What is fare-free transit? Like UGA, these systems don’t charge riders when they get on the bus and instead get their funding in other ways.
There are over 100 cities around the world with fare-free public transportation systems. UGA Transit right here in Athens, Georgia hasn’t charged a fare for decades and would never go back. Why have all these cities and universities stopped charging? Are there benefits? The answer is yes!
Hopefully, the rest of Athens will ditch the fare-box soon, but there are some things to be negotiated first.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you can check out one of my sources, which is the research paper “Implementation and outcomes of fare-free transit systems.” You can check out the video version of that paper here.
What do you think, should Athens Transit remove the fare-boxes?
Transit agencies in the US have experimented with fare-free public transportation since the 1960s. UGA Transit right here in Athens, Georgia has been fare-free for decades and has never looked back. Why? Are there benefits to removing the fare-boxes? Let’s find out!
We covered a lot in those clips. As we heard, fare-free transit is usually very popular. It increases ridership everywhere it’s been tried, sometimes by a lot. Since the success in Talinn, the entire country of Estonia is ditching their fare-boxes. The city of Paris and several cities in Germany are also considering it, mostly as a way to fight smog.
Fare-free comes with a long list of benefits, and in this video I’m going to try to convince you that fare-free is the right call for Athens. But I know I may be arguing against people’s common sense here and maybe even their feeling of what’s fair and right. The arguments in favor aren’t always common sense. They can take the form of moral arguments, but I’m going to actually try to avoid those. I don’t make these videos to argue morality with strangers on the internet. So without saying that it’s just the right thing to do in a town with a poverty rate of over 35%, what else can I say in favor?
One thing I can say, is that better public transportation is one of the CDC’s HI-5 interventions, which are policy changes that have the greatest potential for improvement for our health. I can say there are between 1100 and 1400 traffic deaths in Georgia every year – 3 or 4 people killed a day, every day on our roads – not to mention the 10-20 thousand serious injuries a year because of our reliance on the private car. I can say that, and that buses are much safer than cars, but those are just statistics. The transportation system that we choose, as a society, is of immense importance, but it’s so difficult to wrap our minds around. Like who would have thought our transportation system actually affects our health insurance premiums? I can also talk about climate change and how the transportation sector is one of the greatest contributors to it. But we’re all going to get in our cars and drive to the next place we need to go because often there’s not even a choice.
You know, when I first heard about fare-free, I thought it was crazy, like some kind of fantasy. If that’s your reaction, I totally get it, believe me. At that time, I had nothing against public transportation of course, but I guess I didn’t mind if people had to pay if they were getting a service. It only seemed to make sense. And doesn’t our bus system need that money to operate?
(Not really) So we going to have to talk about the budget now. Stay with me.
Athens Transit has an estimated revenue of about 5 1/2 million in FY2019. $1.7 million is coming from our local government’s general fund. The biggest chunk is actually coming from the federal government – that’s about $2 1/2 million. We get another half million a year from UGA and a small amount, about $10,000, from advertising. (we get nothing from the state of Georgia, which is weird) The fare-box and ticket window make up the rest, which amounts to about $650,000. If you do the math, that means the fare-box provides only 11.8% of the total revenue for the system. And unfortunately, it’s not free to collect that money either. We have to pay people to count the money, perform the audits, we have to pay for ticket printing and for the fare-boxes themselves, which are pretty expensive. The total for this comes to over $100,000 a year, just so we can collect fares. It might even be closer to $200,000. Sure, we do bring in some net revenue from this, but it’s such a large overhead cost, around 20% or more of the money we pay in fares is just wasted.
That’s a lot. It might not be so bad though, if that was the only inefficiency. But fares are a barrier to riding, even more so now that they’re requiring exact change. So fewer people end up riding while the costs, like fuel and bus driver salaries, they’re basically the same whether one person is riding or if the bus is full. To get the most for our money, that we’re paying anyway, we need more riders. So not only do fares have that high overhead, they also make the entire system less efficient, actually increasing cost per rider.
So I have to ask, is there a public purpose to having a fare? Fares serve to discourage people from making the socially responsible transportation choice while at the same time making the entire system less efficient. Is the purpose really to raise the $650,000? If that’s why we’re doing it, we’re paying a huge price for it. I don’t think it’s worth it. If we ditch the fare-box, we could be lowering carbon emissions, improving our health, saving money both on fare-boxes and the fares themselves – which are particularly a big deal for the over 35% of people living in poverty in Athens. If you’re in poverty, bus fares can amount to 10% or more of your yearly income. That really matters, and it also matters to our local businesses because the poor, if they have some money to spend, they’re more likely to spend it locally. We’re sending our money to a fare-box manufacturer off who knows where when it could be circulating here, improving our local economy and generating 8% sales tax for our local and state governments each time it changes hands (show 4% each).
I admit though, that fare-free transit might not be a good fit for all cities. New York City, for example, is not going fare-free anytime soon, because the subway isn’t hurting for riders to put it mildly and they need a lot of money to run and maintain it. A small barrier to make sure the trip is worth it is probably a good idea there. But the truth about fares in Athens is that the money we collect from the fare-box, that’s not the reason why we charge fares. It’s not. And we need the riders, so what’s actually the point?
There are three reasons why I would say that we have fares on Athens Transit buses. The first reason is probably just because we always have. Don’t underestimate inertia as a reason. The second reason, I would say, is a certain kind of morality that emphasizes personal responsibility. Former Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson had a comment back in 2016 that really exemplifies this type of morality to me. At this time, the Mayor and Commission was debating offering fare-free rides for kids. This is what Commissioner Dickerson had to say about it:
I don’t want to debate morality, like I said. What I’m pointing out more than anything is her admission that it wasn’t about the money. And just by the way, this program for fare-free rides for kids ages 17 and under, which was approved and continues today, has been an enormous success, even if some people apparently think it’s immoral and corrupts the youth.
But now for the elephant in the room – the University of Georgia. The big reason why Athens Transit charges fares is to try to get UGA to pay for a service it receives from the public. It’s not about the average rider, it’s about UGA, an institution that sits on some of Athens’ most valuable land and that our local government doesn’t have the legal power to tax. The background here is that Athens Transit helps out UGA on certain routes through campus so students can get to class and back home again in a timely way without adding yet more traffic to East Campus Road or Millege. 60% of riders on Athens Transit are actually UGA riders. That benefits Athens Transit by increasing ridership numbers and it benefits UGA by helping the university avoid a hellscape of constant gridlock. Traffic’s already bad enough, right? I don’t think people appreciate how vital bus transit is to the day-to-day operations of the university.
UGA pays Athens Transit every year based on the number of UGA riders, but this cost started to mount in previous years, so UGA applied more and more negotiating pressure so they could get by with paying less and less. UGA doesn’t pay the standard $1.75 fare per rider. Oh, no, they have a contract that determines the amount they pay. UGA doesn’t even pay the bulk rate anymore, because they negotiated for a 50% discount on “intra-campus trips.” Try boarding the bus one day and saying “I’m only going down the street, can I just pay half the fare?” Yeah, see if that works for ya.
The truth about fare increases in Athens is that they are more or less entirely done to give our local government leverage in the negotiations with UGA. Fare-increases don’t net us much if anything from the non-UGA riders, because ridership drops when fares increase. But not for the UGA riders! It doesn’t matter what the fare for everyone else is set at, they ride for free. What matters is what UGA is obligated to pay in the contract. Some local officials worry that if Athens goes fare-free, that UGA will use that as an excuse to stop paying anything.
My opinion is that we should hold UGA to a higher standard here. They have an obligation to the wider community, not just to students and professors. They ignore their obligations in other ways, too. For example, their lowest-rung employees are not being paid living wages right now, so unfortunately UGA is contributing to our poverty problem. If they turn their backs, and refuse to support a transit system that is in a lot of ways geared towards serving them, with 60% of the riders being their riders, to me that would be unethical. UGA’s budget is about 6 times that of the unified government. Making it worse, Athens Transit is getting no funding from our state government right now, which is quite unusual, most transit systems get some funding from the state where they are located. That makes UGA’s potential refusal extra galling. They have the money, and in my opinion they have a social responsibly to pay it, fare or no fare. The alternative would be dysfunction and continued friction between the two systems that benefits no one.
Fare-free buses aren’t just the right thing to do in Athens because we have a high poverty rate. Fare-free also isn’t just the fare structure that makes the most sense for us, although it’s both of those. Fares in Athens are actually evidence of a dysfunctional relationship between town and gown, at least where transit is concerned, and also between progressive Athens and the conservatives currently in power statewide. Commissioner Tim Denson, in his 2014 campaign for Mayor, called for a unified transit system in Athens. While that may not be possible, it’s my hope that these two systems will at least learn to work together. That means that both sides, but UGA in particular, are going to have to make some concessions, and we as residents may need to help apply pressure to get them to take the public interest into account during transit negotiations.
I could talk about this topic all day, but I’ll call it here for now. If you’re interested in fare-free transit, I recommend reading the research paper “Implementations and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems” which I’ll link to in the description. Or you could click the link that just popped up to watch the video version of that paper. I’ll leave you with the lead researcher from it talk about some of the benefits of going fare-free that I didn’t have time to get to. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time.