Free Transit or Better Service?

Metro Transit Bus

Recently, Vancouver-based planning rockstar Brent Toderian started a conversation on Twitter about two approaches to increasing public transit use: free fares or better service and connections.

I’m a long-time fan of free public transit, so it pained me to see many people siding with better service/connections. Obviously, I’m in favor of better service, too, but I tend to come down on the pricing side because I see transit as part of the commons.

One transit planner said,

Recent TransLink figures suggest adding service is the most important measure, with 6% ridership growth (and a modest fare increase) in recent years, vs flat for many years before when service and fares were stable. Capacity deficit from close to 10 years of underinvestment.

I would point out that “fares were stable” does not equal “free” or “much lower cost,” so that comparison doesn’t seem valid in this discussion.

Many people in the discussion also added that the better service and connections approach should be combined with reduced-fare programs for low-income people and/or free service for people under 18. As Toderian, put it,

To be clear, I think free transit for young people is a good idea … but the question I’m pondering is whether it’s a BETTER idea than spending that $ on service improvements. Obviously best case is to do both, but our region’s been paralyzed in the past waiting for “new money.”

Portland-based public transit consultant Jarrett Walker wrote:

Low income fares may be key to addressing the climate emergency. Forcing low income people to buy cars makes them poorer, and they tend to drive older cars that emit more. Much more effective on climate than discounting non-low income seniors and youth!

One comment that I can’t find said something like this:

Making fares free benefits only the people who currently ride and won’t encourage others to adopt transit as their main mode.

However, no evidence was given, if I remember correctly.

Think Bigger

In general, the discussion Toderian initiated assumes you can only have one of the two options. I would argue with that premise in a world where climate change is bearing down on us.

If transit was free, increased use would create a large body of people who push for better service and connections, while better service with the same or higher fares would most likely not result in the reverse. Someone has to pay for that — of course, it isn’t “free” — but that’s a policy choice.

And I would also point out that none of the conversation took into consideration the cost of collecting fares in the first place. Fare boxes, cash-handling, and IT systems to run a prepaid card system are all costs that wouldn’t need to exist in a free-transit world. Eliminate them and the cost of transit goes down, not up.

Work With the Brain’s Biases

Everyone agrees the goal is to decrease carbon use by increasing transit use, which means getting people out of cars.

One thing that wasn’t taken into consideration in the discussion was perceived financial cost of those two choices. People who own cars know the cars cost them money, but it’s all sunk cost, so using the car for any particular trip seems to be free. Paying for gas is the closest that car drivers come to an immediate cost, and even that’s not usually directly related to any particular trip.

This is similar to the psychology of using a credit card vs. paying cash. It’s well known that people spend more in stores when they use credit cards; that’s why stores are willing, if not happy, to pay the processing fees.

Making the decision to pay for transit with each ride, as opposed to driving a car, is a similar decision. Each time I pay to get on the bus or train, I’m aware of the cost. Each time I drive my car, I’m not. I’m a bit less aware of the cost when I use a GoTo card — which is a prepaid debit card, similar to filling your gas tank — but, at least for me, it still feels like I’m paying for something right that moment when I get on a train or bus. (For instance, I am conscious of the transfer window and try to fit my return trip within it… if I wasn’t aware of the cost, would I be doing that?)

Transit has to be cheaper than driving a car (I’d say much cheaper… if not free) because most of the cost of driving is forgotten by the driver AND the vast majority of transit — even with improved service and connections — will probably never be more convenient than driving.*

One More Response

In a separate argument in the Toderian thread, Transport Action British Columbia commented,

According to the Tallinn experience [Tallin, Estonia, has free public transit], ridership gain allowed by free transit has been done mainly at the expense of active mode (walking/cycling), not so much driving… quite the contrary: it could encourage urban sprawl.

I find it hard to believe free transit would lead to sprawl as I understand it. There’s still the need for walkability to reach boarding points, after all. Possibly what they call “sprawl” in Europe would be what we call “density” in the U.S.? (hah).

What do the readers of think of this discussion? If you have to choose, would you go with better service and connections or free fares? Better service with some free or reduced fares? Other options?

  • The only thing that can make driving less convenient is extreme difficulty or cost in parking. I wonder if there’s any research on where the break points are for decision-making on mode? Increasing the cost of driving through congestion pricing, or making the cost more immediate in some other way, is an option.


Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.

43 thoughts on “Free Transit or Better Service?

  1. jf

    If we assume that low-income people have free passes already, I would prefer increased service. There’s an idea about people mistreating “free” public goods vs respecting something they had to pay for. I don’t know if that’s just an antisocial meme that got planted into my head though, I’d like to see good studies on that, especially for things like public transit or bike shares.

    The additional overhead of collecting fares & enforcement, even just the farebox signage alone, might be enough to convince me that it should be free anyways.

    1. Pine SalicaPine Salica

      They don’t. The low income program lowers your fare to $1. Not free! Also it’s massively inconvenient to apply, you have to go in person during a subset of business hours.

  2. Ryan

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and have dug up a few numbers. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math.

    Metro Transit’s total revenue in 2017 was $393 Million, and about 8.4% of that came from fare collection, so $33,012,000 [1]. If we made all bus and train service free, we’d need to make up 33 million somewhere else.

    According to MNDot, each cent of gas tax results in about 30 million dollars in annual revenue[2]. Taxing drivers in greater MN to pay for a metro-only benefit might be a hard sell, but as it so happens, the 7-county metro accounts for 48% of minnesota’s vehicle miles traveled [3].

    Let’s round up a whole whopping cent to account for reduced driving and increased transit usage (Woo!) and call it a 3 cent gas tax increase in the Metro to abolish fares. We get increased usage, better service (no need to wait for others to pay), no more maintenance cost of fare boxes, and we can set all the people who currently work in fare collection and enforcement to a more noble purpose. To me, this seems like a slam dunk.

    (I’ve had spam filter trouble with links in comments, so references will be in a reply)

      1. Kevin

        I’m a bit colorblind, but doesn’t the chart in that Metro Transit revenue chart indicate that 25% comes from fare collection, not 8.4%?

        1. Steve S

          Yes, I looked at it too and it’s 25%. I also read in an old StarTribune article that in 2017 the Met council had a goal of making it 28.5%. Not sure if they still have that goal or any of the details. I defer to those with a much greater transit knowledge than I possess.

          I didn’t realize 55% was from motor vehicle sales tax. Are there a lot of complaints about that number from drivers? Do most drivers even know about that tax?

          1. Karl

            The big question is how much would ridership grow?

            Warning: lots of back of the napkin math ahead.

            25% of overall MT revenue from fares according to, or ~$98.25 million total of fare revenue in 2017. Dividing this figure by 81.9 million rides provided by MT in 2017, I arrive at an average fare revenue per ride of about $1.20. Metro Transit spent over $420 million in 2017, or about $5.14 per ride on those 81.9 million rides.
            For simplicity, let’s assume MT’s cost to collect fares is ~20% of fare revenue, or $20 million. That would leave us with MT having an average 2017 expense of ~$4.88 per ride, less average fare revenue of $1.20 per ride gets us to ~$3.68 of average expense per ride more than average revenue per ride.

            To make free transit feasible, I would imagine there would have to be a projection showing that the ~$3.68 per ride expense less fare revenue would not increase. On a $400 million budget, MT would need to provide 108.7 million rides, a 26.8 million ride annual (or 32.7%) increase versus 2017. Where free transit would really get legs IMO is if the per ride expense less per ride fare revenue could get under the $3 threshold, which would be 133.3 million rides, a 51.4 million ride annual increase (1 million per week!), or 62.8% increase.

            Obviously there would be significant cost increases with this kind of ridership increase but I’m just trying to show the kind of growth needed to pitch free fares.

    1. Monte Castleman

      It’s OK to look at theoretical, but realistically taking money from people in cars and giving it to people on transit to make transit “free” would cause such a political uproar that it won’t happen no matter which party controls government. And not just in greater Minnesota. There’s quite a few people in the suburbs and probably even Minneapolis that would be in an uproar too Look at how hard it is to get a gas tax increase passed even when it’s used for roads that would directly benefit people.

      I could get behind the concept of making transit “free” since I believe it makes no sense for the government to provide services that better society like roads, transit, state parks, and the like and then discourage society from actually using them by charging various user fees, but there’s going to need to be some other funding source.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Meant to say “even when it’s used for roads that would directly benefit people in cars” by adding capacity or fixing infrastructure, rather than just moving a tiny number of people from roads to transit. Considering you can buy passes for transit that makes it “free” on a per ride basis I’m not sure how many people would actually be displaced from cars”

        1. Pine SalicaPine Salica

          idk, lowering the cost from $131/mo to Free would sure be helpful in balancing the equation for many folks.

          1. Monte Castleman

            That’s a good point. There’s people that might use it occasionally if it were “free” that can’t justify buying a pass and are deterred by the hassle or psychological barrier of paying per ride. I just wonder how many of those there are compared to heavy users that have passes where it’s already free on a per ride basis and people that can’t or won’t use a bus even if it were free. Or as the article debates, whether it would be more worth it to increase service so some people that can’t now use the bus could.

      2. Ryan

        Someone who drives a 25 MPG vehicle 10,000 miles a year uses 400 gallons of gas, so a 3-cent tax increase costs them 12 American Dollars a year.

        Gas prices have been higher before, much higher than three cents per gallon, and somehow we all got by. Our neighbors in Winnipeg are paying 87 Canadian cents per liter right now, which comes out to about $2.50, 37 cents higher than the twin cities average. Could we really not manage three cents for such a massive benefit?

        During my lifetime, we’ve used taxes to increase the price of cigarettes by what, 300%? There was an uproar when we did that, too. But we as a society decided that it was necessary because smokers harm themselves and others. The details are very different, but I think we should start to make a similar case about cars.

        1. Monte Castleman

          10,000 miles driven a year is really low, that’s one reason that people don’t lease cars. But I know your point is that it’s not a lot of money in real terms. My point is that people won’t behave proportionately and rationally if any politician dares to propose something like this, just like people don’t behave rationally with cheap vs “free” transit (or cheap vs “free” parking for that matter).

          Something like 15% of adults smoke but 90% own cars. And it’s hard to see a similar benefit to society with smoking compared to the mobility and convenience cars provide.

          I’ve driven through Canada so I know what the gas prices are there. I thank my lucky stars I live here instead of there (or worse yet Europe) where it’s so expensive

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            It’s a darn shame that people are forced to drive more than 10k miles per year.

            I don’t think I ever have, which also reminds me that I’ve never really been a full time car commuter (and when I did drive it was around a mile).

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I’d like to see $1 fares across the board, but then the question at that point is, why bother with fares at all?

      Thanks for doing the math on this. $33M? Ridership would double overnight, with even more increases over time as people began to get used to the idea and the economics of it. There would be added costs to increase service as well, but that’s a great problem to have. Even better, Minnesota would be leading the way and lapping the field of US cities on transit policy.

      1. Steve S

        I don’t think ridership would double overnight, but I would be interested in any studies, etc., that indicate that it would. That doesn’t mean I’m against removing fares. I think it would make it easier for the transit rider and would encourage more usage, but I have no idea how much. I guess one tiny sample is to look back at the free metro transit rides for New Year’s (which I just thought of as I am writing this post) It wouldn’t be scientific, but I would be curious about it and any of times rides are free.

        I had a situation the other night when my wife and I could have taken a bus to a restaurant. I will admit that I don’t try to take transit as much as I should. But this time I thought I would check it out. It would have been at best a 35 minute total trip and we would have walked four blocks to get to the bus and four blocks after getting dropped off. Instead we took a Lyft (we we were being responsible drinkers) that took 9 minutes door-to-door for $10.50 (tip included). The bus was $4, but it could have been free and I still wouldn’t have taken it in this case because it was much slower and less convenient.

    3. Brian

      I think you’re forgetting that gas taxes are dedicated by the state constitution to pay for state roads. I doubt you would get enough support in the legislature to even place an amendment to change the constitution on the ballot let alone enough voters to pass it.

      There are a lot of drivers who want more money spent on roads, but they don’t want gas taxes raised to pay for it. No way would they vote to tax gas to make transit free.

  3. Nick M

    I think making something free doesn’t help if the other option, even with some cost, allows people to basically get paid by the negative externalities that they force onto everyone else. Delays on other system users, emergency responder costs, parking maintenance costs baked into prices, road maintenance funded through property taxes etc. all allow people who drive single occupant vehicles to get where they want to go faster and make other people bear some of the social cost of their convenient lifestyle. If we make transit free by explicitly raising the per-trip cost of driving (not the fixed cost, as noted in the article), then we’re starting to get somewhere. But making transit free without making driving more expensive will not build the long-term ridership and political support that we need for transit (and mitigating climate change).

  4. Brian

    I couldn’t imagine the uproar if there was an attempt to make transit free, especially if there was an attempt to make drivers pay for it. I take the bus to work every weekday and I wouldn’t support it being free.

    There are already a great many people who are upset that taxes pay for transit. They complain that transit riders should pay 100% of the cost of their rides. I understand the complaint about drivers only paying 50% of the cost of roads. However, even if gas taxes doubled my incremental cost of driving would still be less in many cases than bus fare.

    Unless you live in the actual cities of Minneapolis or St. Paul, or first ring suburbs, you’re going to be hard pressed to not own a car if you want to go anywhere. Sure, you might live within biking distance of a park and ride, but park and ride transit is generally rush hour only on weekdays.

    1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

      Brian, without the third person effect of “other people would be in an uprorar,” what are your reasons for not supporting it?

      1. Brian

        Free transit would mean lots of freeloaders just riding around because they can. There are already plenty of homeless riding transit and this would just make it worse.

        The majority of people I know who aren’t riding transit aren’t not riding due to cost. They are paying obscene amounts of money to park downtown (plus car costs) for a variety of reasons. Some just don’t want to sit next to strangers and want to be free to listen to music and whatever in the car. Others claim they need to be able to do errands on the way home.

        I feel like everyone should be paying a share of their transportation costs. Roads may be subsidized from taxes other than gas tax, but transit is over 70% subsidized by taxes.

        I have a feeling there would be intense pressure to cut transit costs so that taxpayers aren’t paying another $30 million to make transit free. Route frequency may get cut which would make transit less convenient and more crowded.

        I have sworn off ever riding the #5 again due to overcrowding. My last trip on the #5 was the final straw. It was so full there wasn’t any more room for even more standees. The bus was leaving behind riders at every stop and I had to literally step out of the bus at every stop so riders could get off. I finally walked the last six or eight blocks down Chicago as I was sick of getting off and fighting to get back on at every stop.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      People who drive but are upset that transit riders don’t pay 100% of the cost of transit are called freeloading, hypocritical whiners who don’t come close to covering their direct costs, much less the externalities.

      Yes, living in car-land makes anything else hard. That’s why policy should discourage it, instead of subsidize it.

      1. Brian

        Part of the reason drivers get upset over low or no fares is because the driver has a lot of costs not related to roads that he/she has to pay for. The driver paid sales tax to buy their car a large portion of which goes to operate transit instead of pay for roads.

        The driver’s car probably cost $30,000 new which the driver paid 100% for while he/she see bus riders in a vehicle the rider paid only 25% of the cost for. Same thing with fuel for the car versus fuel for the bus. (In fact, I don’t know if the rider directly pays anything for the vehicle since the feds pay for the cost of new buses.)

        Personally, I accept that transit will always be heavily subsidized even though for any traveling outside of commuting there isn’t transit I can use.

        1. Rosa

          every day it snows I go out and shovel my sidewalks and watch a bunch of drivers, many of whom do not own property in the city and therefore aren’t paying for the road or the plowing of the road, drive down it at dangerous speeds and refuse to stop for pedestrians. Drivers who think they pay all their own costs are just wrong and need to get over it.

          1. Brian

            The thinking that drivers are freeloading just because they drive on roads your taxes paid for just has to STOP! I don’t complain when someone not local drives on the city or county roads that my property taxes pay for. If you ever drive out of state do you make a contribution to that state if you didn’t buy gas there? I didn’t think so.

            I am not one of those who thinks that transit riders should pay more, but I am sympathetic to those who think transit is too heavily subsidized. I take the bus to work every weekday because that is the only time transit is available to me.

            Driving a car is not cheap, period. I think the figure of 55 cents per mile is pretty accurate on average and even low if you drive more expensive late model cars. Yes, car owners don’t pay 100% of road costs, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t cost taxpayers 38.5 cents per mile (70% tax subsidy) like the 70% tax subsidy for a transit user on average.

          1. Brian

            There are over three million people in the metro area and less than half have reasonable transit options that would allow them to avoid owning a car, There are even plenty of avid transit users and bike commuters who admit they own a car for times when that is the only practical option.

      2. Allen

        People who drive but are upset that transit riders don’t pay 100% of the cost of transit are called freeloading, hypocritical whiners who don’t come close to covering their direct costs, much less the externalities.

        ~ Mr. Miller, this is a system that you have created just as much as I. We have designed it so that most streets are paid out of the general fund. We’ve created laws that prevent cities and counties from charging user fees for their roads.

        If you’d like this to stop, we need to see tangble actions. Have you written your state reps to change this? Is there a group out there actively lobbying for a mileage tax? I’m not aware of any.

        IMHO too many of us urbanistas are happy to have this screwy system so we can continue to complain. It gives us an easy rhetorical shield so we don’t have to face up to how unsustainable most of what Metro Transit does really is.

  5. Kelly Chapman

    Just to throw out another pro for free rides – I have two kids. I have a Go To card but my kids and husband do not. I also carry little cash. The extra inconvenience of having to find cash fares for the kids, and bringing our total up to $6 a trip has been enough to discourage us from taking the bus and driving instead. And that way we didn’t have to worry about the timing for the return trip.

    I support free fares for everyone, but if we had to be incremental about it, start with low income people, kids under 18, and all day rides rather than transfers and it’s be a start.

  6. John Charles Wilson

    Oh boy!

    I’m going to have to vote against my personal best interests here and oppose free-for-all fares.

    Several transit systems have tried it before, most notably Denver RTD in the mid-1970s. Behaviour problems and overuse caused the demise of that idea.

    More recently, King County Metro (Seattle) and Tri-Met (Portland, OR) abolished their downtown free ride zones a few years ago. Incidents of undesirable behaviour went down dramatically, as did overcrowding on downtown buses, and people lying about where they were going.

    Now, I could support a limited free fare system. For example:

    In the 1970s, senior citizens rode the MTC for free during non-rush hours. This could be brought back and it would be a positive PR move.

    We haven’t had much trouble with the 50 cent Downtown Zone here, except for occasional people lying about their destination. However, the Nicollet Mall Free Ride is designed in a way to make it fraud-proof: It only applies when the bus is terminating downtown, not when it is starting downtown.

    I’d like to see this concept extended to all downtown routes. Let’s abolish the 50 cent fare and establish what I call “free tail” – free rides within downtown on buses which terminate downtown. This could also be extended to “free head” on pay-as-you-leave routes starting downtown – if you get off before the boundary, your ride is free. If you think about it, this is a fraud-proof system. (If the sexual implications of the terms “free head” and “free tail” are problematic, I can see using another name for the service.)

    Then I’d propose a “family fare” – free or very low fares for children under 12 with a parent, guardian, or babysitter at least 5 years older than they are (so a 13 year old with an 11 year old friend doesn’t get to game the system).

    Other discount fares would be a half price GoTo Card and a one-tenth price GoTo Card depending on income level. By making these fares a percentage rather than a flat fare, differentials regarding rush hour/non-rush hour and express/local would still exist. Perhaps the discount could be implemented by multiplying the amount downloaded to the card by 2 or 10, as the case may be (this is how discount BART tickets work in San Francisco).

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Why do we care about people lying about their destination? And how is it an issue if there’s no fare?

      And why should fares be zero for short, downtown trips between affluent areas?

      1. John Charles Wilson

        I’m talking about people boarding in the downtown zone, paying 50 cents, claiming they’re getting off at Grant St. and then trying to slip off the bus unnoticed in Saint Louis Park, evading $1.50 of the $2 legal fare for the trip.

        It would be worse if the Nicollet Free Ride worked that way, which is why it doesn’t.

        The point of a “free end” or “free tail” isn’t so much for affluent downtown residents as it is a convenience for people downtown for work, shopping, etc.

        Why zero and not 50 cents? Mainly for the time savings.

  7. Allen

    From what I’ve seen the basic question really seems to be —> Would we be better off cutting transit service by 30% and not charge fares OR status quo.

  8. Frank Phelan

    I have enough grey hair to recall in the 70’s when the MTC (as it was known) made rides free for minors. There was plenty of joy riding and shenanigans on buses. If they got kicked off by the driver, it was no problem. They had no skin in the game, and merely waited for next bus. My old man had a friend who was a bus driver, and that guy hated it. Like lowering the drinking age to 18 (which happened about the same time), the theory didn’t last long once put into practice.

    This may not apply, but it also remains me of a free concert KDWB put on at the Met Center in the ealry 80’s. A teacher of mine worked as an usher at the Met, and the next day he said they had a lot unruly guys that they kicked out. Of course, they just went to another door and got back in. In later years, free events became ticketed, giving attendees some skin in the game.

    Further, I got my bike repaired at a community bike place, can’t recall the name now. In asking the about what all they do, the guy that ran the place said they give bikes to people who need them, but that he started to require them to put in some time in the shop before hand. He found having some skin in the game greatly improved results, as the recipients took better care of their free bikes.

      1. Frank Phelan

        When my old man was in the Navy in the early 50’s, they had the chance to buy life insurance. Every month someone would collect the premiums. He said later the Navy figured out it was cheaper to give the coverage to everyone and not bother collect the monthly premiums.

        So I get that. Maybe the benefit wouldn’t be so much raising revenue, but making for a better operation over all?

        And should the costs of fare collection be going down, what with more electronic payment, etc?

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