Free Transit: A Grand Opportunity

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MTI researchers explore the significant potential of combining fareless transit with other policies to address urgent industry issues, including low ridership and income inequality
July 13, 2022
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San José, CA

SAN JOSÉ, CA – July 13, 2022:  Free (or fareless) transit has been presented as part of a solution to many problems — low ridership, growing income inequality, racial discrimination, and even climate change. This solution has become increasingly popular because it is direct and easy-to-understand. While wholly unrealistic to expect fareless transit to solve any of these challenges on its own, this popular idea presents a substantial opportunity. It is worth asking — how can the ideas behind free transit be combined with other policies to make a dent in some of these goals? The latest Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) perspective, Free Transit: It All Depends on How, presents a variety of ideas, grounded in research, that show promise in empowering policymakers to combine free transit with other policies to overcome pressing problems in the transportation industry.

After investigating key issues of implementing fareless transit, the authors of this perspective argue that:

  • Limited fareless transit may place the burden of proof on low-income people to demonstrate that they are low-income, but free off-peak transit for everyone would eliminate this issue while not eliminating transit income—higher-income riders would be able to pay to ride at peak times, and low-income riders would be able to ride for free throughout the day (when they are most likely to).
  • Free transit will be more sustainable if combined with a new revenue source, otherwise the program could die away, or worse, lead to a greater drain on the already limited operating funds.
  • And, fareless transit as part of a Universal Basic Mobility (UBM) program may be a far better way to address the inequities in our mobility offerings than fareless transit alone.

“Packaged with other policy decisions, free transit has the potential to be a powerful tool to address some of our societal challenges. For example, UBM, based on Universal Basic Income (UBI), has gained some traction through pilot programs. UBM can provide a subsidy for low-income people to use as they see fit. The idea is to provide maximum flexibility in mobility options for those who need them the most,” explain the authors.

Developing the right combination of policies requires clear understanding of goals, but with a combined effort, transportation leaders can make transit more accessible and affordable, and even contribute to solving problems of equity and climate change.

ABOUT THE MINETA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE

At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nations’ transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. Founded in 1991, MTI is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants, including those made available by the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017 (SB1). MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Joshua Schank is an MTI Research Associate who holds a PhD in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a Managing Principal at InfraStrategies, and a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Schank previously served as Chief Innovation Officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), President and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, and Transportation Policy Advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Emma Huang is a Senior Consultant with InfraStrategies LLC. Emma previously worked as a Transportation Planner in the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at LA Metro. She has a Master of Public Policy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Media Contact:

Dr. Hilary Nixon
MTI Deputy Executive Director
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