Will Free Transit Fares Outlast the COVID Age?

Will Free Transit Fares Outlast the COVID Age?
Will Free Transit Fares Outlast the COVID Age?
By Katie Jurenka, Project Analyst

COVID-19 has radically altered how public transit agencies provide service. Service changes like social distancing requirements and reduced vehicle loads will likely become less stringent as vaccination is more widespread. Other changes, like improved cleaning regiments, may become the new normal for agencies hoping to provide excellent service to their customers. Free public transit service may outlast the pandemic as well.

Fare-free service was originally introduced to many agencies in March 2020, helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 by limiting contact with fares and other surfaces for passengers and bus operators. Some agencies have resumed fare collection after building barriers to protect operators, while others continue fare-free service, but plan to resume collecting fares once it is safe to do so. But what began as a public health decision may become permanent for some transit agencies.

Middletown Transit Service, operated by the Butler County Regional Transit Authority in Ohio, announced it will continue fare-free service through 2021. County administrative director Susan Cohen noted the fare-free decision will “help those who are struggling financially”, as the country experiences record unemployment and economic precarity. The decision may be easier for smaller agencies like Middletown Transit Service, as only 6% of revenue comes from fares.

Larger agencies may look to the experience of Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which became the first major US city to introduce fare-free transit in December 2019. Kansas City’s Zero Fare Transit Plan includes introducing fare-free service incrementally, first for students, veterans and riders of certain routes.

LA Metro is the latest major agency to consider free public transit. The Fareless System Initiative will study the implications of fare-free service for LA Metro, including revenue impacts, funding opportunities, potential savings in fare collection costs, ridership and rider experience, and mitigation of racial discrimination in fare enforcement. The agency hopes to improve mobility for impoverished riders, help alleviate Los Angeles’ traffic congestion, and re-imagine urban public space with fewer cars. Recommendations from the taskforce are expected early this year.