During my lunch break, I sat on a bench in Bushnell Park, looking at the ducks while sipping a coffee. If I had more time I would have exchanged my sneakers for a pair of rental skates and taken a few laps on the ice rink. Instead, I needed to return a book to the library and see about a free museum pass while there. Then, this product of the public school system got on a CTtransit bus and rode home, without the fuss of scrounging for coins to feed the fare box.
Almost everything I described feels like it has been accepted as simply the way things are. Everything, of course, except for public transportation.
More than half of Americans living near a public library make use of it, several times each year. There is no income verification required for patrons to borrow books, DVDs, or CDs. Nobody has to prove hardship or worthiness to access audio books, e-books, or computers. Want materials that are not on the shelves? Request that librarians order it for you. They will find a copy, whether the library purchases it or gets it from another institution to lend. Want to take your kid to storytime because you know literacy is important but you can’t bring yourself to read to them using corny voices? Just do it. No hoop jumping necessary.
That child? There’s a strong chance they will attend a public school. The vast majority of American children do. That’s thirteen years of tuition-free education. Junior feeling ill in math class? He can visit a nurse’s office on site without having to fill out paperwork and show an insurance card. Your teen struggling to navigate the path from high school to college? A guidance counselor is provided.
Nobody needs to study all the time. You and the family can take a walk, play ball, and use the swingset with no admission fee at a nearby park. In the summer, spread out a picnic blanket and listen to live music. It is not on you to rake the leaves or plow snow from the paths. This is part of the contract.
To drive on most roads in this country, you do not need to scan an E-ZPass. The street you live on does not have tolls. Whether you are unemployed, retired, a low-wage worker, or independently wealthy, you can roll on that pavement without giving a second thought to how it is funded. It is there, for your use.
But for those who cannot drive, do not have access to a private vehicle, or choose a more environmentally responsible means of getting from here to there, it seems that there are strings attached to the concept of public transportation. It is not enough that routes are already limited, that if you needed an Express bus to travel home for Thanksgiving one was not available to you, that many places and people become routinely unreachable on weekday evenings and weekends. Amenities at bus stops are currently inconsistent. You may wait for your ride in a heated bus shelter with a bench, on an unmaintained shoulder along a busy road with no sidewalks, or anywhere in between.
When we look at our schools, libraries, parks, and roads, nobody pauses before issuing a critique out of concern that doing so will prompt the distracting false dichotomy of cost versus quality of service. We expect public schools to be free and we expect teachers to be competent, caring, and trustworthy. We expect public libraries to be free and we enter the buildings knowing that if new materials are not on the shelves, something is amiss. We expect public parks to be free and we visit anticipating that the lawn will be mowed and playground equipment will be in safe condition– or else those in charge will hear about it. We expect to make free, basic use of the roads and for potholes to be repaired.
Why should public transportation be any different? D.C. is currently moving toward providing 24-hour bus service that is fare-free.
The bus is what connects people to schools, libraries, and parks. It does not always do this comfortably or efficiently. This should be addressed because it is the right thing to do for those who are already using public transportation, and because improved service is part of what is needed to lure people into making smarter choices that lead to reduced air pollution and traffic congestion. As for making the bus fare-free forever, the arguments for it are all out there. It addresses equity without requiring passengers to prove their poverty to anyone. It speeds up boarding, which speeds up trips both for those on the bus and those who might be waiting in traffic. It removes the frustration of securing and refilling passes/cards – merely annoying for some riders, but a real hassle for those without the skills to use the Internet. It only takes riding the bus once or twice a week to get a sense of how varied passengers’ experiences are and how current riders are already benefiting tremendously from not being literally nickel-and-dimed every time they need to go to work or visit the doctor.
When Gov. Lamont announced that fare-free bus service would be extended through March 31, 2023, there was a strangeness tacked on to this news, making it sound like people would have to resume paying per bus ride on April 1, 2023. The language offers a hint that this is not absolutely true: “This is the maximum date that complies with 12-month length-of-time federal restrictions for temporary public transit pilot programs.” We are not dealing with a volcano. Transportation is a system created by humans and how it is funded is also managed by us. We made the rules and we can change the rules. We can choose for this to not be a temporary pilot program. Make it permanent. Find other sources of money. Our budgets reveal our values. Do we value a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Do we value the working class? Show it. We know that when we say “free,” what we’re really talking about are services being paid for through taxes and government subsidies. Taxation is not a dirty word when we all benefit from it, and we all benefit from a more livable environment. We all benefit when transportation is not a barrier to people’s full participation in society. It is time we treated public transportation like the public good it is. Make the buses fare-free forever.