What Would Happen If Transit Were Free?
As I write this in May of 2012 the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors is considering revising policy to enable children to ride for free on Muni buses. While at first glance this certainly seems to be a sound idea, is there any reason to think bad things may happen if people are allowed to ride transit for free?
Places Where Transit Is Currently Free
As you can well imagine, very few transit systems allow a major segment of passengers to ride for free (although some allow special narrow classes of passengers, such as the blind, to ride for free to lessen the demand for paratransit services ).
Most free public transit is offered on a limited number of routes, especially university bus systems and downtown circulator routes. A couple of major American cities offer free bus service in their downtown areas - Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh , and Seattle, although Seattle's free downtown bus service is scheduled to come to an end in the fall. Like Portland, OR, who also used to have free downtown bus service, Seattle's decision to end it is a matter of saving money - free bus service costs a lot of money.
Some notable totally free bus systems in the United States are Island Transit in Washington, Chapel Hill Transit in North Carolina, Summit County in Colorado, the city of Commerce in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, and in Amherst, MA. All of the above systems either are in areas of low population, university towns, or both.
Effects of Free Bus Service
As you may expect, offering free bus service will cause ridership to dramatically increase. From freepublictransit.org , we learn that when Hasselt, Belgium made transit free it's ridership went up 800%. The common held elasticity of transit fares is -0.3, meaning that for every 10% drop in fares we would expect a 3% increase in ridership (this is usually referred to in the context of a fare hike, where a 10% increase in fares would equate to a 3% decrease in ridership). So, a 100% decrease in fares would equate to a 30% increase in ridership under this model. Three major cities in the United States have attempted widespread free fare experiments in the past thirty years - Denver; Trenton, NJ; and Austin. In Denver, ridership increased 36% while it increased 16% in Trenton. In both Denver and Trenton, the free fare was only in effect during off-peak periods. In Austin, ridership increased 75% but when discounting normal growth and University of Texas students, the ridership increase may have been as little as 10%.
While transit systems in general like additional passengers, these additional passengers need to be accommodated in a way that does not strain the system's resources and not be a bother to the other passengers. Given that the recession has driven most transit system's to the breaking point with an increasing number of passengers vying for an ever smaller number of seats, the average transit system does not have the financial or operational capability of adding enough service to meet the increase in demand that free fares would generate, not even counting the loss in fare revenue. In sum, the increase in the load factor that would accompany significant increases in ridership could not be accommodated.
In addition, previous experiments in free fares have resulted in anecdotal evidence of an increase in "unsavory" characters riding public transit. For example, during a time when BART offered free fares as an apology for widespread service problems passengers noted an increase in harassment and unpleasant behavior from passengers who normally did not ride BART. The results of previous free fare experiments in Denver, Trenton, NJ, and Austin have shown that the increase in passengers primarily took the form of truant children and vagrants. During these experiments, rates of vandalism and rowdiness went up, further increasing the costs to the transit system through additional financial requirements for maintenance and security. Soon after the free fare experiment started in Austin 75% of the bus drivers petitioned to end the free fares due to the passenger abuse they were suffering. These undesirable passengers caused many existing passengers to depart the system. In fact, one reason why both Los Angeles and Vancouver are looking to install fare gates on their currently barrier-free rapid transit systems is to decrease the number of unpleasant people on the trains.
Outlook for Fare Free Systems
Because small systems generally have a lower farebox recovery rate than larger systems, it may make sense for them to go fare-free because the cost of collecting fares is more likely to be close to the amount of fare revenue collected. In addition, small systems may have fewer unsavory characters to cause trouble on a fare-free bus and less latent demand that would lead to overcrowding. In contrast, every single large system that has tried to have a comprehensive free fare system has failed. There is no reason to think that Muni will find a different fate if they allow students to ride for free. In fact, Broward County Transit in Florida tried it in the late 1980s and stopped it after only six months due to the reasons described above.