rebutting the “vagrancy” argument against free fares

Smart-Card-Reader-Light-Rail-Jake Blumgart did a good article back in March summing up the current status of debate about free-fare transit.  

Generally, transit systems without fares are either really small and often rural — situations where the fares may not even cover the costs of charging fares — or else college towns, where the university is often subsidizing most of the ridership anyway.  But there's the interesting case of Tallinn, Estonia.  This is a significant city and capital, population 426,000, and it's posting results:

Tallinn’s transportation department reports that traffic fell by 10 percent, meaning about 7,600 fewer cars in the city per day.  

In that context, this passage from Jake's article was interesting:

Would such a scheme work in a mid-to-large American city? According to Jennifer Perone’s 2002 study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Florida Department of Transportation, it isn’t likely. While she wrote that free transit is manageable and worthwhile in rural regions and small towns, she cautioned against such a policy for larger systems:

All well-informed transit professionals that were contacted for their opinions spoke strongly against the concept of free fares for large systems, suggesting some minimal fare needs to be in place to discourage vagrancy, rowdiness and a degradation of service.

These experts drew on the experiences of three mid-sized American cities that briefly experimented with fare free transit. Between 1978 and 1979, both Trenton, N.J., and Denver, Colo. offered free transit during non-peak hours. In both cases, ridership increased (by 16 percent and 36 percent, respectively). The authors claim however, that these were generally not people lured from cars, but were what they call “problem riders.” In Trenton, 92 percent of transit drivers reported that their jobs were less enjoyable after the free fare program was instituted. These issues, along with revenue problems, caused both cities to discontinue their experiments after a year.

It would be interesting to see if the last 11 years have changed US expert opinion.  I'm sure it wasn't true that a 16-36 percent increase in ridership consisted largely of "problem riders," though I'm sure there were enough problem riders to be an issue.   The new riders were probably mostly people getting where they're going, and quite possibly triggering fewer car trips as a result.  And are we sure that nobody sold a car as a result of the free service? 

(A significant share of transit trips by people without cars would be "chauffeured" if transit were not available; that is, someone would have made a car trip to transport the person.  This is especially true of senior/disabled riders and essential errands, which therefore count as Vehicle Miles Traveled reductions due to transit, not just social-service benefits.  Is your transit agency taking due credit for these?)

It sounds as though the authors were operating on the old binary model of choice-vs-captive ridership, under which additional ridership by people who don't own cars is assigned zero value to environmental or traffic outcomes.  In fact, the overall transit service offering (including its cost) is an important in many people's choice not to own cars.  The choice to not own a car is one of many complex possibilities that fries the circuits of algorithms (and experts) that rely on dividing all riders into boxes called choice (car owners who left the car at home) and captive or transit dependent.  In fact, we're all on a spectrum between choice and captive, and we are each in different situations that may make us responsive to small improvements in transit service or, in this case, cost.  If that weren't true, small changes in frequency or fare wouldn't cause small changes in ridership, as they almost always do.

It is likely that in the US experiments, there were enough "problem riders" to be a problem, but the obvious solution to this is Tallinn's solution, which is to require each free rider to use a smartcard, one that takes some effort to get and that can be revoked for bad behavior.  

The problem with free-fare systems in big cities is not the "problem rider."  The problem is that free fares cause such a huge ridership increase that no big-city US transit agency could possibly fund enough service to handle it.  It would not just require the purchase and operations funds for hundreds if not thousands of new buses (and new facilities for them to be housed and maintained).  It would also quickly require whole new rapid transit lines.  Most of our current modelling of rapid transit in the US assumes that fares will continue to hold ridership down.  

So yes, free fares would be a big deal in big cities (though not as much for small ones).  They are a huge barrier to cross, especially for impoverished US transit systems in major cities.  They would require a transformative degree of new public investment.  All that must be debated.  

But don't let the "vagrants" scare you. 


23 Responses to rebutting the “vagrancy” argument against free fares

  1. jfruh July 30, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Baltimore is experimenting with the free-fare Charm City Circulator, which has several routes going through the urban core (an area that has plenty of experience with vagrants and other sketchy characters). I haven’t heard any sustained criticism of the system along these lines. You do hear occasional anecdotes about people on the Circulator, but they don’t seem any different in tone that anecdotes about people on the MTA’s buses. And (obviously this is not data, but) the last time I rode the Circulator I heard someone who read to me as comfortably middle class and of the sort who wouldn’t surprise me as uncomfortable on public transit extolling the Circulator and claiming she and her husband almost never drive anywhere downtown anymore because the Circulator was available.

  2. Aaronpriven July 30, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    I think the insight that choice-or-captive is too simple a way to classify riders is important. Do people choose to take transit instead of being driven by a friend or relative? Do people postpone their purchase of a car because they can use transit?

  3. Bruce Nourish July 30, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    “The problem with free-fare systems in big cities is not the ‘problem rider.'”
    Problem riders may not be a sufficient reason to prevent going fare-free, but I can tell you that civility and conduct have improved markedly on downtown Seattle routes since the RFA went away (I lived in or just past the end of it for two and a half years).
    Just the idea that a bus is a place with rules is enough to prevent a lot of knuckleheads from getting on it, and I think that just asking people to pay the fare helps to set that expectation.
    This outcome could also have been achieved by having transit police or hired security patrol the buses downtown, but that’s expensive in an obvious way, whereas having the driver ask for fares is a cost that’s buried in lots of tiny increases in running times and schedule unreliability — and is thus more palatable to agency managers.

  4. Andrew MacDonald July 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

    There’s also the political angle, in that transit riders are often derided as “not paying their fair (fare?) share”.
    Discontinuing even minimal fares opens transit up to significant political attack based on it being a straight subsidy for the poor rather than the hybrid revenue-generating/subsidy using enterprise it is now.

  5. Steve Lax July 30, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Trenton is a relatively poor city. During the free fare experiment, many of the additional riders were teenagers who boarded in large groups and who were basically joy riding.
    While criminality may have been low, their raucous behavior scared many of the adult customers, especially seniors.
    And, since they were joy riders, there was little reduced VMT.

  6. EngineerScotty July 30, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    I would be careful with the term “vagrancy” in this context, as it could mean two different things:
    1) Homeless people (or other poor people who cannot otherwise afford to pay fares) using public transit to get places–an intended use of the system, albeit by a demographic that other riders may object to.
    2) Homeless people using public transit vehicles for shelter. Obviously, not an intended use of the system. (Station facilities, particularly sheltered ones, are also often used for this purpose, and in many cases no fare is required to use such places).

  7. Matt Haley July 31, 2013 at 6:38 am #

    One useful construct to use to think this through is that transit capacity is a perishable good; once the vehicle has made a trip with capacity available, it is wasted. From this perspective, there is a strong argument that filling those spots is a waste prevention measure – the subsudy per rider decreases simply by increasing the denominator. That said, many large urban systems operate above capacity during their peak and even shoulder-peak – there is nothing going to waste there.
    I think wide spectrum free fares are ultimately harmful to any size system however. People ascribe value to their money, and therefore ascribe value to what they spend it on. Whenever I hear of something that’s free, I immediately remind myself that ‘You get what you pay for’. Free fares should only be considered a tool in the transit agency toolkit that helps achieve particular objectives – whether that’s demand management objectives, by stretching the peak, or social objectives for particular goups (seniors, disabled).

  8. Neil July 31, 2013 at 7:33 am #

    Indeed, I only sold my car *because* I could take transit to work (with a merely “reasonable” time penalty compared to car travel), allowing our family to get by with one car instead of two.
    It was a hard decision financially, because the cost of taking transit was roughly the same as the cost of gas+parking (yes I know car ownership has other costs). If transit were cheaper/free, it would have made the decision much simpler.

  9. calwatch July 31, 2013 at 10:59 am #

    Also, there is the cost of added stops for buses, which must be considered. I may not pay $1 for a half mile trip, but if the bus happens to be there, I’ll take it, while delaying 30-40 other people already on board for this (if no one else is getting on or off there). For suburban routes, which skip most of their stops since no one is boarding or alighting, this time penalty can be substantial.

  10. Eric July 31, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    Free fares = more riders = more frequency = better service for everyone (except in very dense cities). That’s a big advantage, assuming issues like funding and vagrancy are solved.

  11. Jeff Wegerson July 31, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Bad behavior in general, like crime, has likely fallen greatly especially since the late 70’s. Beginning the mid 90’s there has been a yearly fall in crime. That would be a significant reason to believe that the bad behavior and “vagrancy” results of free fare experiments of the 70’s would not replicate today.
    As an aside, I personally find the theory of the removal of lead from gas and paint to be the most compelling.

  12. Ben Smith July 31, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Living in a place with free health care, I am far more open to the idea of free transit. Ironically, in the GTA I sometimes feel as if revenue is the end all and be all of providing service. It seems as if every single transit project and initiative is scrutinized fiscally, and ends up watered down because of it.
    The TTC may be the worst offender of this. Monthly passes do not break even until nearly 50 rides, while most other systems see their passes break even by about 40. Hell, when the federal government began issuing a tax credit on transit passes, the TTC considered using the opportunity to raise it further! Meanwhile while most cities have adopted a timed transfer, Toronto still uses unilateral transfers with no backtracking or stopovers.
    The reason for not going ahead on these modest proposals is because it would cost too much money – this despite having some of the highest fares in the country, and highest paid bus drivers too. Yes unlike other large Canadian cities the TTC does not get a subsidy from the province, but even when we did passes were not cost effective and transfers were restrictive.

  13. free transit August 1, 2013 at 1:11 am #

    Not included in the framing of the subject are the huge welfare costs of the private auto and sprawl. The IMF puts global annual fossil fuel subsidy at USD 2 trillion. If these costs were included your comment on large cities would be changed thus:
    “The problem is that free fares cause such a huge ridership increase…”
    “The solution is that free fares cause such a huge ridership increase…”

  14. M1EK August 2, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    Austin did a free-fare experiment in the 1990s, and the results were exactly what Jarrett claims doesn’t happen – lots of vagrants, almost zero additional serious riders. In fact, as I recall, serious riders went DOWN after a while due to the effect of the vagrants.
    To assert that lowering fares to zero would overwhelm a transit system is to completely misunderstand the decision-making-process of most people who are not currently using the system. Cost has almost nothing to do with why more people don’t ride buses in Austin, for instance. It has to do with time to destination, reliability, and the walk.

  15. EngineerScotty August 2, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Other than your stated concern about union salaries and benefits–is anyone getting rich off of TTC? Are management salaries excessive? Are vendors getting fat off of contracts with the agency?
    The reason that I ask is that public agencies don’t have shareholders demanding either a) dividends or b) increases in share price. While books must be balanced, it is somewhat unusual for public transit agencies to engage in aggressive “profit”-maximizing behavior (profit being in scare-quotes for a reason)–when it does occur, it is often a sign of corruption. That said, I’m not sure the behavior you note qualifies–true profit-maximizing behavior would consist of things like a) deliberately withholding service that is cost-effective for both riders and agency, on the ground that it might reduce revenue; b) fare policies designed to soak the poor, for many of whom demand for transit is inelastic (a more economically-precise way of saying “captive rider”).

  16. Andre Lot August 3, 2013 at 1:37 am #

    @Ben: I don’t think free (at point of use) health care is a good comparison to free transit. Most people will avoid using health care even if its marginal cost is zero (and I bet elective procedures/services like cosmetic plastic surgery, or gym memberships, are not free)

  17. Paul Fisher August 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    Perth (Western Australia) has had two free systems operating for years. Firstly the central area transit (CAT) buses which run defined routes through the CBD and adjoining areas, and secondly the free transit zone (FTZ) in which all trips within the zone are free.
    When the CAT service first started (using specially designed short-wheelbase, large door vehicles) there was a proportion of riders who used the service as something to fill in a day which might otherwise have been spent camped in an alleyway. This seems to have declined with time to the extent that I don’t notice any problem these days. The CAT has been very successful (notwithstanding the change to conventional buses) and a new route was recently introduced in Perth as well as services at Fremantle and Joondalup.
    The FTZ operates over a similar area to the CATs but applies to all buses and trains. For a bus, you just hop on and hop off at your convenience. For the train system you need to tag on with Smartrider and tag off at your destination. For trips within the FTZ, Smartrider records a zero charge on your account.
    Both services are extremely popular with locals and visitors. They are subsidised from the Perth parking levy fund – a tax on parking bays within the CBD. parking levy funds are quarantined for the provision and improvement of transport services within the CBD area.
    This is obviously quite a different concept from the low ridership rural services referenced in the article above.

  18. Mike August 4, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Why would free fare transit attract anyone with a choice in most American cities, when the transit offered is so poor and does not even service entire metropolitan area destinations?
    In my view, American transit systems need to worry about putting out good service, and serving all destinations within an urban area. Not worrying about things like free fares which do nothing to address the poor transit service on offer.
    It will take more than a free fare to get people with a choice to take a bus service which only operates every 30-60 minutes if you are lucky, and which ends at 7pm. Along with the host of other issues American transit systems face, like not going directly into major destinations like malls in many cities.
    If anything, American cities need to raise fares and generate more revenue for better service.

  19. Joe Busman August 5, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    Nothing is free. A “free” fare simply means, 100% subsidized bus service. Whenever you hear “free” sirens should be going off, not in a good way. Free leads to inefficiency. Have we learned nothing from the Communists and their long, long lines and waiting lists for government subsidized food and shelter and healthcare? It’s government taking all your money and deciding to spend it equally among all citizens. So what’s the point of taking risks and investing in your own business? Going to medical school? Working 80 hours a week? Government will just swoop in, take all your money and spread it around, including the bum who lies on his couch all day doing nothing.
    What’s wrong with free bus service? How about I get on the bus and get off at the next stop because I don’t want to walk two blocks? How about instead of planning three trips to get to two destinations, I just make two round-trips. How about instead of waiting until rush hour is over, I just jump on a bus and force them to pass by customers just getting off work? If the government gave everyone free gas, imagine the incredible inefficiency of travel patterns??? And that is why government does not give everyone free gas and why they shouldn’t give everyone free transit rides.
    Lastly, free gifts buy you resentment. It robs the recipient of dignity. Try this with any friend. Start showering them with gifts. You might expect them to love you and do favors for you at the drop of a hat. Take you to the airport? Sure thing! In reality, that pal will hate you and if you ask him for a ride to the airport he’ll make a thousand excuses then call you names behind your back. Want free transit, prepared for customers demanding more, vandalizing more, and making life for all transit users miserable. Commies!

  20. Ian J August 5, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

    @Joe Busman: Do you believe the government should provide free schools? Even for kids who don’t work hard? How about roads that are free to drive on? Sidewalks that are free to walk on, even though bums will take up space sitting around on them? Where do you draw the line?

  21. Pete B August 12, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    The UK has free bus travel for senior citizens within each of the Home Nations. So if you have the time you can travel the length of England (or Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) by bus. This is part funded by central government, so forms an ever increasing amount in local government budgets. Each English local authority runs its own scheme, negotiating a fixed re-imbursement rate with local bus companies, this can be as low as 40% of the average fare. The rule is that bus companies must be no better or worse off than if free travel did not exist. Bus companies have a right of appeal if they think the reimbursement rate is too low. Senior citizen free bus travel is very popular but can impact severely on local government budgets, particularly in coastal holiday resorts and other tourist destinations. In London children also get free travel and a special Oyster Card is issued for this purpose.

  22. Brian August 15, 2013 at 12:10 am #

    Social service agencies in Santa Clara County (SF Bay Area, California) have been giving homeless people free passes for the VTA (Valley Transportation Authority) bus service for quite a few years now. It creates the same effect and many of the same problems as a transit agency adopting a “free fare” policy.
    I realize many of the people getting the free passes may in fact be using them for “actual transportation” as in going places for specific needs (going from shelters to work or various daily errands ect.). Those people are not the problem. The ‘problem’ is that the same free passes are also given to people with severe mental disabilities who live on the street by choice and refuse the assistance of shelters (aka the “Crazies” as many have called them). I know it may seem insensitive but sometimes it’s a very apt description!
    You can always count on these people riding on VTA route 22. Route 22 is a 24 hour service running a 24 mile / 90 minute run from Palo Alto to East San Jose. Quite a few homeless people do nothing but ride back and forth on it all day and all night. I would guess at least 75% of the riders on the night time runs are homeless.
    It wouldn’t bother me if not for the fact that so many of these people “stink to high heaven”! If you think this sounds petty of me you do not yet understand! Whenever I board the bus I feel an anxiety attack coming on if I can’t find a seat or standing location near an operable window. I’ve smelled plenty of ungodly things on that bus! That would include a passenger carrying around an old coffee can filled with his feces! Transit agencies need to have the right to refuse service to certain passengers. Sometimes I see the bus driver wearing a face mask and spraying cans of Lysol through the bus.
    To make matters worse the seats on VTA buses are fabric covered foam cushions perpetually stained with who knows what. It baffles me as to who could of thought fabric seats on a public bus was a smart idea? I would guess these seats are many magnitudes worse than BART’s notorious dirty seats. I think BART at least has a more rigorous cleaning regimen than the VTA. I don’t know why the VTA didn’t consider the easier to clean vinyl cushioned seats used by SamTrans or the hard plastic seats used by SF Muni. It makes a major difference in the perceived cleanliness of the buses. You got to be able to “hose them down” and give the interiors a good deep cleaning.
    The ‘hygiene factor’ and the “Crazies” are more than enough to discourage new riders. It can get so bad for night time service I almost feel like the VTA should make it an ‘extra fare’ service to discourage endless back and forth riding. It would even be better for the VTA to create a new “stationary route” with a dedicated bus that stays parked while homeless people sleep in it for 90 minutes at a time. I know the VTA should not be in the “shelter business” but that seems like the default situation it has allowed itself to fall into. Then again if they are already refusing to visit true shelters and address their hygiene issues they will probably avoid the stationary “shelter bus” as well.
    I would like to think the situation might improve if or when true BRT service is put into place however like the limited stop Route 522 (“BRT-lite”) I am afraid it will attract the “Crazies” just the same. The lesser the stops the smoother the ride and easier to sleep. As they see it the only downside would be that they would get to the end of the line quicker.

  23. Mike Brown April 18, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    This is a great post. Americans are willing to spend billions on glitzy passenger rail projects that ultimately carry a tiny fraction of what similar funds invested into free transit would carry. Of course you cannot ride free transit if there is no transit, but if we were really serious about getting more transit riders, the best first place to start is not with more “capital projects”, but just eliminating fares.
    Yes, that would overwhelm existing rolling stock, but just raise a billion in the same way you would for rail, but instead buy enough buses to handle the on-onslaught. That would result in higher frequencies on routes, which would also attract even more riders.
    I was puzzled by how to deal with the vagrancy problem, but the smart card is ingenious! Maintain the fare requirement for out-of-town visitors, for those who never bothered to get a card, and for those whose cards have been revoked. That should result in law-abiding citizens pretty much.
    Cards would be issued only with valid ID, and once revoked your ID would be invalid for a period of years, or perhaps with paying a fine.
    This would be by far the most effective “transit project” any city could “build.”

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