Abolish Transit Fares


Abolish Transit Fares. Everyone stands to gain.

Transit Riders will enjoy a heavier wallet. A few extra bucks every day to spend as they choose, not as they must. Service on non-rapid routes will speed up because bus drivers will no longer have to act as cashiers and security guards.

Drivers, especially suburban commuters, will see clearer roads and lighter traffic in the city as folks skip gas prices, parking fees, and parking hassles. Some may even be swayed to ditch their car completely, a huge financial burden removed.

Taxpayers will see the roads they pay for will suffer less wear, demanding less costly maintenance, as people switch trips to the, now free, transit system. As auto traffic swaps to transit, demand for expensive projects like the 494-35W interchange (The cost of which could replace 4 years of transit fares.) or the $120m RiverCenter parking lot (1 year of transit fares.) will vanish.  Freeing more money in the budget and more space for people to live, work and play in their own city.

People experiencing homelessness using the transit system for shelter will have less hostile interactions with police hassling them for fares, allowing those police resources to be repurposed into a more effective means of assisting those people.

Uber and Lyft will suffer, but it’s hard to feel guilty about that.

Minnesota needs to encourage people to make choices that benefit the people around them. With more folks sharing transportation our air will be cleaner, our roads safer, and our wallets fatter.

29 thoughts on “Abolish Transit Fares

  1. Melissa WenzelMelissa Wenzel

    I’ve heard of other countries doing this (small South American ones, my sustainable transit notes are at home so I can’t look up which one). Have you seen any city, region, state, or other country do this? I love the idea but can’t help but think the outcomes are more complex than you state (but I have no argument so maybe it’s not)

  2. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    I do think the argument should be emphasized that drivers around the metro should celebrate every time someone else chooses to ride the bus.

    “Don’t like traffic? Get your neighbor on the bus!”

  3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I think Paris is considering free transit.

    I’m with Melissa on wondering about the complexities that are not obvious. Although the most obvious one for anything free is overconsumption. Would free fares encourage unnecessary trips (what does that mean) and overtax the system?

    But on the surface, it makes some sense. As a policy matter, we’d like transit to be everyone first choice (which it mostly never is), so why not align the financial incentives that way and make transit that much marginally more competitive with other choices?

    1. Justin D

      I have pretty good transit around my home but I’d still choose to bike or walk for almost every trip. Cost of transit never enters the picture for me since it’s not that big of an expense in my budget. I think eliminating fares would really help people with lower incomes however.

  4. Cobo R

    I kinda like this in theory but there would need to be some limits and controls.. I don’t think anyone wants the buses and trains to become shelters where people hang out all day.

    1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      Oh I do. I want them to be free shelters because people deserve a place to exist safely. I reckon once we make the buses free and safe that’ll force us to address our existing homelessness problem more seriously! The solution to one problem demands the solution to the next!

      1. Pine SalicaPine Salica

        This reminds me that I have a post to write about public health crises in the forms of ambulances called to the trains causing train delays – at what point does the failing health care system become something metro transit has an interest in solving?

      2. Cobo R

        I agree that we need to help people in need,

        But that scenario is overly optimistic thinking. In reality all it will do is lower the perception of public transit even further and cause an even larger percentage of the population to avoid using it. Which will lower overall usage rates making funding even harder to get.

  5. mplsmatt

    Metro Transit does offer free rides daily downtown (the 10 & 18, I believe) and there are also the special occasion free rides like on St. Patrick’s Day or the passes made available during Northern Spark. I’d imagine there’s valuable experience there to leverage if Metro Transit was interested in expanding fare-free service.

  6. Jake W


    This article lays out some interesting refutations of this concept. Many people who would otherwise walk or bike would then start using transit whereas the car dependent people are less affected by minute price changes and thus such a policy wouldn’t have much pull on them.

    Overall, this policy has shown very mixed results at the cost of millions of dollars in lost fares. I like the idea in concept but I would hope we could put those would be waived fees funds to better use, making the streets more walkable.

    1. Monte Castleman

      As a transit pass is already vastly cheaper than driving, I think most people that have cars and don’t ride the bus make that choice because they can’t ride a bus to where they’re going or with what they’re hauling, or they don’t want to ride a bus because it’s a bus, not that they make that choice because there’s a fare involved vs “free”.

    2. Monte Castleman

      Also, if we let the buses become de-facto homeless shelters or venues for panhandling and boisterous behavior (because it costs nothing to get on so if you get kicked off it’s no loss and you can just board another one), to put it bluntly that’s not going to encourage people that have a choice to ride them.

      1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

        What if in the reality where we abolish transit fares we also address homelessness?

        1. Eric Ecklund

          In a perfect world we would, but in reality the cities, state. and federal governments would rather have the status quo of pretending like they’re doing something to combat homelessness when in reality we spend a certain amount on necessities (infrastructure, education, healthcare, etc.) but waste the rest (which is in my opinion on tax cuts for the wealthy, sports stadiums, wars, etc.).

  7. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    It would be really nice to not have to do the math: “I have an interview that I need to take the train to, but I don’t know how long it’ll take, so that’s either one fare or two if I can’t transfer back home, and if I want to go to the grocery store tomorrow… is the all day pass 24 hours or 1 calendar day??”

    2.50 is too much by tenfold, make it a quarter or free (both have compelling points)

  8. Daniel Hartigkingledion

    The primary problem with cars is that we unfairly subsidize them to the tunes of tens to hundreds of millions by providing state sponsored roads at no cost to the users of the roads; and that employers provide (often free) parking as an employment benefit.

    Is it really the best way to solve distorted transportation economics with more distorted transportation economics? Isn’t a better fantasy world the one were we remove all automobile subsidies and see how transit economics and car economics compete?

  9. Frank Phalen

    I’m surprised no one brought this up, which makes me suspect that I have become a Certified Old Guy. Back in the early or mid 70’s, the MTC said youth could ride for free. My old man (he’s long been Certified Old) had a friend who drove for MTC. Kids would take the bus for no reason other than it was free and they were looking for something to do. If they got kicked off for screwing around, they just hopped on the next bus. The free rides didn’t last too long.

    I think it was a Cycles For Change (could be wrong on that, maybe it was a similar organization) who said they at one time gave bikes to those who wanted them. But the found it better when everyone has some skin in the game, so they began to require some volunteer hours before getting a bike.

    Idealism is great, but humans often fall short of ideal.

    1. GlowBoy

      It’s true that many cities that used to have fare-free downtown areas (including Portland, where I moved from) have abandoned the concept, mostly because of the perception that a lot of people were using the system as shelter or a place to sleep rather than for transportation.

      I would agree that in an ideal world we’d make more effort to address the root causes of severe poverty and homelessness.

      Meanwhile, maybe the solution is not to make it free, but to drastically reduce the cost. Make it free for kids under 12, senior citizens and the disabled, and a dollar for everyone else. That would serve to disincent people from using the system if they really aren’t using it to get somewhere, but would reduce the burden on lower-income users.

      I’m probably higher income than most MT riders (having come from Oregon where transportation use is less income-stratified, I’m still stunned that nearly everyone I know here perceives the bus as being for poor people, and avoids riding the bus), but even I will choose to walk or bike instead of taking the bus if I’m not going that far. Two bucks isn’t a lot to me, but it isn’t nothing either.

  10. Jordan Backstrom

    I briefly lived in Missoula, Montana and was very pleasantly surprised that their bus system is completely Zero-Fare. I lived on one of Missoula’s high frequency (every 15 minute) routes and it was just so awesome to be able to hop on and off as needed.

    While ridership didn’t seem as high as I would have guessed given that it’s free, it still seemed much more utilized than other cities in the mountain west I’ve been to. They cobbled together various funding sources and are committed to providing free transit service through at least 2020.


  11. GlowBoy

    I’ve spent a lot of time on Whidbey Island in Washington state, which is served by fare-free Island Transit. There’s one route that runs most of the the length of Whidbey (longest island in the 48 states) plus several side routes that connect other significant population centers, and additional routes on nearby Camano Island.

    Despite service cutbacks due to a financial management scandal a couple years ago, Island Transit does amazingly well for a county with less than 100,000 residents. The system is well-used, and free of fares except for a couple commuter routes that leave the county. I’ve always been particularly impressed with how many teenagers ride it to get around, instead being forced into using cars at an age where most people are not really ready to drive.

    1. GlowBoy

      I should add: the reason Island Transit has no fares is that they studied the matter years ago, and concluded the receipts wouldn’t be sufficient to justify the cost.

  12. GlowBoy

    I have an even more radical idea to make public transit more appealing to people who currently drive: MAKE THE SEATS BIGGER! (I am not a large person, by the way.)

    C’mon, admit it: when you get on the bus, the first thing you look for is an open seat that’s not next to anyone. And if you don’t find one, you try to figure out who you’re going to be least uncomfortable bumping shoulders or elbows with. Often this means the smallest person, or whoever isn’t manspreading. Because you ARE going to be literally touching each other. Same is true on a train.

    Even subcompact cars are big enough that two people can sit side-by-side without touching. Why do we still try to cram 4 people across in buses and trains that really aren’t wide enough? NO ONE wants to sit that close to a stranger.

    I know we’re trying to make maximum use of limited resources on our transit systems, but it’s not like we’re riding on airplanes here, trying to stuff as many people as possible in an aerodynamic aluminum tube.

    I don’t mean more legroom necessarily, but more width. We can’t make transit vehicles wider, so I really think we ought to think about making the seats 3-across instead of 4-across, as Amtrak does on its Business Class trains. Minnesotans may not be familiar with these because they’re not offered on the Empire Builder, but I’ve ridden business class on the Cascades a number of times between Portland and Seattle. And it’s awesome.

    On one side of the aisle you have two seats, and on the other side you have one seat. If you’re traveling by yourself, you have a good chance of getting a seat by yourself. And if you don’t, or you’re in a couple or family and don’t mind sitting next to each other, you still get a seat that’s 33% wider, with plenty of room for most people’s elbows.

    This does of course reduce bus capacity, but if we’re also trying to improve service levels with increased frequency and the improved transfers that result from that, it may not matter as much. And at peak times when the buses reach full seating capacity, the aisles will still accommodate just as many people standing.

    I know this idea might seem incredibly out-there, but I think we need to make more transit inviting to a broader spectrum users – in all sorts of ways – if it’s going to be relevant in the transportation future.

  13. Carol Becker


    Other places have tried this. The link above is a summary of what they found. Denver tried it in the late 1970’s and had a 36% increase in transit ridership. This might sound huge but remember, transit is only about 5% of trips in the region. It does show the extent of what you can do with fare changes though. When people talk about needing more transit, there is only a limited number of trips that transit works for. By and large, people are making rational choices about their travel. Those that can use transit by and large do. It makes gaining new ridership hard without doing something radically different like a light rail line.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Please provide a source for transit being 5% of trips. Which is wrong. Which you’ve been told before, yet you repeat, despite having reason to know it’s wrong.

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