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    When Buses Are Free But Trains Aren’t


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    ByJarrett Walker

    The campaign for free transit fares in US cities has made it to the big leagues. The city council in Washington, DC, has decided to fund free bus fares within city limits. Several bus lines in the Boston area are also now free to ride, an initiative spearheaded by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

    Smaller, less transit-intensive cities have been trying free fares for a while, but those agencies never got much of their revenue from fares anyway. In the biggest urban transit agencies, fares are a big source of funding, and that’s money that could have been spent on other things, like better service. As more public transit agencies consider the pros and cons of offering free or reduced-fare rides, this controversy is likely to continue, with eloquent arguments on both sides.

    But the Washington and Boston free-fare programs are different in another way: Those cities also have rail transit systems — but the free fares are only on buses. If that trend spreads, we should expect some bad consequences.

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    The new Washington plan will make every Metrobus in the city free, starting July 1. (The current standard bus fare is $2.) This will encourage cost-sensitive people to use the bus even when taking Metrorail rail transit could get them to their destination faster. A certain kind of capitalist would say this is fine: The train is faster, so it should cost more. But when people use a slower service rather than a faster one, it’s not just bad for them. It’s also bad for the transit agency budget, which means it’s bad for everyone who uses transit or benefits from it.

    When we encourage people to get off trains and onto parallel buses, both kinds of transit lose. Buses are smaller, so they run out of capacity at a lower level of ridership. This requires the transit agency to put out more service — buses that could have been used in areas away from train lines where they provide the only mobility.

    To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle.

    Trains, on the other hand, are much more likely to have surplus capacity, especially now that so many suburban commuters who used to pack them are working from home, so they could be serving many of the same people at lower cost.

    The DC decision should also be stimulating more debate about the deep question about the rail-bus distinction. What are these two technologies for? And separately, what do they mean?

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    To many, buses and trains symbolize positions in the class struggle. Equity advocates and wealthy elites often agree on this view. The equity advocate will say that we need to focus on buses because poor people use them, while I have heard elites argue (often in private) that we should neglect buses for the same reason. Most obviously, when developers and other elite urbanists argue that transit-oriented development requires rail, they are understandably privileging the view of people who are in the position to buy market-rate urban real estate. Those fortunate folks are especially likely to say, openly or not, that they would never ride a bus.

    But in an urban transit network that’s trying to give everyone the greatest possible access to destinations, rail and bus services work together, and many trips involve both. You use a train for longer trips along corridors with high demand. To travel in lower-demand areas, or to make many shorter trips, you take a bus. Sometimes you ride the subway for part of the trip and a bus for the rest. An efficient and therefore liberating urban transit network encourages people to think about the total network, and to use buses or trains according to which is better for each part of their trip.

    It’s certainly true that bus riders are poorer on average. But this isn’t a reflection of the bus itself, or how well this technology functions. It’s just a side effect of the fact that lower-income people tend to have travel needs that are more logically provided by buses. Higher-income people tend to have more specialized jobs with longer commutes concentrated at rush hour, and they are more likely to be going to white-collar jobs that cluster downtown. Both factors generate a demand for high capacity that leads logically to rail. Less wealthy people are more likely to be going in all directions all the time, producing more dispersed travel patterns that buses are ideally scaled to serve.

    What’s more, many urban transit trips involve both a bus and a train, and you don’t become a different person when you get off one and onto the other. That’s why the belief that “buses are for the poor” is both untrue and harmful. In better transit networks, buses aren’t just for the poor, and because everyone uses them, they’re better for everyone. If you become too attached to the “bus = poor” equation, you’ll never see that possibility.

    When we insist that the functionality of transit technologies should be sacrificed to serve our cultural generalizations about them, we require transit agencies to be more inefficient, and thus we reduce the quality of transit for everyone. Let’s have a debate about free fares, but that debate should be about the total transit network, because that’s the only thing that can get everyone where they’re going.

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    — Jarrett Walker is a public transit consultant and author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.

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