make the switch to public transit too. “We heard a lot from the community about removing psychological barriers to ridership,” Freeman-Manzanares says. “People might have had the money to pay, but they didn’t carry cash or they didn’t know how to board and pay, and that was a little embarrassing as an adult—but if they could just hop on the bus, they would.”

Ann Freeman-Manzanares, Intercity Transit’s general manager
Credit: Intercity Transit

More and more cities are prioritizing transportation access as a way to fight both climate change and income inequality. And transit-dependent city dwellers have come to expect reliable service as a basic right, just as drivers expect pothole-free streets and efficient snow removal. “Sprawling land use development and highway-focused transportation investment priorities have for decades contributed to polluting and exclusionary transportation systems in American cities,” says Zak Accuardi, technical advisor on transportation for NRDC. “Cities and regions investing in high-quality, affordable public transit are actively working to counteract these long-term trends.”

But is offering free bus service truly sustainable over the long term, and does it succeed in getting people out of their cars? The jury’s still out on both questions—and the handful of American cities testing the tactic seem to view it as an experiment. Gratis rides on three routes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, took effect in September and will remain in place for at least two years; an express bus that travels between Provo and Orem, Utah, began offering free rides in 2018 and will continue to do so through 2021; and a free bus program in Missoula, Montana, has been operating since 2015. It is set to end this year, though the city is looking to extend it as part of a suite of programs to minimize air pollution. Like the program in Missoula, the plan in Olympia has been greenlighted for five years.

Intercity Transit Class Pass riders
Credit: Intercity Transit

Outside the United States, free transit is already the norm in small European cities in France, Poland, and Estonia. Luxembourg is ready to make all of its public transit free by the end of this month, and Germany may adopt a similar plan, in part a response to EU fines over air pollution.

None of these cities have yet proved that offering free rides actually gets people out of their cars and reduces emissions. (The New York Times pointed to research showing that zero-fare programs in Denver and Austin increased ridership only among people without cars; however, that study was conducted in 2012, before the rise of the ride-hailing services now vexing transit officials nationwide.) Meanwhile, ridership increases remain an important goal for the cities trying out the free-fare policy. In Missoula, between January 2015 and June 2017, the combination of the zero-fare program and new, high-speed routes boosted ridership by 70 percent, and in Lawrence there’s been a 24 percent increase in bus riders so far.

Intercity Transit “I Love Transit” campaign
Credit: Intercity Transit

While Olympia transit officials wait to see the impact of their zero-fare program, they can already point to one metric of success: more room in the budgets of local colleges and social service organizations that previously allocated funds to purchase bus passes for their students and clients. “South Puget Sound Community College is putting the $200,000 they would have spent on transit toward their student success campaign, which provides food, housing, and child care to students,” Freeman-Manzanares says. She adds that she’s tracking how other organizations in the city will be spending the money they had budgeted for bus transportation.

Although free rides are worth testing out in small cities, they may not be right for all, and bigger cities may be particularly disadvantaged by the loss of revenue, says Accuardi. (That didn’t stop the Boston Globe’s editorial page from floating the idea, however.) Larger cities get a bigger percentage of their transit system’s operating budgets from charging passengers; for instance, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York (MTA) gets 38 percent of its budget— more than $6 billion—from fare-box revenue. That would be difficult to make up with community funds.

But Olympia was getting only 2 percent of its operating budget from fares. Just $225,000 covered what was lost in fare payments in Lawrence. And it’s worth noting that collecting fares costs money, too. Freeman-Manzanares studied the costs of Olympia’s former system, analyzing the use of bus drivers’ time collecting fares, the administration costs for bus pass sales and management, and the upkeep to maintain the physical fare boxes. Adding up all these costs, officials found that fare collection was more expensive than Intercity Transit had realized.

That’s not to say that free service is free to run: Cities are compensating for the loss of fares in a variety of ways. Lawrence had the $225,000 in reserves. In Missoula, local businesses stepped up to provide funding. In Provo, the fare is covered through a Federal Highway Administration Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant.

But for cities trying to balance tight budgets, Accuardi warns that making bus rides free may not be worthwhile if it comes at the cost of improving or expanding service, lest they lose even more passengers. “Cities and transit agencies should start by asking, how do you get more people access to more jobs, education, and health-care opportunities? How do you make transit more affordable for those low-income communities that rely on it?” he says. For some places, it may make more sense to develop a low-income reduced-fare program. TriMet in Portland, Oregon, does this, as do several agencies in Los Angeles and New York’s MTA, he notes. This makes the fare structure more progressive and potentially more equitable. Regardless, Accuardi says, the best choice will always be the one that “makes transit the most useful and affordable to the most people.” Free fares are just one of many tools cities can test toward that end.

In fact, like Missoula, Olympia is testing several tactics at once, increasing service as well as going free-fare. Buses now run 51 percent more often, and the city has hired 130 more workers to support its new transit investment, says Freeman-Manzanares. But it will take time to see if these tactics pay off—for Olympians, their traffic conditions, and the climate, too.

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