American cities are experimenting with free public transit

Take a free ride.
Take a free ride.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo
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When the QLine streetcar first arrived in Detroit in 2017, it was seen as a new future of mass transit in a city where cars are king. The line was the first piece of a larger rail system, one that never materialized. The QLine’s operating company, M-1 Rail, announced that service would be restored in late September, after shutting down operations last March during the Covid-19 pandemic, but this time it would be free to ride for the rest of the year.

Detroit is one of the latest US cities to offer some public transit service free of fares. Transit systems around the country are recovering from a huge drop in ridership during the pandemic. By April 2020, transit rides had fallen by nearly 80% compared to the previous year. Even now, ridership is only up to about half of 2019 levels. To get people into transit (and out of cars), American cities are exploring eliminating fares, a practice that’s already taken hold in Europe. But Detroit’s short-term fare policy highlights the challenges facing American cities built around cars. Enticing residents out of their vehicles is less about price, and more about redesigning public transit systems that get people where they need to go.

The cities ditching transit fares

The 3.3-mile QLine route runs a straight shot down Woodward Avenue in Detroit, connecting the main cultural and commercial district, a university, and a downtown business district. The line, partially funded with private donations, was designed to increase foot traffic and investment in the businesses along this corridor.

Several years on, the results are disappointing. At the start of 2019, ridership was only half of what was projected. Still, the QLine’s multicolored cars have glided down Woodward Avenue, flowing in and out of vehicle traffic. Now that the QLine is coming back online, free fares are intended to get more people downtown. Funding for this program, however, is temporary, and will only last through the end of the year.

There are currently roughly 100 cities around the world with some long-term free-fare policy. A few cities like Tallinn in Estonia and Colomiers in France have offered entirely free transit networks for years. In 2020, Luxembourg became the first country to make all of its public transit free.

In the US, the free fare movement remains nascent. Many places already offer free routes, such as an airport shuttle or circulator bus to business districts. But few have applied the principle system-wide. Now places like  Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Missoula, Montana, and Olympia, Washington are making their entire bus networks fare-free. Others, including Detroit, temporarily eliminated bus fares last spring in the depths of the pandemic, when most people using public transit were essential workers. For places like Kansas City, where fares didn’t make up a large part of a transit budget, eliminating them entirely made sense as revenues plunged even further.

Cost versus quality in transit access

Eliminating fares has been used as a strategy to promote public transit use over cars and improve transit equity. While evidence from Europe shows that while these programs increase ridership, they don’t make a big impact on people’s driving habits.

A 2016 study in the journal International Journal of Transportation shows people’s decisions about what mode of transport to use are impacted by accessibility more than price. Researchers found eliminating fares in European transit systems increased ridership 13-fold, but had only a “marginal” impact on vehicle traffic since most riders switched from walking or cycling.

This accessibility problem is a big one in Detroit, which for years has struggled with a public transit network insufficient to meet the needs of residents. Detroit has no subway or light rail. The biggest issue is the fragmentation of the region’s bus systems. City buses are completely separate from the suburban bus network, which is an issue in a place where more than half of workers commuted to a different community before the pandemic. This makes driving the obvious choice for car owners, and leaves the quarter of Detroiters without a car with few good options. Data from AllTransit Gap Finder found that nearly 20% of households in the city are underserved by public transit.

“Free transit can be a solution to a problem, but it’s not a solution to all problems,” says Antoine Belaieff, a transportation policy expert at FAIRTIQ, an app that helps simplify transit fare pricing. “If people are having a hard time getting to work, is it because it’s too expensive? Or because the service is not good?”  Fare-free transit should work towards larger mobility goals, not be an end unto itself, he says.

Some cities like Alexandria, Virginia are doing this by expanding service in tandem with removing fares. The city’s DASH bus transit system announced in August it was eliminating bus fares and redesigning the entire network to include more frequent service reaching more people. More than 72% of low-income Alexandria residents will have frequent access to transit as a result of the change, up from 29% before, according to a statement from DASH.

San Francisco is expanding free rides on its Muni bus service to all children under 18, after launching a pilot program targeting low-income youth. By offering free fares to a specific demographic more likely to use transit, the city can expand access to those who need it most.

More US cities are willing to experiment with free fare programs boosted by federal relief dollars and eager to attract people back onto mass transit. But this period of change is also an opportunity to make transit more equitable, designing systems that meet the needs of low-wage workers, instead of prioritizing the white-collar commuting class.

“It all starts with listening,” says Belaieff. “It’s really important to ask people on the ground—working-class people who are using the system—what they need. And maybe the answer is free transit, but maybe it’s not.”