New York, Washington and Boston seek free public buses. As they should.


Imagine that there was a change in Amazon policies that suddenly forced you to pay a $3.50 surcharge for packages delivered to the second floor. Or imagine a high-rise office building where it costs $2.75 to take an elevator to your doctor’s office. As tenants fled, the building’s owner would quickly go out of business. So could your doctor.

While we enthusiastically embrace the idea that the cost of our vertical transportation should not be imposed on individuals, we have stubbornly resisted the idea that a substitute teacher should be able to take a local bus to the front door of his or her school. daughter for free. , or that if her daughter got the flu, she should be able to transport her not only from the door of the doctor’s office up the escalator to her office for free, but also from the school to her office.

The free parking subsidy, the valuable property along the sidewalk that cities set aside for cars, is estimated to cost between $100-300 billion, far exceeding the sums cities would need to spend to make transit free. .

Cities exist because people need to be able to connect with other people. And horizontal transportation across the city is just as vital as vertical transportation up to the 11th floor. However, because governments do not cover the cost of horizontal public transportation, American urban areas suffer from a number of problems related to transportation. excessive reliance by residents on privately owned and operated vehicles for this trip, including toxic levels of air pollution that affects 137 million Americans and wasteful traffic congestion 3.4 billion hours of travel time.

Therefore, it is encouraging to see a growing number of cities across the country offering free bus service to passengers. In Kansas City, which three years ago became the largest transit-free city in the of the biggest problems, that the demand exceeds the number of buses, shows how popular the program is, especially among the low-income population that it helps the most.

With fees no longer a barrier, Kansas City residents surveyed by the Urban League said they can afford to go to new places, or old ones more often, helping them stay connected to each other while keeping their family finances in check. better way. Some 88% said they were able to see their health care providers more often, while 82% said it allowed them to get or keep a job. A large number also mentioned easier access to cheaper grocery shopping and shopping. Although some have raised concerns about safety as the barrier to bus entry is removed, the city found that the system overall has become safer as ridership increases at off-peak hours, while removing friction over fee collection.

Although most cities to experiment with free transit in the United States have been medium-sized, several of the country’s major cities are now in various stages of testing free buses. Washington, D.C., announced earlier this month that buses will no longer have fares starting in the summer. Boston has done some free routes and is looking to expand further, noting that free buses have easily coped with a rise in ridership because not having to charge fares makes bus stops more efficient. Los Angeles waived fees during the pandemic and the new mayor is looking to make that change permanent. New York is considering doing the same.

Unfortunately, a handful of smaller cities that have tried free transit have backed down, mostly for financial reasons. Portland, Oregon, instituted a free service for environmental reasons in the 1970s and found that it successfully reduced carbon monoxide, but eventually canceled it to raise more revenue. Richmond, VirginiaY Tucson, Arizona You could also drop your popular programs to save money.

But those who argue that the price is too high are failing to consider the costs of keeping things as they are, not only in environmental and congestion terms, but also in the subsidies that are regularly given to car owners.

Most egregiously, the free parking allowance, the valuable property along the sidewalk that cities set aside for cars, is estimated to cost between $100-300 billion, far exceeding the sums cities would need to spend to make transit free. If wealthy drivers cannot, and do not pay, the full costs of their connection to their urban areas, neither should working-class users of the transit system be expected to.

In addition, the fares charged to passengers cover a small fraction of the actual cost of public transport. In Massachusetts, for example, contribute only 8% of the total bus budget. These fares are merely a token fee that adheres to an unstated principle, one that we do not individually apply to other trips, such as riding in an elevator or crossing city streets in a private car.

It’s also not a zero-sum cost when the government pays for public transportation. Better public transportation gives a boost to property values, which then translates into more tax revenue and other economic benefits. The planned extension of the New York City Subway along Second Avenue to Harlem has already increased rental values ​​by 27%, twice as high as the increase in First and Third Aves.

Criticisms of free public transport beyond the economy are even weaker. The fact that a common criticism once a city runs out of fares is that cyclists take longer routes than necessary it is particularly strange. No one would think that it is a sign of failure if a city builds a parkway and the net effect is that drivers travel more miles in an average week. Why should riders who decide to travel more miles on a bus system once it becomes free be seen as a problem rather than a success?

And then there’s the complaint that when transit is free, people use the subway or bus as a place to rest. or even sleep if they are homeless. It is true that if a city provides a better transit system, it will inevitably highlight some of the other existing problems. But that’s not a reason not to improve what you can; instead, the other problems must also be fixed.

In addition, the needs that free transit satisfies deserve to be evaluated against other solutions to the central urban problem: that cities exist to connect us, but the more of us, the more connection we demand. Experience so far suggests that free transit is much more practical than adding lanes to urban networks as a solution to this inevitable urban dilemma. New York didn’t have the option of improving the number of cars that can travel on Second Avenue: it had to go for a subway, even (at $6.9 billion) a very expensive subway.

Without decent transit, cities have no choice but to sprawl, which contributes to urban socioeconomic decline and itself is associated with pollution, congestion and less social cohesion. Free transit is an important solution in the toolbox that is the urban future.

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