Should buses and subways be free to ride?

Crowd getting in a bus
CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr

Proof-of-payment, or downright no direct payment at all?

Sometimes the smartest way to improve transit is not to plow millions into more stations, more buses, more trains, etc (though we're certainly not against that!), but to simply change how things are done in the existing system. That can have a cost too, but if done the smart way, the gains can be worth it.

Matthew Yglesias wrote about a step in that direction in Slate. He argues that a proof-of-payment system would be superior to the current pay-per-ride system that is used almost everywhere in the U.S. (and in many other countries too). The main benefit, as he explains it, is that "people can board the vehicle very quickly because they simply step on board. The transactional hassles of payment and validation are handled during otherwise wasted waiting time."

This brings many benefits:

[Over] the course of an entire route, speeding the boarding process can make a really substantial difference. And that's important because faster speed sets off a virtuous circle. For starters, a faster transit mode is more attractive to riders and will collect more fares thus allowing a given level of subsidy to provide more service. Second, faster speed lets a fixed quantity of vehicles and drivers provide more frequent service. That increases the value of the line which, again, attracts more riders and more revenue and allows for more service. So even though it seems like a small change it can actually have quite large benefits for your system.

But if that's good, what if we pushed this even further? This is what an Economist writer known only as N.B. suggests, arguing that making buses and subway free (at least in Manhattan) would work even better than proof-of-payment:

It's not as crazy as it sounds. Fares bring in a lot of money, but they cost money to collect—6% of the MTA's budget, according to a 2007 report in New York magazine. Fare boxes and turnstiles have to be maintained; buses idle while waiting for passengers to pay up, wasting fuel; and everyone loses time. Proof-of-payment systems don't solve the problem of fare-collection costs as they require inspectors and other staff to handle enforcement, paperwork and payment processing. Making buses and subways free, on the other hand, would increase passenger numbers, opening up space on the streets for essential traffic and saving time by reducing road congestion.

The benefits of increased ridership and more efficient use of the current infrastructure would go a long way to compensate for the cost of such a measure, and the difference could be made up elsewhere (if you want to kill two birds with one stone, you can have congestion pricing in downtown areas to help raise some of the money). Or maybe a hybrid system could be tried; have proof-of-payment on the subway, free buses, etc.

Sounds like an idea worth at least considering. It might not make sense everywhere, but where it does, it should be tried.

Via The Economist

See also: 135-passenger electric bus that can be flash-charged in 15 seconds to be deployed in Geneva

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