Tallin, Estonia Already Does!
While it might seem crazy to think of the idea of riding around on a bus or subway for free, this concept could actually provide a tangible boost to urban economies. In January 2013, Tallin, the capital of Estonia, launched such a system; any resident of the city now has free access to public transportation. Tourists still need to pay. For many years the American cities of Portland and Seattle had similar systems, but perhaps it is time that we bring free transit to the forefront of public debate.
One of the most immediate effects of public transportation becoming free would likely be a sharp drop in vehicle traffic. Since 2013 Tallin has reported a 15% drop in car traffic! Trips taken with public transportation would increase and carbon emissions would fall. Poor residents of cities would have a sudden increase in upward social mobility; if the cost of transit were no longer a barrier to mobility, it could be easier for the urban poor to find and maintain jobs. Land values around transit stops would likely rise and ultimately cities could become more efficient and fair to all residents.
One possible problem could be a rise in the number of homeless people who use subways and buses as semi-permanent resting places. Transit ridership could increase so much that system could become overwhelmed and there is a possibility that costs could prohibit cities from funding such programs.
Is it Worth It?
I think it likely would be, particularly in large American cities. In dense cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco, such programs would likely be expensive, but not prohibitively so. This is because in these cities transit systems are somewhat compact relative to the population size and as a result operational costs would be lower than a city such as say Los Angeles. Additionally, American transit systems receive only about 30% of funding from fares; the more funding comes from fares, the more a free system could cost a city.
In a city like Tallin with about 450,000 residents, the system cost the city about $3 million per year, not a small sum, but certainly not an unmanageable amount. Boston has an estimated revenue of about
for FY 2015; it could likely find a way to fund a relatively meager $5 million dollar or so system. Not to mention that the boost in development and tourism that would likely result would pay for the costs of such a system over the long term.