Free Public Transit Is Not a Climate Policy

This is copied from the Bloomberg Press

Dropping the farebox on buses and trains can boost ridership and ease inequality. But the environmental case for making transit free is less clear.

Throughout last February, the regional Utah Transit Authority paused fare collection. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall suggested that this “Fare Free February” would accomplish two goals at once: commemorating the 20th anniversary of Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics while also reducing emissions in a region where air quality has been a longstanding concern.

A few weeks ago UTA issued a report that evaluated the month-long pilot. Average ridership rose sharply compared to January: 16.2% during weekdays and 58.1% and 32.5% during Saturdays and Sundays, respectively. “Far more people will take transit when cost is not a barrier,” Mayor Mendenhall tweeted as she shared the report. “I’m so excited about the possibilities this presents for our air quality.”

UTA is not the only U.S. transit agency to experiment with fare-free transit recently; riders can currently board the bus for free in Richmond and Alexandria, Virginia; Kansas City, Missouri; and Lawrence and Haverhill, Massachusetts, as well as on certain Boston routes. Local boosters generally cite goals of addressing inequality, but several, like Mendenhall, have also stressed the climate benefits of making transit free.

But those claims are shaky at best. After more than a decade of transit agencies around the world experimenting with free trips, it’s far from clear that dropping fares delivers an environmental upside.

It boils down to this: If fare-free transit doesn’t substantially reduce driving, it’s not mitigating emissions or slowing climate change. And all signs suggest that it doesn’t.

It’s easy to understand why one might think otherwise. Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the U.S., mostly from motor vehicles. Transit trips are far less polluting than driving; a study last year from the National Academies of Sciences found that a person riding transit instead of driving saves the equivalent of 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. In Utah, transit trips grew considerably after UTA stopped charging fares, as they have during fare-free pilots elsewhere.

In its report, UTA estimated that Fare-Free February reduced pollution emissions by 68 tons, based on an assumption that 47% of the new transit riders would have otherwise driven. That figure relies on a 2019 survey, which found that 47% of UTA riders were so-called “choice” riders who had access to a car. But trips during Free Fare February were likely made by different riders than in 2019, when fares were charged. Data from other fare-free transit programs suggests that making travel free enticed those who, due to limited income, would have otherwise walked, rode a bike or foregone the trip entirely. Such shifts would increase net emissions, not lower them. (UTA declined a request for comment.)

Providing enhanced mobility for those of limited means is societally valuable — but it doesn’t reduce emissions. To accomplish that, fare-free transit must win over a significant number of people who would otherwise have driven. And that’s a trickier proposition. Car owners tend to be wealthier than the general public, and their access to a private vehicle makes them less willing to tolerate bus transfers, wait times, or slow journeys. Especially in a region lacking frequent and fast bus service (UTA buses arrive every 15 minutes on many routes), removing a $2.50 fare seems unlikely to convince many drivers to leave their keys at home.

To support this hypothesis, we can look to Europe, where several cities adopted fare-free transit years ago — without finding evidence of subsequent mode shift from driving.

Residents of the Estonian capital of Talinn have been able to ride public transportation for free since 2013. Last year Estonia’s national auditor issued its assessment of that policy: It had induced many additional transit rides, but it failed to reduce car journeys. Dunkirk, France, and Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, have adopted free transit as well.

“There’s no evidence at all that cities introducing fare-free public transport have seen their car traffic reduced,” said Mohamed Mezghani, the secretary-general of the International Association of Public Transport, which has published a policy brief on the topic. “Most of the [new] people taking public transport used to walk.”

Public transportation is a powerful tool to reduce transportation emissions — it’s just that dropping fares isn’t the right approach.

The story was similar in Santiago, Chile, where researchers randomly assigned free two-week transit passes to residents. Those receiving the free passes took 12% more trips overall, but they did not drive less.

If free public transportation failed to attract drivers in relatively transit-rich Europe and Santiago, there’s little reason to think it would fare better (pun intended) in the U.S., where scant transit service acts as a deterrent. An extensive 2012 study by the National Academies of Sciences noted that fare-free experiments undertaken in Denver (1978-9) and Austin (1989-90) failed to reduce driving; most new trips were taken by those lacking access to a car.

An absence of evidence hasn’t prevented many U.S. advocates of fare-free transit from touting its climate upside. “The environmental benefits of fare-free service are significant,” a Montgomery County, Maryland, councilmember wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “The fare-free model can shift people away from cars and onto transit,” a climate advocate wrote in the Bay Area’s Press-Democrat in an editorial promoting cutting fares on Sonoma County Transit buses. The Barr Foundation published a post promoting free transit as part of a “climate-friendly future.”

Perhaps the most prominent U.S. booster for free transit is Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who campaigned for the post last year with a promise to “Free the T” to address both climate change and income inequality. Three MBTA bus routes went fare-free last August, and data showed that ridership on the 28 line rose 38%. (Other Boston bus routes, where fares were still collected, also saw increases, but smaller ones.) A survey of riders indicated that 15% of riders were new — but the fare-free rides replaced more biking and walking trips (8%) than driving (5%).

A two-year program in Boston makes MBTA bus lines 23, 28, and 29 free.

Photographer: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

To be sure, emissions reduction is usually not the only — or even the most important — justification cited for fare-free transit; equity benefits are usually mentioned first. Because transit riders typically have lower incomes than drivers, reducing their expenditures represents a progressive redistribution of wealth.

Even so, many transit advocates remain skeptical of equity arguments for fare-free transit. The nonprofit advocacy group Transit Center found that low-income and new riders would prefer more frequent and reliable service to a reduction in fares.

That said, the group’s executive director, David Bragdon, does agree with fare-free advocates that public transportation is a powerful tool to reduce transportation emissions — it’s just that dropping fares isn’t the right approach. “If you take bad American transit that costs $1.50 and make that bad service free, that won’t move the needle enough to make a climate impact.”

Bragdon dismissed fare-free transit as “a distraction from doing the things that we need to do” — like converting general traffic lanes for bus rapid transit and generally expanding transit service to make it more readily available. “The key to getting people out of automobiles is providing abundant, frequent service around the clock,” he said.

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Another way to boost transit would be to remove longstanding subsidies for urban driving. Cities could implement decongestion pricing that forces drivers to pay for the slowdowns they impose on other road users. Or cities could start charging a market price for residential parking permits. Boston, for instance, has no fee to obtain one, even for a person’s third or fourth vehicle left overnight on public streets. But local officials know that imposing new costs on drivers invites a voter backlash. (As a Boston councilmember, Mayor Wu tried unsuccessfully to introduce a fee for residential parking permits.)

There is a lesson here: Serious efforts to entice drivers to become transit riders won’t come cheap; local leaders must allocate significant dollars and political capital toward expanding transit service and curtailing the preferential treatment of cars.

Fare-free transit may look like a tantalizing shortcut to decarbonize urban transportation. But that image is illusory. In mode shift as in life, you get what you pay for.

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