There's free public transit in Downtown Long Beach, CA
Source: Long Beach Transit
Source: Long Beach Transit
It's come to my attention that some people want public transit to be free to the people who use it. Seems like an interesting idea to explore.
Free public transit (which I'll call FPT) would increase the number of people using transit, other things equal. FPT eliminates the wasted time on buses when the vehicle is stopped while people pay their fares. With FPT everybody could just get directly on the bus using every door. This saved time would make transit that much more attractive. More use of transit under an FPT system would mean fuller, more efficient buses and trains, from an environmental perspective. FPT would take the money saving mission of transit as far as it can go and give people a huge financial incentive to use it. This would be especially helpful to poor people, other things equal.
Transit fares are a significant source of revenue for transit agencies. The percentage of the cost of operating transit systems paid for by fares (the farebox recovery ratio) varies from system to system. For LA Metro it's about 29%. If we moved to FPT that money would be gone, and to maintain the level of service on the system or improve it that money would have to come from somewhere else. I doubt that the increased efficiency would completely make up for the lost revenue, otherwise why wouldn't transit agencies already be doing this as standard practice? The money would probably have to come from higher local taxes, but it might also come from fees on real estate developers called exactions, that are designed to mitigate the impacts of new projects. Therefore, the result of FPT would be either higher taxes, more fees of development, or reduced transit service. If society could not be convinced to come up with the money, the result would be longer waits for buses and trains and possibly more crowding on them. Another con would be reduced appeal of transit to conservatives. They're already unlikely to be fans of public subsidies for transit. More public subsidy will make them even more hostile. That creates a funding problem politically.
In an ideal world FPT would be an excellent way to approach transportation in urban areas because we would be able to take advantage of its benefits and society would come up with the money to pay for it, thus avoiding its most serious drawbacks. In the real world, the economy is terrible and it's hard to convince people to raise taxes to pay for transportation.
However, advocating for FPT isn't necessarily misguided. It focuses attention on our transportation spending priorities, points out the very real problem of wasted time as people pay fares, and dares to dream about a future where transportation is affordable to all and society is very committed to making transit successful.
FPT advocates should realize that what they want to achieve is very difficult, and has significant potential to backfire. But on the other hand, if we can't dream about a dramatically better world, what have things come to?