Panos Prevedouros, PHD

BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – That’s a question that comes up often in public forums I attend. Why don’t we make public transit like Honolulu’sTheBus free?

The Transportation Research Board, a unit of the National Academy of Engineering has just released a report titled, Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems.

The quotes below help us conclude that tiny systems like the one on the Big Island are better of being free because it costs more to collect money than the money that will be actually collected. Large systems like Honolulu’s can’t be run for free. They will run out of funds quickly and they’ll likely become movable homeless shelters. Recall that TheBus is cutting routes because it cannot afford its fuel bill.

Actual ridership of free bus systems also showed that free bus does not translate into less traffic congestion because even at zero cost, too few motorists switch to the bus.

Here are the main findings of the report:

  1. No public transit system in the United States with more than 100 buses currently offers fare-free service. (Honolulu TheBus has over 550 buses.)
  2. The largest jurisdictions currently providing fare-free service are Indian River County, Florida, and the island of Hawaii, both with populations of approximately 175,000. (The free bus on the Big Island basically transports workers from Hilo to resorts in Kailua-Kona.)
  3. Fare-free public transit makes the most internal business sense for systems in which the percentage of farebox revenue to operating expenses is quite low. In such cases, the cost associated with collecting and accounting for fares and producing fare media is often close to, or exceeds, the amount of revenue that would be collected from passengers.
  4. Providing fare-free public transit service is virtually certain to result in significant ridership increases no matter where it is implemented. Ridership will usually increase from 20% to 60% in a matter of just a few months. (Note: It’s worth exploring a low cost bus fare between the Waianae coast communities and the Kapolei transit center.)
  5. Some public transit systems that have experimented with or implemented a fare-free policy have been overwhelmed by the number of new passengers or been challenged by the presence of disruptive passengers, including loud teenagers and vagrants.
  6. Systems offering fare-free service in areas of higher potential demand for public transit need to be aware that increased ridership might also result in the need for additional maintenance, security, and possibly additional equipment to provide sufficient capacity and/or maintain schedules.
  7. A relatively small percentage of the additional trips (from 5% to 30%) were made by people switching from other motorized modes. Most new trips were made by people who would have otherwise walked or used a bicycle, or would not have made the trip if there was a fare to pay.