The Case For Fare-Free Public Transit

ArielKettle / CC BY-SA 3.0

by Emma Weiner, Independent Socialist Group

Every day, millions upon millions of working people overpay to use public transportation that is underfunded, and subpar. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2017 the average household spent a little over $9,000 a year on transportation. We spent all this money just to sit in traffic or ride unreliable buses and trains. By creating a network of high-speed trains, trams, improved subway and bus systems, we could generate thousands of new, union jobs. By using this new system, we could reduce air pollution around major cities and help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the rising rate of fees, our public transportation systems are falling into disrepair, leading to many of us feeling unsatisfied with the conditions we face during our rides. For many, public transportation is simply not a viable option because of a lack of routes, poor schedules, and irregularity. Safety is also a concern with old and poorly maintained equipment; for example, in 2019 the Red Line in Boston derailed twice in one week, endangering both the passengers and the train operators. Many local governments facing budget problems respond by raising prices and decreasing the routes offered, leading to more hardship for the workers who depend on public transit. The capitalist model of underfunding and privatizing—where public services are intentionally underfunded to justify privatization—has led to the sorry state of U.S. public transportation.

Constant budget cuts and fare hikes have continued to exacerbate the issue. In Kansas City, the local government is starting to roll out fare-free public transportation thanks to workers’ struggles demanding better public transportation. Before Kansas City, no measures like this had been attempted in the U.S. Some places have done smaller measures, like fare-free for certain populations, but none have become fully fare-free.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Kansas City had seen record levels of people riding the buses and trams, proving that fare-free can be a success. Fare-free public transportation is not something that will just be given to us—it is something that workers and community groups have been fighting for for decades. Winning in Kansas City is a great start, but Kansas City can’t be the only place doing this.

Some cities, including Detroit and Worcester, MA, have gone fare-free temporarily due to the current COVID-19 crisis. These gains have been won by unionized bus drivers fighting to protect their health and safety on the job. In Worcester, ATU Local 22 (the union that represents bus drivers) organized a successful picket demanding rear door boarding and a freeze on fare collection in the Worcester Regional Transit Authority network. After just one protest by the union, the company conceded, and granted fare-free transit for a period of 30 days; this has recently been extended until May 18. All serious attempts to fight for fare-free transit need to involve the transit workers themselves, as they are the people with the most power over the transit system. When the current health crisis ends, we should be prepared to fight to convert such temporary fare-free victories into permanent ones.

We can make public transit fare-free with relative ease. For example, in Worcester, it would only take around $2-3 million. This figure is pennies compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars Worcester is spending on Polar Park, a new sports stadium that the city government has gone into debt to build. In Kansas City, fares made up 12% of the local transit agency’s budget, making the switch to a fare-free system relatively easy. In areas that rely more on riders’ fares, fare-free transit can be funded by increasing taxes on the super rich, cutting administrative bloat, and taking transportation services into public ownership instead of relying on private companies, whose goal is to make a profit. The switch to fare-free should not be funded by increasing taxes on the working class—we already pay too much! Instead, we should tax huge mega-profitable corporations like Amazon that currently pay no taxes.

But how can we get to nationally fare-free, high quality transportation? In most of the U.S., lawmakers and their capitalist backers like the current system where the working class bears the brunt of costs through fares. If we want to win, then we have to fight! Transit workers’ unions, together with community groups and riders will be key players in demanding better contracts and better service for customers. We can win by pressuring local and national governments through coordinated protest and strike action until we get the public transit system we deserve! Making public transportation fare-free will be good for workers, youth, the elderly, and disabled people, as well as the environment. Let’s get organized to win this and more!

Our Demands:

    • Make public transit free to ride. Fight to win fare-free transit on a local and national level.
    • No job cuts! No pay cuts! The money used to make public transportation fare-free should not come from laying off bus drivers or fare processors. Tax big business and the rich to pay for it!
    • Expand public transit to make it more reliable, more regular, and more efficient. Expand routes and adjust service frequency so people can get where they need to go, when they need to!
    • Full funding for transit systems, including to bring them up to green standards and replace dangerously old equipment. Stop the privatization of public transit, including “public-private partnerships.”
    • For democratic control of public transit by transit workers, transit unions, and riders. Planning and budget decisions should be made by the people who use and operate the system.
    • Massive investment in public transportation, including new light rail, efficient electric buses, and long-distance passenger rail. Expanding public transit means more jobs, less traffic, and a greener world.