Metro Transit Bus

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.