How free bus rides impact riders and transit systems

Free bus rides have been a relief for many low-income workers who depend on public transit to get to their jobs, health care, and other essential services. But the policy also raises questions about its fairness, viability, and long-term effects on ridership and revenue.

Free rides boost ridership amid pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the public transit sector hard, as many people shifted to remote work, avoided crowded places, or opted for other modes of transportation. According to a Stateline analysis, only 23 cities had ridership in 2023 that was equal to or higher than in 2019, and most of them did not charge fares at least part of the year.

One of the cities that recovered its ridership was Richmond, Virginia, where regional leaders first dropped fares in March 2020 to support essential workers and to make it easier for people to get to hospitals and doctors. A $4.5 million state grant from Virginia’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program has helped make the free rides possible.

Richmond is one of the few cities where transit systems have regained pre-pandemic ridership, according to a Stateline analysis, and waiving fares has played a large part. The strategy has been especially helpful to lower-paid workers, who make up a large share of transit users.

How free bus rides impact riders and transit systems

Melvin Wilson, a 28-year-old Richmond resident who works at a warehouse, said that free bus rides have made his life easier and saved him $60 or more of his monthly pay. He worries that fares might come back and go even higher, making it harder for him to afford to get to work.

“It could throw a lot of people like me out of their comfort zone. I think people would lose their jobs over this, especially if it happened too fast,” Wilson said.

Free rides pose challenges for sustainability and equity

While free rides can boost ridership and benefit low-income riders, they also pose challenges for the financial sustainability and equity of transit systems. Fares typically account for a significant portion of transit revenue, which is used to cover operating and maintenance costs, as well as to fund improvements and expansions.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, fares generated $16.1 billion in 2019, or about 36% of the total operating revenue of transit agencies. Without fares, transit systems would have to rely more on other sources of funding, such as taxes, grants, or subsidies, which may not be stable or sufficient.

The question is whether such policies are financially sustainable — or fair, given that higher-income riders benefit too. Some critics argue that free rides are a regressive policy that subsidizes wealthier riders who can afford to pay, while diverting resources from other transit needs, such as service quality, frequency, and coverage.

A study by the Eno Center for Transportation found that eliminating fares would increase ridership by only 3% to 20%, depending on the mode and location, and that the benefits would mostly accrue to existing riders, rather than attracting new ones. The study also estimated that the cost of providing free rides would be $38.8 billion over 10 years, which would exceed the benefits by $16.8 billion.

Free rides require careful planning and evaluation

Given the trade-offs and uncertainties involved in offering free rides, transit systems need to carefully plan and evaluate their policies, taking into account their goals, context, and alternatives. Some factors to consider include:

  • The purpose and scope of the policy. Free rides can be offered for different reasons, such as increasing ridership, reducing congestion and emissions, improving social equity, or responding to emergencies. They can also be targeted to specific groups, such as low-income, elderly, or disabled riders, or to specific times, such as off-peak hours, weekends, or holidays.
  • The funding and budget implications. Free rides can have a significant impact on the revenue and expenses of transit systems, as well as on the availability and allocation of other funding sources. Transit systems need to assess the short-term and long-term effects of free rides on their financial health and performance, and identify potential ways to offset the lost revenue or reduce the costs.
  • The ridership and service impacts. Free rides can affect the demand and supply of transit services, as well as the behavior and satisfaction of riders. Transit systems need to monitor and measure the changes in ridership, mode choice, trip patterns, and customer feedback, and adjust their service levels and quality accordingly.
  • The social and environmental outcomes. Free rides can have broader implications for the society and the environment, such as reducing poverty, improving access and mobility, enhancing public health and safety, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Transit systems need to evaluate the extent and distribution of these benefits and costs, and compare them with other policy options.

Free bus rides are not a one-size-fits-all solution for the challenges facing public transit. They can be a useful tool for some transit systems and situations, but they also entail trade-offs and risks that need to be carefully weighed and managed.


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