Washington D.C. to eliminate bus fares starting this summer

Public mass transit is the beating heart of pretty much every major city. It makes commuting affordable, cuts down on traffic and pollution, and allows visitors to navigate cities without the stress and danger of driving. It provides freedom of movement in a very immediate and concrete way, with none of the “access to x (for a price) bullshit. Well, except, that it does generally have a price, doesn’t it? It’s usually not hugely expensive, but if you’re really in a bad situation, any price may be more than you have. It is my view that mass transit should be free at the point of service, by default. I also think that should include the cross-country high speed rail that I would like everyone to start building now. Still, I accept that that may be a year or two off, so for now, I’ll take this wonderful news from Washington, D.C.:

Other cities, including Los Angeles and Kansas City, Missouri, suspended fare collection during the height of the pandemic to minimize human contact and ensure that residents with no other travel options could reach jobs and services at hospitals, grocery stores and offices.

But D.C.‘s permanent free fare plan will be by far the biggest, coming at a time when major cities including Boston and Denver and states such as Connecticut are considering broader zero-fare policies to improve equity and help regain ridership that was lost with the rise of remote and hybrid work. Los Angeles instituted free fares in 2020 before recently resuming charging riders. Lately LA Metro has been testing a fare-capping plan under which transit riders pay for trips until they hit a fixed dollar amount and then ride free after that, though new Mayor Karen Bass has suggested support for permanently abolishing the fares.

Analysts say D.C.’s free fare system offers a good test case on how public transit can be reshaped for a post-pandemic future.

If D.C. demonstrates that it increases ridership, it reduces the cost burden for people who are lower income and it improves the quality of transit service in terms of speed of bus service, and reduces cars on the road, this could be a roaring success,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “We just don’t know yet whether that would happen.”

The $2 fares will be waived for riders boarding Metrobuses within the city limits beginning around July 1. In unanimously approving the plan last week, the D.C. Council also agreed to expand bus service to 24 hours on 12 major routes downtown, benefiting nightlife and service workers who typically had to rely on costly ride-share to get home after the Metro subway and bus system closed at night.

A new $10 million fund devoted to annual investments in D.C. bus lanes, shelters and other improvements was also approved to make rides faster and more reliable.

I’m a fan of this trend, and even more pleased to see that the DC city council seems to be allocating money for improving things, on top of turning the busses into a genuine public service. I don’t see how it could possibly not reduce the burden on poorer people. I don’t know whether it will increase ridership a whole lot – sometimes you just cut costs elsewhere to make sure you can get to work – but I suspect there will be a measurable increase.

Unfortunately, some people who drive cars do so specifically because they have money, and because they want to avoid mixing with the common folk. I don’t know what proportion of DC traffic is made up of those people, but it wouldn’t shock me to learn that it’s pretty high. The article I’m quoting is from Fortune, so of course they had to get the opinion of an extremist neoliberal think tank:

Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Cato Institute, said the plan risks high costs and mixed results, noting that the opportunity to improve ridership may be limited because bus passengers have been quicker to return to near pre-pandemic levels. He said government subsidies to help lower-income people buy cars would go farther because not everyone has easy access to public transit, which operates on fixed routes.

“The beauty of automobiles is they can go anywhere and everywhere in a way that transit does not,” he said. “We don’t know the subset of low-income people in D.C. where transit is a wonderful option as opposed to not such a wonderful option.”

The Cato Institute advocates for the privatization of public services, has worked hard to protect tobacco industry profits, opposes climate action, opposes civil rights, opposes women’s rights – so, you know, they’re mainstream U.S. conservatives, and because they have money backing them, we apparently have to take them seriously. Thankfully, they’re not getting their way on this. They might try to get Congress to interfere, but it seems like there’s actual momentum in the right direction. The most predictable hurdle to clear will be the question of paying for it.

Still, free fares can be a tough choice for cities. “If the consequence of a zero-fare program is you have less funds to invest in frequent service, then you’re going backwards,” Guzzetti said.

In Kansas City, which began offering zero-fares for its buses in March 2020 and has no planned end date, officials said the program has helped boost ridership, which has risen by 13% in 2022 so far compared with the previous year. The free fares amount to an $8 million revenue loss, with the city paying for more than half of that and federal COVID aid covering the rest through 2023, said Cindy Baker, interim vice president for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, who describes the program as a success.

The program has eliminated altercations between passengers and bus drivers over fares, although there have been more instances of passenger disputes due to an increase in homeless riders, according to the agency. Baker said the transit agency has been adding security in response to some rider complaints.

To me, revenue is not a complicated problem – impose a tax that increases with wealth/income. Ideally, it should be considerably more than the expected cost of running things, so that the system can be improved, more people hired for cleaning and maintenance, and maybe they can even pay to make sure nonviolent conflict resolution is a big part of the training for all that added security.

Seems like that would create jobs, increase consumer spending, and generally make life better for everyone, not to mention nobody would be late to work because they couldn’t afford the bus. Still, conservatives like the folks at the Cato Institute seem to think that making life better for people – especially via public spending- is evil. We’ve got a long way to go before the capitalists served by organizations like that don’t have the power to interfere in governance, but every step we take that makes life a little easier for the general public gives us a little more power as individuals. That doesn’t mean we will use that slack to rise up and change the world, but it gives more room for the possibility.

I expect that the D.C. experiment will be a huge success in all the ways I care about, and that no amount of success will persuade those ideologically opposed to public services. Fortunately, we don’t need to persuade them, we just need to beat them.

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  1. sonofrojblake says

    revenue is not a complicated problem

    Can’t it be funded at least in part like much of the internet? Bus passengers are a captive audience – advertising at them would be effective and the revenue from that should be pretty constant.

    Also: tax the car drivers using the same roads as the buses, with a congestion charge like the one successfully used in London. The drivers should be happy to pay for the buses, because a fully loaded bus replaces what? Fifty other cars?

    I’ll leave you with a quote from the late great Margaret Thatcher:

    “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure”

    Fuck that woman was evil.

  2. says

    My one hesitation on taxing cars is that it moves automobile traffic towards “only for the rich”. Ideally, I want policies that don’t hurt people at the bottom. Income/wealth taxes are automatically means-tested.

    It’s not an inherently bad idea, IMO, but depending on how it’s done it could be like attempts at raising gas taxes or imposing carbon taxes – it tends to hurt those at the bottom more, even if it costs those at the top more.

  3. anat says

    To me, revenue is not a complicated problem – impose a tax that increases with wealth/income.

    I wish we could do that in Washington state, but according to our courts that is against the state constitution. It states explicitly that property has to be taxed at equal rates, and there is a court decision that says income is part of one’s property. Thus we have the most regressive tax system of all states, relying on a high sales tax, car tab tax, and flat property taxes.

  4. Dunc says

    Bus passengers are a captive audience – advertising at them would be effective and the revenue from that should be pretty constant.

    Bus passengers tend not to be a demographic that advertisers are willing to pay much to advertise to though. Using buses as mobile billboards seems to be a bit more effective, but even there it’s clearly not a great market, jugding by how long ads for movies can hang around on the ones I use here in Edinburgh.

    The drivers should be happy to pay for the buses, because a fully loaded bus replaces what? Fifty other cars?

    Lol. In my experience, many drivers aren’t happy to pay for anything, no matter how obviously it would be in their interests, except maybe “fixing the potholes”, which seems to be the only governement or council expenditure many of them regard as legitimate. Judging by comments on social media and letters to the local paper, anyway, which is obviously a flawed methodology… But either somebody’s putting a lot of effort into astroturfing an ideology I can only describe as “car supremacy”, or there are a lot of people out there who are way too invested in their relationships with their cars. Only their cars mind you – obviously everybody else on the road is merely an obstacle.

  5. Dunc says

    On the topic of “car supremacy”, and possibly of wider interest on this blog, I’ve just read quite an interesting article on attitudes to cars and their place in the built environment in the early 20th century: When Cities Treated Cars as Dangerous Intruders

    Today it is a commonplace that the automobile represents freedom. But to many Americans in the 1920s, the car and its driver were tyrants that deprived others of their freedom.


    City people saw the car not just as a menace to life and limb, but also as an aggressor upon their time-honored rights to city streets. “The pedestrian,” explained a Brooklyn man, “as an American citizen, naturally resents any intrusion upon his prior constitutional rights.”  Custom and the Anglo-American legal tradition confirmed pedestrians’ inalienable right to the street.

    How things have changed!

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