Will Free Public Transit Encourage Greener Living?

Traffic congestion like this pile-up on the I-5 in California is common in urban areas. Should public transit be made free to help people live greener, less car-dependent lives? Photo by Wikimedia user Coolcaesar
Traffic congestion like this pile-up on the I-5 in California is common in urban areas. Photo: Wikimedia user Coolcaesar

Early this year the city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, became the largest city in the world to offer free public transportation to its residents.

Choked by traffic congestion (caused by cars), Tallinn moved in 2012 to initiate the free transit scheme. Today, its streets have seen a 15-percent reduction in traffic. Bus ridership is up. And there’s even some evidence that the city’s free-ride policy is attracting new permanent residents to Tallinn.

So should other large cities follow suit and eliminate fares on their public transit options? The fewer cars there are on the road, the less air pollution, gridlock, and traffic accidents that result. It turns out that free public transit has been around for a long time in different cities – with varying degrees of success. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the pros and cons of letting folks ride for free – and why for cities of a certain size, it might be an idea whose time has arrived.

A recent University of North Carolina study posited that perhaps more than 2 million people a year die as a result of human-caused air pollution – particularly, “fine particulate matter” spewed out by industrial processes such as the burning of fuels. Taking every car off the road would be neither practical nor would it eliminate this risk; however, making it a no-brainer for car drivers to switch to public transit could go a long way toward saving at least some of those lives.


Free Public Transit “Pros”

Little financial disincentive not to ride.

C’mon, everybody likes “free,” although the word is a bit of a misnomer. In the case of buses, trams, and trains, what it really means is that riders don’t pay for the service at the point of use. No sticking a token in a farebox or fumbling for exact change while holding up other riders. Instead, citizens in general foot the bill as part of their taxes.

While users are still paying something, the cost is diffused in a way so that it’s not noticeable, and therefore not as onerous as paying a regular fare.

Why is free good? Because it might convince car drivers to give up their steel cages for their commute and opt for greener, more efficient public transit instead.

Free can sometimes cost less to the operator, too.

Collecting fares is a hassle and it costs money. Somebody has to collect the money from ticket counters, turnstiles, and fareboxes. People have to maintain those one-way gates. And whenever money is around, you need to hire extra security. For many smaller systems (those in cities with populations of about 50,000 or fewer), the expense of collecting fares may not be justified by the return, so a free system makes obvious sense. Campus shuttle routes are a prime example.

This sign in Tallinn, Estonia, announces the availability of free public transit rides for city residents. Photo by Pjotr Mahhonin via Wikimedia Commons
This sign in Tallinn, Estonia, announces the availability of free public transit rides for city residents. Photo by Pjotr Mahhonin via Wikimedia Commons


Free Public Transit “Cons”

“Re-distribution resentment” of non-users.

People who don’t directly use public transit will quite possibly feel resentful about being forced to support it with their taxes. The fact that someone else benefits “for free” likely won’t do much to mollify them. Never mind the fact that the public heavily subsidizes automobile use (through road taxes, costs of traffic and parking enforcement, and medical costs associated with air pollution, to name just a few subsidies). Unfortunately, many people don’t consider the “externalities” associated with driving – that’s just economist speak for costs that get transferred out of one’s immediate sight, but that don’t really disappear.

It costs money to run a transit system.

In larger cities, fares actually make up a big chunk of revenue for transit systems. If you did away with fares in these places entirely, there might not be enough funds available to run the systems. This is precisely what happened in Hasselt, Belgium, in 2013. Offering free service since 1997, Hasselt had to relent in the face of Europe’s economic crisis and begin levying a charge of 60 eurocents for riders older than 19 (younger riders still get to board for free).

“Free” attracts miscreants and other “undesirables” … and scares away the good customers.

Perhaps things have changed in the past decade or so, but past research suggests that at least in large cities, free ridership programs are prone to increased vandalism, assaults, student truancy, and other unwanted outcomes. Conversely, even modest fare requirements seemed to have a discouraging effect on the more disruptive elements of society using public transit. The Center for Urban Transportation Research (at the University of South Florida) provides some enlightening insights on this, in a report titled “Fare, Free, or Something In-Between?” Even though it came out in 2002, it’s still definitely worth a look.


(Not-So) Final Verdict

The “free or fee public transit” question illustrates one of the big problems with applying traditional financial analysis to any type of investment with an environmental benefit. For the time being at least, it’s hard to put an accurate price tag on an intangible asset like cleaner air or uncongested streets. How do you measure the drastic reduction in emergency room visits due to childhood asthma before it occurs? Or the savings in insurance costs and lost productivity because of car accidents avoided? Perhaps some brilliant social entrepreneur will figure out a way to take all these costs and benefits into account, making it easier to spend money on green initiatives.

What’s your take? Should public transportation be free for the using, like public water fountains or public parks?