Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Transit Shouldn't Always Be Free

Lately there's been a lot of talk about making transit free. It's been done in some places, like downtown Portland, Oregon. It's been championed by Ted Kheel and Charles Komanoff, in a plan that was recently updated (see this Streetsblog discussion). There's a whole blog devoted to the idea, and the editors of the blog post comments on other blogs.

I have a lot of respect for Komanoff, and the idea isn't stupid by any means. There are probably many situations where it makes sense, such as on buses in Midtown, as suggested by the RPA. However, I've come to the conclusion that free transit is generally not a good idea.

Kheel and Komanoff acknowledge that transit fares can function as congestion pricing to discourage overuse of the system, and because of this their latest proposal includes subway fares during rush hour. Matt Yglesias expands on this idea in a recent blog post.

I've realized, though, that in this issue (as in many issues regarding support for transit), people come to the table with different goals. I can think of a few reasons for supporting free transit, and depending on which one(s) motivate you, you may or may not be interested in alternative methods or discouraged by negative consequences. Free transit has the potential to:

  • Encourage choice of efficient/less-polluting/community-building modes

  • Encourage travel (and therefore commuting, shopping, socializing)

  • Relieve the burden of poverty

  • Reduce the cost of collecting fares

The fare-collection issue is a big one, but the cost of fare collection can be reduced by using proof-of-payment systems. The burden of poverty can be reduced by tax credits, need-based subsidies or other systems (in Curitiba, Jaime Lerner paid people in bus tokens for recyclables brought to collection stations). An effective transportation system encourages travel all by itself; in order to be effective it doesn't have to be free, just affordable.

That leaves us with the first reason: encouraging use of transit because it's more efficient, less polluting and builds better communities (and yes, I know that last one is very loaded). Of course it's not transit itself, but encouraging transit use relative to car use. And to do that you don't need to have free transit, only transit that's a better value than driving.

Free transit is not guaranteed to be a better value than driving. In many places, for a significant segment of the population, transit is practically free anyway. I mean that in the literal sense of "practically": it costs so little relative to some people's incomes that it might as well be free. But it's not a better value because in these places it has non-monetary costs: it requires more waiting and offers less flexible schedules, and often doesn't even go near where a potential user wants to go. So the freeness doesn't make it worthwhile. It may even lead people to believe that transit is worthless.

One major objection that I have to free transit is that it can discourage the development of for-profit transit. How can you make a profit if you don't charge for anything you sell? Or if you're competing with the same thing offered for free by the government? It can be done (I've paid good money to for-profit water suppliers when there was free government water available right nearby), but it's another challenge in a field fraught with challenges.

I'm also a proponent of farebox recovery. When a public transit operator can reduce the subsidies necessary to run a route without driving people away from transit and into cars, then I think they should.

So that's why I think the Kheel Plan still goes too far, and why free-transit absolutism is misguided. Free public transit? In certain places at certain times, yes. Everywhere, all the time, no.


spence said...

I tend to agree with you and have advocated this position before.

However, one reason for free transit that you did not list and which would definitely apply where I live (San Francisco) is to reduce traffic congestion by reducing automobile use, thus making travel more efficient. Street congestion is a real issue here and in many urban areas.

I think you could also make an argument that having transit make up a greater share of presonal travel modes would then lead to greater public support for improving transit, and would help eliminate the two-caste system of 'poor people ride transit out of necessity, while affluent people drive single-occupant cars because they can, even when it's not necessary.' It never fails to amaze me when I find someone who drives a car on their daily commute to/from work when they both live and work in SF and have to park downtown and pay exorbitant fees. Making transit free wouldn't encourage those folks to use it (much) b/c they obviously can already afford it, but making transit better might do so, as would charging folks who choose to drive downtown would discourage car use while also raising money for operating funds and capital improvements for transit.

Charles Komanoff said...

Hi Cap'n. Glad to see you address the Kheel Plan. But you didn't touch on the #1 reason the Plan makes NYC transit buses free: to improve bus service and labor productivity by dispensing with the need to board and swipe at the front, thus doing away with the human gridlock at the bus entrance that the MTA estimates adds 15 percent to bus travel times. This big gain in bus efficiency will boost bus use and help elevate transit buses in the cultural and transport hierarchy.

I too was skeptical of the free-transit mantra when I was invited to join the Kheel Team last year as an analyst. I've been won over, however, by the ways in which free or reduced-fare transit, combined with road pricing, can bring about a more efficient and equitable city.

I invite you to download our spreadsheet, the Balanced Transportation Analyzer, and "test-drive" your own preferred toll and fare regime and compare it with ours. I think you'll find that with the Kheel Plan, free transit isn't a matter of absolutism or moral choice but simply the pragmatic choice to optimize the transport system.

-- Charles Komanoff

Cap'n Transit said...

Thanks for your comment, Charles. I addressed the payment issue, but it was only in one sentence: "The fare-collection issue is a big one, but the cost of fare collection can be reduced by using proof-of-payment systems."

In looking at your spreadsheet, I don't see where you calculate the increased bus efficiency. Is there a place where we can estimate the efficiency improvements we would get by implementing a proof-of-payment system instead?

Russell said...

According to the recent NYCDOT report, the daily traffic volumes at Borough and City boundaries is about four and a half million. Daily vehicles entering the CBD, where most must pay for parking, is about 800,000. Why would these people change to mass transit to save a few mass transit dollars?

Cap'n Transit said...

Sorry, I'm not following you, Russell. Which people?

Charles Komanoff said...

Cap'n -- I dunno what are "proof of payment" systems so I can't answer your question about them. My point in my earlier comment was that eliminating payment will greatly improve bus travel times. The quantification is in the Transit worksheet of the original Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet (Version 1.0), which you can download from here. I'm still working on integrating that element into the updated BTA 1.1 (available from the same link).

If you believe you can achieve similar time savings (15-20%) without eliminating fares, then you should be flogging your idea to the MTA, transit advocates, et al. Are you?

busrider said...

I think the discussion of transit being free is funny. First off transit is not free. What is not paid for via fares, is paid for via taxes or public subsidy. If you really think about it, a fare is nothing more than a double tax. Call it what you want. Technically if you live in a community that has public transit service and you are a taxpayer then you are paying for transit service. Ironically, a taxpayer has to pay again to actually use the service. Why not, get around the whole issue of double taxing via fares and have citizens pay the amount necessary to support the transit system through higher taxes and do away with fare collection altogether? Collecting fares is a carryover from the past when mass transit systems were privately owned and fares were the primary source of revenue. Most mass transit sytems could not survive today if it was not for public subsidy. How many mass transit systems in the United States are privately owned today that don't receive some form of public subsidy? Just because you no longer charge a fare, does not mean the service is free. You are paying for the service, but instead of through the farebox when boarding the bus, you are paying via your taxes. It is nothing more than another mechanism to collect money.

Cap'n Transit said...

Charles, proof-of-payment is fairly well described by the Wikipedia article that's the first link when you google it. Simply put, rather than dipping a card when you board, you either have a monthly/weekly pass, or you have a ticket that you validate (punch) either on the bus or at the station. Agents perform random checks on buses and fine people who don't have proof of payment. The bus driver doesn't have to see your ticket or listen for the right beep from the card reader, which means that people can board all at once, through all the doors, as necessary.

It's true that it costs money to pay the control agents, but it produces the same time savings as free buses, without foregoing the fares.

Cap'n Transit said...

Busrider, every form of transportation has some subsidy. The subsidies received by buses in New Jersey are primarily in the form of the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL). I think that's the best way to subsidize bus service: provide infrastructure that helps the buses to be competitive with private car use, and work to ensure that there's always an alternative that's affordable for everyone.

lee.watkins said...

The farebox represents the lack of political will to adequately fund transit in the first place. This lack of support is also the reason transit isn't as good as it should be.

This becomes self-reinforcing because an under performing farebox transit system will come to be seen in many places through the lens of the two-caste perspective described here. The only way to change the image of pay-transit as something for everyone "free-transit" is to actually fund and support it a manner similar to the "free-ways" are treated now. This too will be self-reinforcing that free-transit is for everyone because it is funded, yet free, to everyone.

Lack of political will to implement something correctly has consequences, both in practically and monetarily.

Cap'n Transit said...

"The only way to change the image of pay-transit as something for everyone 'free-transit' is to actually fund and support it a manner similar to the 'free-ways' are treated now."

I disagree that it's the only way, Lee. As I've said before, it's about relative value, and the other way to increase the relative value of something is to decrease the relative value of something else. It's time to charge drivers for some of the "negative externalities" of driving: pollution, waste, carnage, obesity, social disconnection - all of which are currently over-subsidized by the government. To the extent we can do that, transit starts to look like a better deal.

BruceMcF said...

"It's time to charge drivers for some of the "negative externalities" of driving: pollution, waste, carnage, obesity, social disconnection - all of which are currently over-subsidized by the government. To the extent we can do that, transit starts to look like a better deal."

It most certainly is, but when I looked at the economic benefits of a gas tax that is redistributed as a monthly lump sum social dividend over at the Big Bad Orange, the loudest, most insistent response was, "You Can't Do That, Its Political Suicide".

Cap'n Transit said...

It's a good point, but what most politicians mean when they say "political suicide" is actually "It would take courage that I don't have, because it might actually delay my ambitions or cost me my cozy machine-supported sinecure."

Here's a story about the kind of political courage we need to restore fairness to transportation pricing..

Louis said...

Cap'n Transit, for whatever reason you completely ignore the psychological barrier of fare payment. Having ridden free transit in Hasselt, Belgium, and seen the incredible use of it, even in a relatively wealthy city in Flanders, it is obvious that free transit garners a much larger base than transit with a nominal fee. The difference between riding a bus for 5 cents and riding a bus for free is a lot more than 5 cents, wouldn't you agree?

A significant reason people don't board buses or ride streetcars is that they don't understand exactly how to. There is a fear of the farebox, how to use it, how much it will cost. Does it cost the same as last year? Does it cost the same to ride a NJ Transit bus as a NYCT bus, or a Boston bus? Or the Metro in DC? It is unecessary complexity, and greatly discourages occasional and first-time riders.

Proof of payment still requires credit cards or exact change in NYC. It is unfeasible in crush load situations on buses, and still requires significant money to maintain machines and enforcement.

Fares are unwelcoming by design, and this has to be accounted for.