You can ride the public transit bus for free right now – and, if some in the Connecticut General Assembly get their way next session, you’ll be able to do so forever. Urban leaders and residents want fare-free bus rides to continue past the March expiration date of the current pilot project, but they may have a hard time convincing cost-conscious suburban and rural members that it’s actually a good idea.
Complicating the picture was a thought-provoking article released this week by The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas, titled “Buses Shouldn’t Be Free.” Demsas argues that free buses, which on the surface look like a great idea, actually don’t deliver the benefits advocates are touting, and that governments would be a lot better off focusing on service improvements.
She cites statistics showing that top among bus rider concerns are increased bus frequency and punctuality, not fares. She also points to experiments in other cities where bus ridership did increase–but mostly among people who would have walked or biked to their destination instead of among people driving single-passenger cars. Gains in transit times from bus drivers taking fares would be offset by more people requesting stops, and more young people aboard the buses could lead to “rowdiness.” In short, what American cities need aren’t free buses, but better buses.
So should Connecticut give up on free bus rides? Definitely not! America needs better buses, yes, but in order for that to happen we need to change how we think about public transit. Getting rid of fares is one important step towards making that happen. In short, we can start to have better buses because we have free buses.
At the heart of the debate about fares is the big question of what, exactly, the bus is for. In the United States, the bus is seen as the mode of transportation of last resort for the poor. Only people who can’t afford a car take the bus, or so the assumption goes. And indeed, bus riders in Connecticut, and across the country, do tend to be poorer and more Black and/or Hispanic than the general population.
A great example of how this plays out was the pushback against the Hartford-New Britain Busway, or CTFastrak, which opened in 2015 after three years of construction and a decade and a half of planning. The most common complaint I heard, apart from the usual gripes about cost, was that the busway should have been a train line. Why? Because buses can enter and exit the busway at different points, the busway can be infinitely more flexible and useful than a fixed light rail track. But most people just like trains better, because they don’t associate them with the poor.
In that respect, the elimination of fares isn’t just transportation policy, but is part of a broader anti-poverty program. That’s why urban leaders are so intent on continuing the program; they can see firsthand that people who might have been spending upwards of $1,000/year on riding the bus can now use that money for food and housing instead. Reliable free transportation can be a component of a strategy that includes affordable housing, very inexpensive or free colleges, the eradication of food deserts, and more. That, by itself, is a good reason to keep buses free.
But the bus isn’t just about the poor. Public transportation is an essential part of plans to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change, and to do that riders will need to come from all social classes and backgrounds. Demsas pointed to only 5% of new riders in one fare-free experiment coming from people who would have used single-passenger cars before, but 5% isn’t nothing. It’s a start, and it’s a number that could grow with the right policies.
And, as we already know, the surest way to get people out of their cars and onto the trains or buses is to institute congestion pricing. If you have to pay up to travel into the city during the peak of rush hour, then you’d absolutely want to look at the bus instead. Fares and fare structures can be intimidating for new riders, so if the bus is free, switching becomes that much easier.
But if we really want people to get on board, we need to start looking at the bus and at transit fares in general in a new way. Why do fares exist on buses at all? They’re a relic of the days when private, for-profit companies such as The Connecticut Company and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad ran streetcars, buses, and passenger trains all over the state. In the 1960s and 1970s, these companies went out of business and their functions were taken over by either the federal or the state government. The fares, and the assumption that transit should somehow pay for itself, remained.
That must change. Transportation is essential in our society. We are an ultra-mobile people, and we gravitate towards the easiest, most hassle-free way to get around as possible. As we stumble into an uncertain tomorrow, we are going to need sustainable, reliable means of getting around. Free buses as an essential service of the people’s government are one link in a chain that connects us to a better future.