How We Roll, August 23: can fare-less transit really work?

Things to listen to whilst transiting:The Cult of Tesla” on High Country New’s Range podcast series. Why are so many people so devoted to Tesla?

Free transit attracts riders and helps communities in more ways than one (Mobility Lab)

Bus ridership in the Missoula area.

Bus ridership in the Missoula area.

I don’t usually post stories that are a year old. But a colleague sent this one over and I thought it was more intriguing than anything else open in my browser. The gist of it: the bus system in Missoula, Montana, went fare free in early 2015 and — shocker — ridership went way up.

It’s worth considering, of course, that the Missoula metro area only has about 115,000 people — that’s about 16K shy of Pasadena’s population, for sake of comparison. That said, Missoula’s bus system still found that the benefits were numerous: buses got quicker (with no fares to collect), the system was more equitable, it attracted more discretionary riders and lower administrative costs, among others.

So what about big metro areas? Excerpt:

Although a small number of public transit systems in larger urban areas experimented with offering some version of fare-free service over the years (from Denver, Colorado in 1979 to San Francisco, California in 2008), finding a source of funds to replace their substantial fare-box revenues proved too difficult. In fact, as of 2012, no public transit system in the United States with more than 100 buses offered fare-free service.

That’s the rub. Metro’s “fare recovery ratio” (the percentage of operating costs covered by fares) has been stuck in the the 20 percent range for several years now. But the agency still expects to bring in about $346 million in fares in the current fiscal year. That is a big chunk of change and the reason fares won’t be vanishing here without some other government agency (i.e. one that doesn’t seem to exist) picking up the tab.

What would happen if fares were suddenly free for, say, the top 100 most populous regions in the U.S.? My guess is ridership would certainly go up but the degree to which probably would depend on whether bus/rail capacity/speed/frequencies were also expanded. I am venturing to guess that such a strategy might be a sound one when it comes to fighting climate change, given that generally speaking taking transit is one way to reduce your carbon footprint.

Still, for some towns free fares appears to work well in the present day. Which towns? They tend to be university towns, rural and/or a resort community. Kudos to them and the local agencies that agree to pay for it. And if you hear of an elected official or candidate — especially one at the federal level — talking about free transit for all, email me. As that’s a speech we would actually want to listen to!

Related: In the OC, the OCTA Board voted Monday to reduce day passes from $5 to $4 in response to bus ridership falling from 69 million in 2007 to 43 million in 2015. That strikes me the same as throwing down a sharrow on a street — it’s symbolic, at best. The real issue in the OC: cuts to bus service, buses getting stuck in traffic, more sprawl and lack of rail service beyond Metrolink.

FUN FACT!: it looks like it has been six days since a woman has left a comment on the Source. And that woman was Anna Chen, who in this case doesn’t count. Which reminds me, have any readers seen “Sausage Party?” Is it worth seeing in theaters or should I wait for iTunes? Email me.

Chris Campbell: Beverly Hills must stop fighting subway to Westside (Daily Bruin)

The Purple Line Extension will have a station at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, an easy bus ride, bike or walk to the loveliest of all So Cal campuses. Photo by Steve Hymon.

The Purple Line Extension will have a station at Wilshire and Westwood boulevards, an easy bus ride, bike or walk to the loveliest of all So Cal campuses. Photo by Steve Hymon.

More commentary in the wake of a federal judge’s recent ruling that upheld the federal approval of the Purple Line Extension and required Metro to redo parts of those studies. Chris argues that the Westside really needs a better transit option and the subway is that option.


Make no mistake, safety concerns should be of the utmost importance, and the ideal situation would be that Metro and Beverly Hills work out an agreement on how to best redo the impact statement. However, there’s little to suggest future reports or lawsuits will produce new evidence against the route, and this puts BHUSD in a weak position for future litigation. So while we can expect Beverly Hills’ interests to appeal the decision and continue throwing money at this issue, we may be witnessing their last gasps of serious opposition.

A lawsuit by the city of B.H. and BHUSD in state court against Metro ended in Metro’s favor. We’ll see what happens with the lawsuit by the same plaintiffs against the Federal Transit Administration.

The one reader comment (anonymous, of course) accompanying the Daily Bruin story made me LOL — it alleges a “massive media campaign” against Beverly Hills. Alternative hypothesis: members of the media actually read the judge’s ruling.

Sound Transit improperly sent 173,000 ORCA card users’ info to political campaign (Seattle Times)

Voters in the Seattle metro area will be considering a ballot measure this fall by Sound Transit that would increase taxes to pay for transit expansion. Fulfilling a records request, Sound Transit recently provided a political campaign for the ballot measure with the emails of Orca card holders. #whoops

The Times reports that those emails likely should have been protected under law. Sound Transit has said it has asked the campaign to delete the emails from its files and the campaign has agreed.

As we’ve noted before, it will be a big autumn for transit agencies at the polls, especially on the Pacific Rim. The San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco and L.A. areas will all be considering ballot/bond measures to raise money for transit. The Portland area is looking at 2018.


11 replies

  1. Emery Go Round, the Emeryville system near San Francisco, is free.
    County Connection’s line 4, in downtown Walnut Creek, is free.
    San Luis Obispo transit is free for passengers age 80+.
    Santa Clara County Transit, now Valley Transportation Authority, was free for senior citizens in the late 70s.
    A few summers ago, on a smoggy day, BART had free fares but teenagers used the opportunity to harass and intimidate passengers, reported the SF CHRONICLE, without specifying the incidents.

  2. I am a female and I ride the Silver Line to work everyday. I have commented from time to time when there is a subject re something that directly impacts my commute. I also send letters/comments to Metro directly as well. (Although they have fallen on deaf hears.)

    Steve, are reader’s comments/views/ideas expressed here shared with Metro?

    • Hey Mary–

      Thanks for commenting and it’s nice to hear from someone who is not a dude! 🙂

      Yes, we compile a weekly report of comments from the blog and our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds, as well as emails that we receive. That report is sent to executive staff. In addition, we bring other comments directly to the attention of higher-ups on particular issues. We don’t expect direct responses to each — the idea is to give our execs an idea of what riders are thinking and experiencing on the system.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  3. It’s a bold assumption that no women are commenting, especially for those who use monikers as their handle rather than a real-ish name. While there’s no doubt the space is predominantly male, I suspect there are a few who use monikers that are women but choose not to make that known, unless you know each moniker’s gender in real life (noting that some women may have traditionally male names like Alex or Morgan).

    • I stand by my original position: I think very few women comment on this Board (I do think women are reading the site).

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • Hi Steve,

        Just a few thoughts. To get more females to comment on the Source or social media invite Metro employee women or female riders to write about what is it like riding the bus or train. I do not think you will be able to capture every demographic since not everyone has access to a computer, wants to comment about everything or reads the Source, but I think you have some options that are worth trying.

        I know Anna utilizes Gold Line and post stories about some of her experiences, but invite other senior female staff, interns/ELTPs or college students to share their Metro experiences. Maybe some women can write about why they do or don’t take the system. And, if women are concerned about revealing their identity on social media, make their stories or quotes anonymous to avoid any thought of retribution–if it is a concern. Or create a survey or poll where women pick their primary concerns and write stories about that. It is definitely a different experience for women to ride public transit than it is for men. One can safely infer that women care a lot more about safety, security, cleanliness and harassment policies so these are some topics you can definitely start writing more about.

  4. Hmm. Of course, the bus system in Colonial Williamsburg has been fare-free to anybody wearing an admission badge since before I was born (maybe since its inception). And Walt Disney World has a huge (at least as resorts go) fleet of fare-free buses.

    But leaving off resorts (yes, Colonial Williamsburg is a resort, my favorite kind of resort: a GEEK resort) . . .

    For several years, transit in downtown Seattle was fare-free. Buses traveling into the free zone had an entrance fare; buses traveling out of the free zone had an exit fare.

    • Hey James,

      Now that you mention it, Portland had a fare free zone in downtown, too. Although I think there has been talk about getting rid of it. Or maybe happened already.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

    • Is Long Beach’s “Passport” circulator still free in their downtown area?