A few weeks ago, Kansas City, Mo., took the bold step of making public transportation free, the first major U.S. metro to drop fares on public buses.
Transit advocates took note, and wondered: Could fares on buses and trains be eliminated in the Twin Cities?
Such a move doesn’t appear to be in the mix — there are more pressing budgetary matters facing Metro Transit.
“Free fares are not currently under serious policy consideration for our transit system,” said Bonnie Kollodge, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning body that oversees public transportation in the Twin Cities.
But Kansas City’s action has sparked a global conversation on the role public transit plays in economic development, and in mitigating climate change, road congestion and income inequality.
“Free fares are important for several reasons — climate, equity, safety,” said Amity Foster, of the Twin Cities Transit Riders Union, a local advocacy group. “They’re a way for us to address our climate crisis; moving people out of their cars and onto public transit is essential and free fares will increase ridership.”
Some 97 cities worldwide, many of them in resort and college communities, have already abolished fares, according to TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy and research organization. The movement is gaining steam. Tiny Luxembourg will eliminate fares this year, while cities such as Olympia, Wash., and Lawrence, Mass., offer free trips on key bus routes.
Indeed, the notion “sounds like a utopian fever dream,” according to a TransitCenter report released last year. But fares typically make up 20-60% of transit agencies’ budgets and, without that underlying money, “you may not be able to operate as much service,” said Ben Fried, the center’s spokesman.
“In most U.S. cities there isn’t enough transit, very few buses are coming every 10 to 12 minutes all day, every day, and that’s the backbone of a transit system that gets people to where they want to go,” Fried said.
Currently, fares generate about $100 million in annual revenue for Metro Transit, about 22% of its budget.
“It would be tougher for the Twin Cities to pull this off, because it’s a bigger transit system,” Fried said. Metro Transit provides some 81 million rides a year — 68% of them on local, express and rapid buses, and 32% on three rail lines.
The Met Council points out that it is already facing an annual deficit of at least $70 million unless it secures a dedicated source of transit funding from state lawmakers — a plea that has fallen flat at the Capitol in recent years, as some Republican lawmakers from greater Minnesota balk at supporting urban transit.
But Foster, of the Riders Union, said people are interested in taking transit.
“We should be doing more to make that possible, [including] free fares and a system that is fully invested in from the state,” Foster said.
One perk of a fare-free system is that occasional violence that erupts between bus drivers and fare-dodging passengers is nullified, as well as tension that simmers among some riders when police act as fare enforcers, particularly on light rail. (Metro Transit said it doesn’t make money off prosecuting fare evasion because the fines go to the judicial system where they are paid.)
Most experts say it’s easier for smaller cities to enact a fare-free system, and even then, there’s no guarantee the switch will work.
Eliminating fares has been tried in some cities, with mixed success. Austin, Texas, eliminated fares in 1989, but went back to a traditional fare-based system a year later after experiencing “negative consequences,” according to a 2002 report issued by the National Center for Transit Research. While ridership increased, “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults, as well as vagrants, increased,” the report notes.
Some experts say rather than eliminating fares, transit agencies should offer reduced fares for low-income passengers. Metro Transit enacted a Transit Assistance Program after hiking fares in 2017 — as of June, some 14,000 discount cards had been issued to low-income riders.
But the idea of free fares hasn’t generated much discussion by the council in recent years. The regional planning body is under transition, as former Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle takes over as chairman Monday.
Zelle said through Twitter he doesn’t have an opinion on fare-free transit at this time, “although I am aware that it has been successful under certain circumstances in other states.”
The dialogue continues nationally about making public transportation a central part of communities, whether it’s free or not, said Art Guzzetti, a vice president at the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association. “There are a lot of things in a state of transformation now, and mobility is one of them,” he added.