On her first full day as the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu asked the Boston City Council for $8 million in order to make three city bus lines free for two years. The idea of fare-free public transit may sound surprising, particularly for those used to swiping or tapping their transit cards as part of their daily routine, or people who have noticed fares steadily ticking up over the years as transit lines struggle with their operational budgets (a trend that has only worsened during the pandemic, which decimated ridership in many cities).
But free public transit is being tried in more and more cities globally—and in the U.S.. About 100 cities around the world, mostly in Europe, have some free-fare policy, and more cities have been testing out the concept (Wu’s proposal builds on a pilot put in place by the previous Boston mayor, Kim Janey, in which one major bus line was fare free for four months). The idea behind most of these policies is to increase ridership and get people out of cars, a crucial environment for cities hoping to decrease traffic congestion and lower emissions. How have they worked in the past?
In 2013, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, made all of its public transportation completely free for its roughly 430,000 residents (to be exempt from fares, you have to actually be registered as a resident, meaning you pay taxes in the city). A year after that announcement, a study found that public transport usage increased by 14%, but the share of car uses dropped only 5%, and the distance of the average car ride was 31% longer. Research suggested that people weren’t exactly swapping their car trips for train or trolley rides, but instead opting to walk less—the share of walking trips dropped 40%.
Tallinn continued, though, and still offers free transit to this day, and the statistics have gotten a little better. In 2019, a survey found 44% of residents mainly use public transit to get around (up from 40% the year prior), and 38% mainly use cars (down from 46% in 2018). And other cities have followed Tallinn’s lead, in various forms. Chengdu, China, launched fare-free public transport on certain bus lines and during morning hours (though that didn’t seem to entice people to start their trips earlier, and some passengers that used free buses ultimately would transfer to paid buses; what did make an impact, though, was combining free fares with traffic restrictions based on license plate numbers, which led to passengers from 70% of restricted vehicles switching to free buses).
Some cities have tested free public transportation for people under a certain age—in Paris, under 18 year olds ride for free. That began in September 2020, timed to when kids returned to school, and is seen as a step to Paris offering a fully free transit network—though it’s yet to make that move despite considering it previously. Paris launched a study in 2018 to explore a fully fare-free system, and in a 2019 report declared that free transit was “not the only alpha and omega of mobility policy.” Kansas City, Missouri is also rolling out free transit incrementally, focusing on students, veterans, and one fixed bus route first. Others have already gone all-in; Beginning in March 2020, Luxembourg made all public transit fare free, among the first such moves from an entire country.
It’s difficult to make broad claims about how successful these moves are, because each transit agency’s success depends on its own circumstances, including how many riders they had before going fare free or how affordable fares were previously; how wide-reaching the transit service is, and how well it designed to get people where they need to go (Estonia’s National Audit Office found that Tallinn’s bus network didn’t meet people’s mobility needs); and how much of that agency’s budget comes from fares, anyway (in Luxembourg, fares only covered 10% of operating costs).
There are also varying definitions of success. A 2012 National Academies Press book noted that early fare free pilots, like one in Denver in the 1970s and Austin in the 1990s, left people with a “negative interpretation” of the fare free policy, because of side effects like overcrowded buses and less schedule reliability. Plus, the percentage of new transit trips made from people changing from private vehicles “not as large as agencies might have hoped for.” What these kinds of pilots did do, though, was increase ridership particularly among low-income people, who didn’t own cars. One report on a fare free program in Asheville, North Carolina, noted that “there is a pent-up demand for mobility, particularly among low-income and younger people.”
That aspect of free public transit—reaching low-income residents who have long struggled to get around their cities—has been the motivation for many pilots, including that one in Boston enacted by Janey. “Think about who is using our buses: It’s black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty,” Janey told the New York Times in 2020, when she was president of Boston’s City Council.
That same aspect may be a part of what motivated Wu to expand free fare buses. On the lines she proposes being fare free, more than 59% of riders were low income and more than 96% were people of color, according to a 2019 report. In a study evaluating the first free bus pilot, passenger savings on fares was estimated at $1.01 million annually, “concentrated among Boston’s lowest income households,” and had other social benefits like reducing loneliness and depression by increasing connection among Boston seniors, people living with disabilities, and lower-income families. (The pilot also did also reduce car use, eliminating nearly 2,800 daily car rides.) To put that $1.01 million in context, the MBTA forecasted collecting $200 million in fare revenue in fiscal year 2022, the same year it approved a $2.35 billion preliminary budget.
To Wu, free public transit isn’t only about reducing car use—and there are other tools cities can use in conjunction with free public transportation to reduce congestion and car-related emissions, like congestion pricing or low-emissions zones. Free public transit is just one tool. And it’s one that also addresses equity, especially as the city works to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19. “Eliminating fare collection on bus routes would speed up service, close racial disparities in transit access, serve our climate goals, and advance economic justice,” Wu previously said in a statement. “In this critical moment of economic, social and emotional recovery, we must take every step to strengthen racial equity, eliminate barriers to opportunity and invest in accessible, equitable, reliable service in every community.”