David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He writes frequently about the future of urban mobility and technology.
The coronavirus’s spread has placed American transit agencies in a bind. Ridership has nosedived — as much as 70% on the Bay Area’s BART system — bringing a corresponding drop in revenue collected from fares. With millions of Americans working from home and sheltering in place, health experts and city leaders are trying to discourage unnecessary travel. But many essential workers rely on public transit. Even as agency leaders rearrange their budgets, they are struggling to keep their riders and employees safe while still providing service for passengers with no other way to get around. They are in an unenviable position, to put it mildly.
Several transit agencies have chosen a novel and counterintuitive strategy to weather the current crisis: Let passengers ride for free. On March 16, for example, agencies in Akron, Canton, Toledo, and Youngstown all announced that they are terminating fare collection until the virus recedes. (Disclosure: I’ve done consulting work for the City of Akron.) Many other systems, from Vermont to Nevada, are taking a similar approach.
These agencies’ leaders envision fare-free transit achieving two urgent goals simultaneously. First and foremost, the move can help protect transit passengers and employees. Since the coronavirus can spread easily among groups in close contact — which the CDC defines as individuals within six feet of one another — transit officials have been especially concerned about risks during bus boarding, when passengers cluster outside the door before standing inches away from a driver while paying their fares. There are also signs that the virus could live on paper and metal, which may include currency and farecards.
Dropping fares — along with instituting rear-door-only boarding policies — could make public transportation safer by limiting close interactions between bus drivers and passengers, and by removing the need for passengers to cluster together before boarding. Kirk Conrad, the CEO of the Canton area’s SARTA agency, says he noticed in early March that transit agencies in European countries like Switzerland had begun using tape to create space between bus drivers and riders. “I needed to eliminate as much contact with the operator as possible,” he says.
Free transit can also offer another benefit: a financial cushion to riders struggling during the pandemic. ”Many riders have jobs in the service industry, but they’ve lost their job, and they are scrambling,” says Dawn Distler, the executive director of Akron’s METRO system. “They don’t know how they are paying bills, and we want to make it easier for them.”
Dean Harris, executive director of Youngstown’s WRTA, echoed that sentiment, saying in an email that his agency is dropping fares in order “to help passengers that are affected by the loss of wages from all the closures.”
To be clear, these agencies have promised to pause fare collection during the pandemic, not end it permanently like their peers in Kansas City and Olympia, Washington are hoping to do. SARTA’s Conrad says that in normal times, fares bring his agency between $150,000 and $200,000 a month, an amount he’ll eventually need to cover. “I can’t permanently give up fares,” he says. WRTA’s Harris says that his system will resume collecting fares once the State of Ohio ends its current state of emergency. Only METRO’s Distler demurred, saying “if we find that we could sustain going fare-free, it’s possible we would keep it.”
There’s a reason these relatively small Ohio transit systems are able to temporarily cease fare collection while maintaining service levels: Their operational costs are already heavily subsidized by government. The SARTA system covers about 15% of its operating costs from fares (the so-called “farebox recovery ratio”), while METRO collects only around 10%. If these agencies continued charging riders during the pandemic, their farebox recovery ratios would be even lower than normal because of ridership declines (around 25% for METRO, 30% for WRTA, and 40% for SARTA thus far).
Agencies with low farebox recovery ratios can potentially handle a short-term collapse in fare revenue without quickly cutting service, since most of their revenue comes from government sources. That’s not possible for larger one like New York City’s MTA, Chicago’s Metra, or New Jersey Transit: These systems get well over a third of operating revenue from fares. The New York MTA’s chairman has already requested a multibillion-dollar lifeline for his agency alone. As CityLab’s Laura Bliss writes, big fare-reliant transit systems in major cities will need some form of emergency funding to avoid catastrophic long-term damage from ridership plunges.
But public transportation consultant Jarrett Walker believes that going temporarily fare-free might be a savvy move for transit systems in smaller cities nationwide. “It probably makes sense to sacrifice a bit of fare revenue in order to make people safer using the transit system,” he says. “The amount of money at stake may be manageable.”
That’s not to say it will be easy for these agencies to find the money they need to keep going without collecting fares during a prolonged pandemic-related transit drought. None of the executives I spoke with offered specifics about how they might do so.
Then again, these transit leaders have other concerns top of mind. METRO’s Distler brushed aside a question about how much her agency’s move will cost: “Sometimes you just have to help our riders and our drivers. I hate to say we’ll worry about it later, but we will.”