Who's afraid of free transit?

December 20, 2022

I’m in the San Francisco Chronicle this week arguing for more investment in Muni, to fund increased service and pilot fare-free rides.

To briefly summarize my op-ed: I argue that while Slow Streets, the JFK Promenade, and the weekend use of the Great Highway as a car-free Great Highway Park represent progress worth celebrating, San Francisco is still moving in the wrong direction overall when it comes to transportation. Biking is up a little. (Parents biking kids to school on cargo bikes seems to have exploded in popularity.) But the share of car trips has seen a greater increase than that of bike trips, and public transit usage has fallen in the latest SFMTA survey. The missing element is full-throated political support—including an ambitious vision and strong funding—for Muni, which has failed to fully restore prepandemic service (exacerbating existing deficiencies on the west side), and which makes it hard to fill up your Clipper card if you travel among outlying neighborhoods and aren’t going downtown every day.

I wrote my op-ed for a general audience. Here’s a bonus post for transit nerds, wonks, and urbanists.

There’s a certain element in the urbanist community that’s afraid of free fares, and I think it’s important for transit advocates to move past this fear. Public transit is a public service, not a business. It’s misguided to treat it like a business, as free-fare skeptics do when they assert that more money spent on replacing fare revenue means less money spent on running more transit vehicles and building transit infrastructure. That’s not how the political process works. As Yonah Freemark points out, there’s:

In Washington, DC’s case, the council’s proposal for fare-free buses comes from general funds of the DC government that were not otherwise earmarked for transit. There’s no either-or dilemma here. So anyone who’s attacking DC’s effort—which also includes increased 24/7 service for night-shift workers—is behaving like an ideologue, not a transit advocate.

This sort of either-or dilemma is never applied to car infrastructure. Imagine if, when a driver demanded free parking, the other members of their automobile club chewed them out: “What are you doing? Without our parking fees, they’re going to cut the budget for highway building!” The car gets whatever it wants, freeways and free parking both, because it’s taken seriously as the way the vast majority of voters in our democracy, with the exception of the urban cores of certain cities1, get around.

The entire challenge is for public transportation to be equally as popular as personal cars and taken equally seriously. It should be obvious that increasing ridership serves this goal, and that’s what going fare-free has done in, for example, Boston, Denver, Richmond, Va., and two of three Chinese cities that tried it.2

In Muni’s case, in the last fiscal year before the Covid-19 pandemic, only 18% of SFMTA’s revenue came from fares.3 While replacing this revenue is not trivial, it’s a relatively small lift compared to what it will already cost to increase levels of service to what San Francisco needs. We should do both.

Fares discourage the use of transit, even among people who can easily afford them. The experience of fumbling for small bills and change while impatient bus riders glare at you: not pleasant! Tapping a stored-value card like Clipper is much better, but that assumes you have one and have it filled. If you never got one, or haven’t ridden in a while and aren’t sure if it has value or if the bus would reject you, then the easiest thing is to just keep driving.

Then there’s the psychological hit that comes from paying at the point of service. It makes a transit ride feel like something you want to avoid to save money, because the charge is right up front and in your face in a way that using a little gas (or battery power) is not.

And while riding transit every day is almost always cheaper than the total cost of owning a car, that rationale goes out the window once you have a car, which most U.S. households currently do, if only for the occasional out-of-town trip or emergency. Last month, when I spent an afternoon with the striking University of California workers’ picket line, I heard one worker at UCSF Mission Bay break down how commuting every day from his Albany home costs $140 a month in gas and tolls, or $280 a month in transit fares. He joined his fellow workers in asking the UC to make the sustainable choice the easy choice. (And it looks like they will: under a tentative agreement, UC will now provide free public transit passes. Generalize this to all employers—after all, all employers benefit from the increased labor pool access that transit gives them—and you’ve basically got free public transit, funded by a progressive tax.)

Like libraries, public schools, most city parks, and firefighting services, transit is a public service that works better without user fees as a barrier. Fares are a legacy of transit’s history as a descendant of for-profit streetcar companies. It’s time to shed that encumbrance. Yes, couple free transit with improved/expanded transit, and make sure a specific proposal is well thought out before supporting it. But knee-jerk, ideological opposition to going fare-free should be left in the past.

Freeways and curb parking spots aren’t free to build and maintain; they’re very expensive to build and maintain. If they can be free and we consider that routine and unremarkable, then so can transit.

P.S.: New York’s great new Fix the MTA campaign calls for both increased bus and subway frequency and making the bus free. I didn’t get to mention it in my op-ed because the campaign dropped after I submitted, but that’s exactly the kind of “both-and” thinking that transit needs.

See also:

  1. And even then, not their elites. Mayors, supervisors/city councilmembers, and rich power players in politics tend to stick to their SUVs even when they live in Manhattan or on Slow Streets in San Francisco. 

  2. A 2008 study done for then–San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom estimated free Muni would increase ridership by 48%

  3. Per the FY18-19 data point in graphic 2 of “Fiscal Years 2021-2022 Budget: Revenue, Expenditures and Future Projections,” March 27, 2020. 

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