Some cities turn to free public busing to counteract inequity

The drive for free public busing is speeding up. Several cities are moving towards offering 100% free service on public buses as a way to counteract inequity. Digital video producer Casey Kuhn takes a look at Washington, where it's expected to start later this year, and William Brangham discusses the issue with Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The drive for free public busing is speeding up, at least in some places.

    William Brangham has more.

  • William Brangham:

    There are a number of cities that seem to be moving towards offering 100 percent free service on public buses. In fact, that's expected to start here in Washington, D.C., later this year.

    Casey Kuhn, who is one of our digital video producers, has been looking into that and filed this report for our Web site.

  • Casey Kuhn:

    Taking the bus in Washington, D.C., is about to get a lot more affordable.

    Dozens of cities in America offer free bus rides in some capacity. But a new move by Washington, D.C., could make it the largest city in America to offer free bus rides, affecting hundreds of thousands of riders who wait at these stops every day.

    Riders like Wayan.

  • Wayan, D.C. Resident:

    I think it's a great thing, especially for graduate students like me.

  • Casey Kuhn:

    He's a physicist Ph.D. candidate who studies biomass at Georgetown University. And he says taking public transit is a must.

  • Wayan:

    We don't have a lot of money. And so transportation is always a big problem. So, this is a small burden that is lifted, in a way.

  • Casey Kuhn:

    The D.C. City Council voted unanimously in early December to offer free bus rides for anyone getting on a bus in the District, resident or otherwise, and to extend a dozen popular bus routes to include overnight service.

    A majority of D.C. residents who ride the bus make less than $50,000 a year, according to the City Council. For riders like Emmanuel, who commutes to work via bus, it's more than a convenience. It's a help financially.

  • Emmanuel, D.C. Resident:

    It's going to be like 200 bucks that everyone is going to save around every month. So, it's good.

  • Casey Kuhn:

    The change will cost the city an expected $42 million the first year. And the move comes as part of a growing push to make public transportation free across the country. Other cities like Alexandria, Virginia, and Kansas City, Missouri, have already made their bus rides free.

    The goal is to create a more equitable public transportation that will benefit the people who don't have any other option.

    Isabel, who takes the bus on occasion, agrees.

  • Isabel, D.C. Resident:

    I heard when they were in talks about that it was proposed, but I thought there was no way it was going to go through. And then, when a day or two later, I saw that it was passed, I was very excited.

    I think it's going to make it more accessible to everyone. And, especially, it'll benefit those who need it most.

  • Casey Kuhn:

    Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has also fought for free transit. The state of Massachusetts tried out free regional bus fares across the board during the holiday season only. And the city has made fares free on several widely used Boston city routes, pushing back against critics who say the lost revenue does not make up for the gain in ridership.

    The D.C. proposal cleared its last council vote and is now sitting on the D.C. mayor's desk. If it moves forward, free bus fares would begin in July.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Casey Kuhn.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as Casey reported, there are still a number of questions for cities who are considering doing something similar.

    So, to get a wider view of what's happening, we're joined by Yonah Freemark, who studies this field for the Urban Institute.

    Yonah, thank you so much for being here.

    As we heard in Casey's report, Washington, D.C., is making this move. Can you give us a little sense, why is it that cities do want to do this? What's the rationale for this?

  • Yonah Freemark, Urban Institute:

    There are a few key reasons.

    Number one, during the pandemic, we saw a lot of cities want to improve service for their customers in a way that reduced the contact with drivers. So they said, fine, board at the back of the bus. Don't pay a fare.

    And, with that, I think a lot of cities got the idea and got the knowledge that it was possible to make buses free without too much of an inconvenience. At the same time, a lot of cities around the country are trying to increase the equity of service and trying to make sure that public transportation is something that's useful for everyone.

  • William Brangham:

    As we heard in this report, a lot of D.C. riders on the buses are people who don't make a lot of money. And so this could be a real savings for them.

    But she also reported that this is going to cost D.C. something like $42 million. Are there other benefits that the city could get for that cost?

  • Yonah Freemark:

    Well, the biggest benefit is going to go directly into the pocketbooks and the wallets of people who are riding the bus. And that's mostly going to be people who live in the city of Washington, but also some people from the suburbs.

    Now, that doesn't necessarily mean the city's going to benefit in terms of increased revenues, but it could benefit in terms of higher quality of life for the residents who live here.

  • William Brangham:

    So are there examples of cities that have tried this where those goals have actually been met, meaning, does this actually work?

  • Yonah Freemark:

    So, most of the research tells us that, when cities make public transportation free, ridership does go up. And we have actually seen that to be the case in Richmond, Virginia, where ridership on their transit system has increased substantially since the buses were made free.

    That said, there's not much evidence that making buses free is going to get people out of their cars. Those people are likely to remain in their cars even if buses are free.

  • William Brangham:

    I see.

    So, if ridership goes up, is it your sense that public transit systems around the country that might be considering this can handle that increased ridership? Does their infrastructure have the capacity to take more bodies?

  • Yonah Freemark:

    Well, because of the pandemic, and because of changes in the way people are working, we have seen a reduction overall in the amount of ridership on transit systems around the country.

    And, as a result, actually, transit systems have a lot of space for more riders. They will be able to absorb the increase in passengers for making buses and potentially trains free. But if the numbers went up dramatically, then, yes, we would absolutely need more investment in improving public transportation services.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, as you're hinting at here, one of the criticisms is that public transit has been underfunded for a very long time, and now you're taking another revenue stream out of public transit.

    Does that make these systems more sustainable in the long run, though?

  • Yonah Freemark:

    From a financial perspective, we have a problem in the United States that we have not provided sustainable funding for public transportation, perhaps ever in the history of this country.

    If you look at countries in Europe and Asia, you see a lot more commitment to making sure that everyone has access to good bus and rail service pretty much anywhere they live. And that's just not the case in the United States, because we haven't spent the money at the federal, state or local levels.

    If we get rid of fare revenue, it's true that we might actually have an even bigger financial problem. But most of the cities that have talked about making buses or trains free have backed it up with some other new revenue source.

    So, for the meantime, I don't think we are going to expect a significant drop in the revenues for transit systems.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute, thank you so much.

  • Yonah Freemark:

    Thanks for having me.

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