Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fare Free

Mass transit ridership was up again last year — the fifth in a row — mostly because of the economy and the price of gasoline.

Ironically, analysts expect that number to fall this year, because of the economy and increasing job losses.

But Planetizen's Dave Olsen asks, if transit agencies spend more money than they make in marketing and increasing ridership, why charge fares at all?

In particular, he looks at a small city in Belgium that converted an existing fare-based system to a fare-free one. The first day without fare boxes, ridership jumped 783 percent. It grew 900 percent that year and four year later was up 1,223 percent.

"Becoming Fare-Free got residents and visitors alike onboard, while the planned increase in capacity kept them coming back," Olsen writes.

He proposes several ways to pay for transit service — you can read his examples here — but none of them include fares.

"Now given that public transit is a public service, it could make sense to maximize the public good that that service brings, which is exactly what Island Transit and other Fare-Free systems have done. However, I'm writing 'could' here because in the mad rush to privatize and maximize profit for anything that moves (including public services) this playing field has been fundamentally altered over the past few decades.

In particular, public transit has suffered from this economic mis-focus, and ironically enough, it has only worsened perennial problems like chronic underfunding and running incomplete systems that can't compete with the private automobile."

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