Should transit be free?

Photo courtesy of Don McCullough

 

It’s a drag to have to pay for public transit, right?

I know the feeling. As a teenager, I could certainly have put that money to different uses. When I first went to Europe and discovered transit systems that operated on the “honor system”, my friend and I “honorarily” gave ourselves free rides. I was a toll-avoider too, back in the day.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t do any of this today. But it does beg the question about the price of transit, and the purpose transit serves. If we believe (as I do) that public transit is a public good, then we would want to do everything we could to encourage it. And an easy way, seemingly, would be to bring the price of transit down to $0.

An interesting idea. But does it make any sense?

Swedish for common cents

A group in Stockholm certainly thinks so. And they’ve banded together to create a DIY group insurance policy against paying fares. (HT: Saul of Hearts via Twitter)

Apparently, the way it works is:

“Each member pays about $12 in monthly dues—which beats paying for a $35 weekly pass—and the resulting pool of cash more than covers any fines members incur.”

The penalty for being caught without a fare is apparently $120, and given the level of enforcement (or lack thereof) in the system, it’s apparently a good deal.

I’m impressed with the creativity of this group. By using collectivism, they have found a way to cut their own costs. This is a great benefit of collectivism, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, I think this scheme is selfish, myopic, and disastrous for the greater good.

Adventures in not thinking about others

Yes, those in the scheme get cheap transit (though not free, interestingly, as they have to pay the “insurance” costs). But now the transit company is getting less revenue. And where is that money going to come from now?

See, if you don’t pay for something that you use, that doesn’t mean that the cost is zero. It means that the cost must be picked up somewhere else. And how will this “someone else” pay? Either through higher fares, raised taxes, or worse service.

How are you enjoying that “free ride” now?

Your fare should be $10, not $0

Now granted, the farebox recovery ratio (percentage of operating expenses which are covered by passenger fares) is already ludicrously low. Here is how much your fare is going toward the cost of your ride given a few random examples:

  • New York City: 51.2%
  • Philadelphia: 40.7%
  • Portland, OR: 22.0%
  • Austin, TX: 12.4%

And, as it’s relevant:

  • Stockholm, Sweden: 37.0%

Now, average fare cost is hard to calculate, as many people don’t pay the base fare (monthly passes offer a variable discount). But taking my home city of Portland, OR, if you assume if the average people pay for a ride is $2, that means that on average, one would need to pay $9 per ride to totally cover the cost of the ride. Tell me again why transit is too expensive?

But in Stockholm, if you pay into this scheme, you’re allowing the transit agency to forfeit 37% of the cost of providing you the fare. Not 100%, but still hard to rationalize.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m on board some of the views that I’ve read from this group. Check this:

[We want a] society where no one is forced into motorism, whether passively or actively. A society where proximity and availability to what people need to satisfy their needs and desires are put at the forefront.

I believe that the motorist is given way too much street space and priority, at the expense of effectively everything else in our lives (including but not limited to our quality of life). I guess I’d just like to see them advocate for change in a way that doesn’t appear to hinder the very system they propose to support.

Free isn’t freedom

Ultimately, the question of whether transit should be free is an incorrect question. Nothing is free. If something requires work, energy, or any other cost, that cost must be borne by someone or something. These trains and buses aren’t going to run on nothing.

The question you’re asking is whether you yourself should pay for transit. And it’s hard to answer a question that’s so informed by self interest. I wish lots of things were free, but that doesn’t mean that they can be or ought to be.

I believe that if you don’t pay for a fare by paying for the fare outright, then you will pay for it in other (less desirable ways). But if you can answer the question “who should pay for transit other than the riders?” I’m all ears.

Oh, and Stockholm, would you please step up your fare enforcement? You can easily kill this “insurance” scheme if you increase the number of fines you give out.

But enough about me: Do you think transit should be free?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

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Mike Pumphrey
Posted on February 16, 2015