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What is Zero-Fare Public Transportation?
Sabrina Falkowsky

Oct 27, 2023

What is zero-fare public transportation? Quite simply, it refers to free public transit, primarily bus lines. Several cities around the world have implemented permanent zero-fare public transit, and the United States is catching up, starting with Kansas City, Missouri.

The term “zero-fare” is another way of saying “free public transit.” Though it’s not exactly free: the cost of operation comes from cities’ annual budgets and taxpayer dollars.

There are over 100 cities around the world with zero-fare public transportation. The first major U.S. city to implement zero-fare was Kansas City in late 2019, followed by Olympia, Washington in January 2020. Many other cities in the United States, including Los Angeles, Tucson and Richmond, implemented temporary zero-fare programs in 2020 as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but they have since rolled back those programs. 

Some other cities are testing out long-term zero-fare programs, such as Boston, Denver, New York and Albuquerque. Denver implemented zero-fare public transit in August, when wildfires and pollution levels peak in the state. Boston is funding three MBTA lines, the 23, 28 and 29, through 2024. New York’s MTA is piloting five zero-fare bus lines around the city, and is funded through 2025.

Albuquerque’s zero-fare pilot ran from January 2022 through June 2023, and the City Council will vote on an ordinance to permanently implement universal zero-fare transit in November 2023. Washington, D.C. has made steps to implement zero-fare public transit twice, once in 2020 and most recently in 2022 with a planned start date of July 1, 2023. Both times, however, the city has failed to implement their promised zero-fare bus system.

The goal of these zero-fare pilot programs is to examine the economic and social effects of free public transit. Programs like Boston’s have seen an increase in ridership, boosting about 22%. And bus boarding times have reduced by about 20%. But only about one third of riders are actually saving money due to the zero-fare lines. The MBTA operates 125 bus routes, so most riders taking the 23, 28 or 29 transfer to other lines where they still have to pay bus fare. Kansas City, Olympia and Albuquerque, by comparison, implemented universal zero-fare public transit. It is easier to measure the benefits of zero-fare transit when all public transit in a city is free, not just select lines.

Many say zero-fare programs are not the most pressing issue in public transit reform. In a 2018 survey of riders from low-income households (less than $35,000 per year), the two most pressing concerns were frequency of public transit and safety, both on buses themselves and in the areas surrounding bus stops. Crowding and reliability were listed as more important issues to address in public transit reform. While zero-fare public transit has been shown to increase ridership, reduce boarding times and increase rider saving (in cities such as Kansas City and Albuquerque), it is only one facet of the public transit problem.

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