After showing its worth during pandemic, momentum builds for free or reduced-fare transit

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When coronavirus caseloads jumped at the start of the pandemic, public transportation ridership slid to historic lows. Infections are subsiding, but transit agencies are still waiting for passengers to come onboard.

With some agencies predicting lower ridership levels until 2024, a proposal is bubbling up aimed at serving the low-income passengers relying most heavily on public transportation during the pandemic: Make transit free.

Kansas City, Mo., started it, Los Angeles and Washington are exploring it, and a proposal in Congress could fund the concept across the country.

Momentum has spread during a pandemic that shone a light on the working class and the buses and trains they rode to shifts at supermarkets, convenience stores, takeout restaurants and hospitals.

Transit systems for decades have been saddled with an obligation to partly supporting themselves through chasing ridership to increase revenue and reduce the burden on taxpayers. But the pandemic put buses and trains through a different prism. They were essential, transit advocates say, like many of the people riding them.

Rail ridership plunged about 90 percent in some cities at the start of the pandemic and is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, while bus systems’ reliance on lower-income workers has led to a quicker rebound.

Workers who abandoned offices — and their commutes — are expected to return in lower numbers this fall as employers allow more flexible telecommuting arrangements. Left no other option but in-person work are service employees who disproportionately are people of color, according to data reviewed by The Washington Post.

That revelation led some transit and government leaders to ask if public transportation should not be partially subsidized — as nearly all of it is — but fully government-funded, much like roads. No longer should it be a ride service for some but infrastructure that benefits all, proponents say.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Freedom to Move Act last summer, which would provide federal money to help transit make the switch to a fareless system. The Sierra Club and NAACP national campaigns are lobbying for billions in federal funding for fare-free programs.

Opponents of the proposal note the price tag, saying it would force taxpayers to pay for services used by a few. Those who support it say a national racial reckoning, the pandemic and new transit-friendly leadership in Washington are giving new energy to treating transit funding more like highway funding.

“During the pandemic, a new word was created: essential workers,” Markey said. “And who were the essential workers? They were disproportionately Black, brown, immigrant and poor. Essential workers could not Zoom to their jobs. They had to show up.”

Here’s how D.C., New York, San Francisco and other cities are weighing the concept of reducing fares for riders as the pandemic begins to recede.

01

Washington, D.C.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

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Washington, D.C.WMATA
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New York CityMTA
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Bay AreaBART

In the nation’s capital, a Metro survey found 18 percent of rail customers continued to ride as the Washington region was under stay-at-home orders, while nearly half of Metrobus customers kept riding, mostly to get to work. The survey said 82 percent of Black customers continued to ride Metrobus, and 70 percent of regular users made less than $30,000 a year.

One relief for bus riders most of last year was they didn’t have to pay. The agency waived fares while sealing off the front door and first rows to protect bus operators from passengers and the coronavirus. That buffer included fare boxes.

[The pandemic changed the workday, but will transit riders return?]

The same practice was adopted by transit agencies across the nation. It led to large revenue losses but offered a glimpse of what fare-free could look like. For Metro, it seemed to encourage riders, as ridership decreased when fares returned, Metro’s chief financial officer, Dennis Anosike, told board members in March.

The racial introspection brought about by Black Lives Matter protests — especially after the killing of George Floyd — was a factor that pushed Metro to look into how fares affect ridership. Local government leaders and Metro’s board of directors pledged a commitment to racial and economic equity after Floyd’s death, then asked Metro staff to explore offering free or reduced fares. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has called any proposals to waive fares a “policy” decision that’s up to Metro’s board, whose members have discussed the idea.

D.C. leaders have weighed the concept for years. Seniors already are eligible for half-price tickets while the city provides school students with free transit cards. Lower-income residents, city officials say, are less likely to have jobs that offer programs to subsidize commutes.

In 2019, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched a pilot aimed at studying free and reduced fares. Last year, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) proposed giving all residents a monthly $100 credit for public transportation. Allen’s “Metro for D.C.” bill was co-sponsored by a majority of the council, but after it was introduced on March 1, it took a back seat to the health crisis.

“This is something that really speaks to equity, speaks to recovery,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of ways that this can both be something that addresses equity and actually is part of a recovery strategy that brings back your ridership.”

Apprehension remains over the future of transit, with surveys showing many businesses adopting permanent and flexible working arrangements. Other riders say they will drive rather than use mass transit. Small dips in usage by former riders could create giant budget holes for transit agencies, which only survived the past year with the help of billions of dollars in federal aid.

02

New York City

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

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Washington, D.C.WMATA
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New York CityMTA
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Bay AreaBART

For the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest transit system, more frequent telework could mean hundreds of millions in losses. The MTA earned about $6 billion a year in fare revenue before the pandemic, according to MTA chief executive Patrick J. Foye.

“If you look at 2023 and 2024, you know the expectation is ridership is going to increase,” Foye said. “But there will also be an increase in the days worked remotely from home by office and professional and so-called white-collar workers.”

Foye said the agency has not explored the concept of free fares, but added that the MTA needs to improve awareness about its low-income discount program. The MTA also has a student MetroCard program that provides free rides based on distance to schools.

Transit supporters say cutting service to correspond with ridership can lead to a “transit death spiral” — where service decreases hasten ridership losses.

Transit supporters say a convergence of social justice, economic and environmental issues is giving momentum to fare-free transit.

Six in 10 adults view climate change as a major threat to the well-being of the United States, up from 44 percent in 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. Getting people to abandon their cars would require an attractive alternative, transit advocates say.

They also cite a more favorable political climate.

As part of a $2 trillion infrastructure package, the transit-friendly Biden administration is pledging $85 billion over eight years to modernize public transit and bring more bus and rail service to underserved communities. It comes after Congress approved $75 billion for public transit in three stimulus packages.

“I do think that there is a lot of momentum behind this,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit research group. “We’re looking at transit differently and not as a tool for mobility or primarily just moving people around, which is not the purpose of transit. The purpose of transit is to connect people up to jobs and economic opportunity.”

What the pandemic has pointed out, said David Genoa, director of transit advisory services for LTK Engineering Services, a global consulting and engineering firm, was “transit is really important in the fabric of our community to get people to work, to get people to health care, to get people to jobs and also an important part of economic development.”

While current plans haven’t generated large-scale opposition, those who have opposed similar proposals in the past cite the large cost and potential for social problems. Cities that tested going fare-free in the 1970s and 1990s, including Denver, Austin and Trenton, N.J., discontinued their programs after problems with delinquency and disturbances from youth and homeless residents — and the subsequent costs to increase security and surges in bus maintenance expenses due to the increase in trips, according to a study from the University of South Florida. A study published in January from transport, logistics and engineering researchers from the Catholic University of Chile found that no-fare systems increased ridership but did not take cars off the road.

Some have questioned the fairness of subsidizing a service not everyone uses. But Robbie Makinen, chief executive of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said questioning the fairness of subsidizing a service not everyone uses is outdated and incorrect assumption the pandemic further exposed. Kansas City in late 2019 became the first major U.S. city to approve a fare-free system. Society couldn’t have survived without the essential workers transit carried. Money not collected by fare boxes didn’t disappear, Makinen said, but was instead invested in other parts of the economy.

“It’s going to buy a pair of shoes. It’s going to buy some groceries. It’s going to small businesses,” Makinen said. “That dollar is going to turn over two or three more times and be worth a hell of a lot more than it was than it just being in my fare box.”

Transit agencies, he said, should no longer view themselves as services on “an island” — but as essential and integral as schools or other infrastructure. Last year was the first year the ZeroFare KC program was up and running, and it’s already proven its worth, Makinen said.

While transit ridership declined everywhere, Kansas City lost only about 40 percent compared to steeper drops in other cities. Security and policing costs came down since most disputes typically sparked over fares, Makinen said.

03

Bay Area

Bay Area Rapid Transit

Bay Area Rapid Transit

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Washington, D.C.WMATA
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New York CityMTA
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Bay AreaBART

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, or Muni, provides free transit to seniors, people with disabilities and youth ages 5 to 18 who are low- or moderate-income. Last year, other Bay Area bus systems temporarily suspended fare collection for a few months to keep passengers away from bus operators because of coronavirus risks.

Waiting at the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Powell Street station, 21-year-old Alexandria Tagaloa said the decision of some transit systems to waive bus fares during much of the pandemic offered a financial boost, but added she would like to see permanent fare assistance.

“Not everyone can afford that $2.50 every single time to get into work. Sometimes people do have jobs and they do have wages, but they have other bills and things to pay,” she said. “If they don’t have transportation, they can’t get to work and it’s a whole cycle.”

At the 16th Street Mission BART station, another transit rider said fares should be lower because many are living “check to check.”

“The price of the fare should be lowered to something a little bit more reasonable and affordable for low-income people,” said Angela Davis, a home health aide. “We’re not rich and wealthy. You know, we don’t have a silver spoon.”

Two members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in April proposed a pilot to expand the Muni’s free-fare program to all residents free for three months. Dean Preston, one of the supervisors, called it “an opportunity to get people back on public transportation and put money in struggling San Franciscans’ pockets.”

The roots of the fare-free movement began shortly before the pandemic. While a few jurisdictions went fare-free, most started with waiving fares as part of discount programs for students, veterans, seniors or low-income riders before expanding eligibility — including Kansas City, where transit officials have gotten help from the private sector. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City contributed $1 million of the $5 million the city has invested in the program because the health group views free transit as a health benefit.

In October, King County Metro in the Seattle area expanded a program that provided discounted fares. It now offers free transit passes to low-income residents, a program the transit system said could cost $30 million annually in fare revenue. Nearby Olympia, Wash., began providing free transit in 2020 in a five-year test project.

In San Diego, the transit board voted unanimously in March to lower fares for youth and bring back free bus and trolley transfers eliminated more than a decade ago. The Omaha bus system is launching a program to give free rides to students, while Los Angeles Metro plans to offer free student transit passes this fall.

Los Angeles officials also assembled a task force to develop a proposal that would eliminate fares for all riders.

After providing youth with free summer bus passes in 2018, Albuquerque made them free to riders 18 and under in 2019. This year, the city expanded the program to include students under 25 and those 60 and older. Mayor Tim Keller (D) called it key to building a more “equitable Albuquerque.”

In Boston, talk of transforming the nation’s fourth-largest transit system has made its way into the mayoral race, with nearly all candidates supporting some form of free fares.

The discussion spurred Markey and Pressley to sponsor the Freedom to Move Act, which would contribute federal funds to make up for lost fare revenue. In New York, 26 organizations urged the state’s congressional delegation to push for greater federal investment in transit, including $20 billion in annual funding that “could include support for transit agencies or local communities that wish to provide free or reduced fares.”

New York launched its Fair Fares Program in January 2020 to help low-income residents. The program, which is in addition to discounts for seniors and people with disabilities, cuts MTA fares in half for people at or below the federal poverty level. The program had more than 225,000 enrollees as of May 12.

Justin M. Wilson, mayor of Alexandria, Va., is proposing to make the city’s DASH system free for all riders.

The big question remains: How can transit systems afford to give away rides?

The National Campaign for Transit Justice, a group of several organizations advocating for transit riders, people with low incomes and others, wants the federal government to allocate $60 billion a year in new funding. The federal government currently contributes to the capital expenses of transit agencies but not to their operating budgets.

Transit supporters also want to divert money from road projects to transit.

Libero Della Piana, a spokesman and strategist for the National Campaign for Transit Justice, said the pandemic showed millions of workers and students are relying on transit while small businesses depend on it to bring customers to their stores. Building back the economy, Piana said, will require more support from the federal government.

“I think it also was a huge reminder that any attempt to build a more sustainable economy requires not just keeping transit at historic funding levels, but really deep investment,” he said.

Correction: A proposal by San Francisco supervisors to waive bus fares involves the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. This story initially reported that it was Bay Area Rapid Transit.

About this story

The Storytelling Lab used the Lidar scanner on the iPhone 12 and the SiteScape app to create the point cloud 3-D artwork, scanning transit rail car interiors in D.C., New York City and Oakland, Calif. Audio and captions were placed in post-production.

Data from Bay Area Rapid Transit ridership was collected from BART Customer Satisfaction Study 2020 and 2018. Ridership by race included 2,852 and 5,114 respondents for 2020 and 2018 respectively. Ridership by income included 2,500 and 5,294 respondents for 2020 and 2018 respectively.

Editing by Jenna Pirog, Tim Richardson, Lauren Tierney and Elite Truong. Copy editing by Annabeth Carlson. Audio editing by Emma Talkoff.

Audio reporting by Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, Sonia Paul, Aaron Reiss and Emma Talkoff.

correction

A proposal by San Francisco supervisors to waive bus fares involves the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. This story initially reported that it was Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Maria del Carmen Aguilar is a graphic reporter in the graphics department at The Washington Post.
Lo Bénichou is a creative technologist and joined The Washington Post in 2020.
Seth Blanchard is a creative technologist specializing in emerging technology and experimental storytelling at The Washington Post.
Justin George is a reporter covering national transit and Metro, the D.C.-area public transportation system, for The Washington Post. He previously covered criminal justice for the Marshall Project and the Baltimore Sun.
Shikha Subramaniam is a product designer and strategic thinker at The Lede Lab, The Washington Post's experimental news team. She specializes in emerging technology and experimental storytelling.