God help you if you rely on these to get through life. (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)

Good Public Transit

Would Free Fares Drive More People to Use Public Transit?

Reliability, not cost, is the chief obstacle to public transit ridership. It's also why Dallas isn't as affordable as cities with higher rents but better transit.

James Ragland has a column over on the Dallas Morning News today that offers two suggestions to tackle Dallas’ inequality issues. His first solution is something of a no-brainier: better public schools. The second suggestion, however, wades into a more complicated topic. What if, Ragland asks, public transit in Dallas was free?

As it stands, Dallas Area Rapid Transit is by no means the most expensive public transit system in the country, and fares don’t cover what it costs to move each individual rider through the system. In other words, every ride on public transit is already heavily subsidized. But what if you went all the way and made it free? Ragland cites an article by Matt Hoffman, the vice president of Innovation for Enterprise Community Partners Inc., who advocates for making transit free to ride as one of his “7 Ways Cities Can Become More Equitable, Vibrant and Affordable.” Here’s a quote from Hoffman:

“The more people who use public transit, the more people who benefit, whether they are riders or not, due to reduced congestion and pollution and increased potential for productivity,” Hoffman wrote. “Eliminating fees to use public transit (rail and bus) would entice more riders to use the system and would reduce cost burdens on low-income families. How would transit budgets be covered? By paying for it out of the city budget, the same way we do with roads and public education, thereby sharing the cost across all taxpayers. This is the fairest solution since non-riders also are gaining benefit from the transit system.”

On the surface, the argument seems logically enough. But setting aside the political challenges that further subsidizing DART rides would pose (particularly at a moment when some council members are calling to pull DART funding to shore up a failing Police and Fire Pension Fund), would eliminating the cost of public transit entice more riders to use the system, as Hoffman argues?

Perhaps not. A 2013 study by the University of California, Berkeley found that cost of public transit doesn’t play a large role in the reasons people don’t ride public transit. Rather, the number one reason people don’t ride transit is unreliability. Other reasons people give up on transit found the in same study: long transfers, missed transfers do to misinformation, crowds, delays, long waits, buses that leave riders stranded, inaccessibility of destinations by transit, and buses (and in the case of DART, light rail trains) that sit in traffic. In other words, people stay off transit when it doesn’t get them where they need to go or when it takes too long together. Unfortunately, eliminating a bus or rail fare won’t solve any of these problems.

But we don’t even need the transit studies to prove this; consumer behavior suggest that cost isn’t the primary factor when making transportation decisions. It’s not very expensive to ride DART. Five bucks will get you anywhere in the system for a day. Eighty dollars will give you access to DART for month. I understand that is a lot of money for many people in Dallas. But compare that to the cost of a car payment, auto insurance, and gas to get around Dallas for a month, let alone ongoing auto maintenance costs in a city with such garbage streets. If public transit decisions were made purely by comparing costs, surely more people would choose the save the hundred or hundreds of dollars they pay to have a car each month by riding DART. But people are willing to take on the burden of higher transportation costs if that means they can count on a reliable means to get to where they need to go. In Dallas, that means owning and maintaining an automobile, which is a big problem.

When you look at the many studies that compare costs of living in light of transportation costs, you find out that DFW isn’t as affordable as cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington D.C. Similarly, if you look at cities with the most upward mobility, they are the kinds of places in which density and access to public transit provides the most reliable access to the most number of jobs, places like New York and Washington D.C.

So Ragland is half right. Improving access to public transit is an important part of building an equitable city. But we won’t get there by eliminating fares. First, we have to make public transit reliable. Delays, transfer times, and arduous commutes represent an implicit surcharge DART enforces on its riders thanks to poor system design and management. That’s the cost of commuting via public transit that needs to be tackled.

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