Why isn’t it Free to Ride the Bus?

Colin Fiske, CRTP Executive Director

Riding the bus is almost always cheaper than driving, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Most people pay a fare every time they board the bus, while fueling up a car, making payments on insurance and auto loans, and taking your vehicle in for maintenance and repair happen less frequently. In other words, the cost of riding the bus is more “in your face.” This often leads to the question from bus riders: why isn’t public transit free?

In fact, public transit is free in some places, including a number of small towns and rural communities in the United States. Research shows that going fare-free is one of the most effective ways to increase ridership. Also, mobility is so central to the ability to survive and thrive in modern societies that many advocates—including CRTP—believe that public transportation should be considered a civil right. That means no one should be denied transportation just because they can’t afford to pay the fare.

But implementing fare-free transit presents some challenges. For one thing, fares help pay for the transit service, so if you eliminate them you need to find another source of revenue to replace them. In fact, if  you want fare-free transit that’s effective, you have to actually increase investments. That’s because all the other ways to increase ridership—most notably increasing the frequency of buses—cost more money. Making the bus free doesn’t do any good if the system doesn’t meet people’s needs.

In California, there’s another problem: state law actually requires that our local transit agencies cover at least 10 percent of the operating expenses of each bus service with fares. However, there is a loop-hole. We are allowed to replace the fare revenue with another source of funding, as long as it’s local (not state or federal). 

In other words, we can go fare-free and make other improvements, if we just make the local investment. One version of this is already starting to happen: at CRTP’s urging, some local employers (including the County of Humboldt and the City of Eureka) are starting to buy up bus passes and give them free to employees, and some affordable housing developers are doing the same thing for their tenants. Because free bus rides make it more likely that people will ride, these programs can be part of a positive feedback loop. Expanding them to more employers and landlords would be a great way to invest in local transit.

There are also other dedicated sources of funding we could develop. If local governments started charging for parking in downtown areas, for example, they could use the meter revenues for transit. The County of Humboldt is also considering putting a new transportation tax on the 2024 ballot, and there is an opportunity to ensure that it funds not only pothole repair, but also public transit. If we choose to develop sources of transit funding like these, we could have a transit system that is both highly effective and fare-free.