A Freakanomics debate about free fares
Boston’s mayor is the standard-bearer for those who say yes
FREAKANOMICS RADIO is out with an interesting podcast on whether public transit should be free – and, not surprisingly, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is the headliner for those who say yes.
Wu has called for eliminating all fare across the MBTA system, but on the podcast – a spinoff of the popular 2005 book of the same name by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner – she sets her sights a bit lower.
“I think we can get to a free bus system,” she says. “That would be transformational for our city’s economy, climate, and opportunity. It’s about who has to bear the burden and how we see the long-term cost-benefit of what we need to do to make sure that we are cleaning our air, connecting people to jobs, healing the impacts from the pandemic, and fulfilling our potential as a green, resilient community.”
Wu makes it sound as if eliminating bus fares could be cost neutral. She cites an transit advocate’s estimate that the revenue loss from eliminating fares would be $30 million and notes the MBTA has separately estimated doing away with fares would yield $29 million in cost savings on fuel and other efficiencies.
Dubner questions Wu’s priorities, pressing her on why issues like early education, childcare, health care, or affordable housing shouldn’t be at the top of the agenda. “Why start with free public transit?” he asks.
“We know that the foundation for equitable access to opportunities is connectedness, the ability to get around,” Wu responds. She cites a 2015 Harvard study showing that the factor most closely linked to a family’s ability to rise out of poverty is the average commute time to work.
Others appearing on the podcast are not so sure. Brian Taylor, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, said free transit would not make his top list of priorities if he were named the nation’s secretary of transportation.
“To me, right now, the problem with public transit is the problem we have with cars,” Taylor said. “In fact, in the United States we’re investing more in public transit. And that’s all for the good, except that it’s undermined by policies that keep trying to make it easier and cheaper to drive. And now we say, ‘Okay, well, we’re not going to make drivers responsible for the cost they impose on society, let’s see if we can make it even cheaper to go on public transit.’”
The podcast looks at alternative approaches, including lowering transit prices for those who earn less money and instituting congestion fees — charging people who drive into cities like London and Stockholm.
“If you’ve ever been in Stockholm, it’s shocking,” Taylor says. “Public transit gets around very quickly and easily. People do drive there, but the streets aren’t packed with traffic. You can choose to drive in and out of central Stockholm, but you have to pay for it. And because of that, when you can take public transit or bike or walk or travel by some other means, people do it. So it’s not that it’s an unpleasant place to drive, it’s that it’s an expensive place to drive. It’s the same thing as flying over Thanksgiving or Christmas or staying at a hotel during peak holiday periods – the price goes up and down to bring supply and demand in line. Otherwise, we’d just have people queuing up, and that’s what we do now.”
Taylor also says there are different markets for public transit – the first is people who because of age, income, or disability cannot drive and then there is transit for people traveling to places where parking is difficult or expensive.
“It’s very easy to be just reactive in these roles, and we have to exercise every bit of planning and capacity and organizational muscle to be proactive,” she says. “I keep a countdown clock, a little widget on my phone, that shows me exactly how many days are left in the term, because every single day should count, and we have to move at a pace that is closer to the urgency in the communities as opposed to the usual pace of government.”