Denver, New York Launch Free Transit Pilot Programs

Photo credit: Yeka.UK/Unsplash

Sign up for smart news, insights, and analysis on the biggest financial stories of the day.

Remote work is obviously no friend of public transportation, but what if your commute were at least free?

This summer, New York City and Boston are piloting zero-fare ridership on select public transit routes. Meanwhile, cities like Denver, Kansas City, and Raleigh are piloting programs to eliminate public transit fares altogether. It’s something of a nationwide push, according to a recent CNN analysis.

Come On and Take a Free Ride

Public transit usage has, unsurprisingly, plummeted in the wake of the pandemic and the increase in remote work. Ridership is still at about only 70% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transit Association. Car traffic, perhaps correspondingly, has only gotten worse. The typical US driver spent about 51 hours in congested traffic in 2022, about 15 more hours than in 2021, according to mobility analytics firm Inrix (though these figures, too, remain below pre-pandemic norms).

Roughly 35 US transit agencies have already gone the zero-fare route, according to the APTA. In Boston, ridership on three reduced-fare bus routes increased 35% year-over-year. This summer, the city is eliminating fares on three routes, while New York will end fares across five bus routes. But advocates say eliminating fees may not necessarily be the right track for boosting ridership:

  • In a survey of riders from low-income households in eight major metropolitan areas, transit advocacy group TransitCenter found that frequency, reliability, safety, and crowding all ranked as higher priorities for riders than costs.
  • Eliminating fares also cuts out potential revenue that’s likely crucial for improving service — taxes only account for around two-thirds of most agencies’ budgets. Washington D.C., for example, delayed a planned system-wide fare-elimination system this summer due to a budget shortfall.

“What we don’t want is to trim transit service because of zero-fare,” Richard Jarrold, deputy CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, told CNN. “We already don’t have enough service, and we don’t want to cut it.”

Snail’s Pace: Speaking of endangered public services, the US Postal Service on Sunday raised the price of first-class mail stamps by 3 cents to 66 cents, in order to offset a rise in operating expenses. The announcement was made, we’re assuming, via email.