Since people started working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, public transit agencies have suffered from an unprecedented dip in ridership. By mid-March, for example, MBTA ridership dropped by a staggering 80 percent, leaving essential workers as the main source of fare revenue for the agency. Ridership began to increase slowly when some businesses reopened — though nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Now, as a result of budget shortfalls, many states like Massachusetts have turned to their transit agencies to make dramatic cuts that would effectively render America’s public transportation systems relics of a bygone age.
These cuts are the opposite of what lawmakers should be doing. “They are shortsighted, dangerous, and backwards in every sense of where we need to be headed,” Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu said in an interview. Since before the pandemic, American cities have failed to provide reliable and accessible transit to all their residents — a failure that only reinforced and worsened inequality and segregation and made poverty all the more oppressive. Contrary to what transit agencies are proposing, states and the federal government should invest heavily in public transportation systems and, ultimately, make them free.
The fundamental reason public transit agencies should do away with fares altogether comes down to a simple principle: Everyone ought to have a right to access their city in its entirety — all of it, not just their neighborhoods, the surrounding blocks, and parts of downtown. But the way transit systems are set up in the United States now, with suboptimal reach and ever-increasing fares, leaves many residents — particularly poor residents — without the means to travel from one part of the city to the other.
Free public transit is also essential to creating a more equitable society. Low-wage workers tend to have longer commutes, and, because they often can’t afford to pay for weekly or monthly passes that discount fares, they end up spending more on each ride than middle- or high-income workers do. Black and brown residents in urban areas are also far more likely to use public transit than white people. Thirty-four percent of Black residents and 27 percent of Hispanic residents, for example, rely on public transportation, whereas only 14 percent of white residents do. In effect, Black, brown, and poor commuters are subsidizing transit for white and wealthier riders.
Another issue that highlights how free transit can advance racial justice is fare enforcement: Black riders are far more likely to be fined or arrested for fare evasion than their white counterparts. In Washington, D.C., for example, 91 percent of summonses for fare evasions were issued to Black people between 2016 and 2018 in a city that’s about 46 percent Black. And in Boston, white people, who make up more than two-thirds of MBTA riders, only accounted for one-third of fare evasion citations, according to data from a two-month period last year that the agency provided the Globe.
Although eliminating fares would add more cost to an already expensive operation, the long-term rewards would far outweigh the money spent now. By encouraging travel across the city, free transit would not only bolster the local economy and help businesses draw customers, but, by getting more people to rely on buses and trains as opposed to cars, it would also help cities reduce their carbon footprints. That will take more than an ad campaign; it will require governments to make public transit a more convenient and cost-efficient mode of transportation than other alternatives. “We can’t put the burden on individuals to solve what is ultimately a structural crisis,” said Wu, who believes in making transit free.
Lawmakers and transit officials often project their budget shortfalls as losses, as though their agencies are private businesses that should be concerned with turning a profit. But public transportation is a public — and essential — service, one that should be provided to citizens, no matter the cost. Sure, transit agencies are expensive, and most of them have to deal with budget shortfalls at one point or another. But those aren’t losses; they’re the cost of providing a public service, just like building roads, parks, or schools. (Cities often spend hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, of dollars a year on their police departments, yet none of those costs are deemed “losses” by police chiefs like transit costs are by transit chiefs, and law-enforcement agencies seldom face cuts.)
On the surface, scaling back services that people aren’t using at the moment might make sense. But building an equal society is an expensive endeavor, and sometimes it even requires inefficient spending. Making public transit free should not be a question of cost; it’s a matter of racial and economic justice — and of just how much elected officials actually want equality for all.