Free Public Transit? Yes, Absolutely

Another chance to get cars off the road, and help the poorest among us

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Photo by Maria Molinero on Unsplash

In Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?, Ellen Berry reports on a rising tide of support for making public transit free, that it should be treated as a basic need, something integral to modern life, like access to the city streets:

That argument is bubbling up in lots of places these days, as city officials cast about for big ideas to combat inequality and reduce carbon emissions. Some among them cast transportation as a pure public good, more like policing and less like toll roads.


The argument against fare-free transit is a simple one: Who is going to pay for it?
In communities where ridership has been falling, the cost of waiving fares may be less than expected.

Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, intrigued after hearing his friend Ms. [Michelle] Wu [who is running for the Boston City Council] speak about fare-free transit, asked his regional transit authority how much was collected on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. The answer was such a small amount — $225,000 — that he could offset it from the city’s surplus cash reserves.

“What I like is the doability of this, the simplicity of it,” Mr. Rivera said. “We are already subsidizing this mode of transportation, so the final mile is very short. It isn’t a service people need to pay for; it’s a public good.”

There is a case to be made for making up the cost of public transit from the businesses that benefit from it, as a way to reduce costs for employees and to make it easier for customers, as well. Or simply increasing the gas tax to cover the expense. But perhaps the best argument is the public benefit of reducing cars on the streets.

And remember, fares for public transport are regressive: they hit the poorest most. As a result, the poorest would benefit the most from making public transit free. To the detractors, this is just another hand out to the undeserving poor. But to progressives, this is an opportunity to right yet another inequity in our society, just like free education and medicare for all.

Originally published at

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Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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