This blog was recently featured as "Blog of the Week" on the Free Public Transit Blog. I do believe in access for all, meaning that we cannot have equal opportunity until we all have equal access to housing, jobs and shopping, regardless of whether we can afford the favored transportation mode of the moment. However, I don't think we have any collective obligation to make it comfortable. And while I'm very honored to be featured, I'm not by any means convinced that all public transit should be free.
In addition to the fairness and equal opportunity arguments, free public transit advocates argue that there is a cost to fare collection itself, some of which is paid by the transit operator in the form of security, and some by the rider in the form of delays. I feel that most of this cost can be eliminated with a well-run proof-of-payment system, but that's not the main point of this post.
The main argument is that making transit free will entice drivers to shift to transit, which is good for our goals, including combating pollution, resource depletion, carnage and sprawl. One proponent, Vancouver resident Dave Olsen, points to something called "the Simpson-Curtain rule", which specifies that "Revenue for any system drops when ridership dips or when fares are increased." So if revenue goes down when fares are increased, then if fares are zero, revenue must be infinite!
Well, not really, but Olsen claims that free transit will get more and more people to stop driving, until we've all turned our cars into planters and hopped on the bus. To support this, he took a visit to Whidbey Island, Washington and then wrote a summary of the fare-free buses in Hasselt, Belgium (it's not clear whether he actually went there - after all, US Airways is not fare-free). In both places, transit is free, ridership is booming, and everyone is happy. The rest of his series involves mostly local Vancouver politics and arguments for eliminating fares there, and can be found here.
I was intrigued by this story, and as I suspected, things are actually quite different, and a bit more complicated, than Olsen portrays them. Stay tuned for more on that.