20 benefits of zero-fare transit

Zero-fare transit, also known as fare-free, means dropping fares to zero and letting everyone ride the bus for free. It’s a simple policy change with profound implications.

It might sound like a strange and foreign idea until you realize that Athens is already home to a very popular zero-fare transit system  — UGA Transit. University of Georgia buses have been fare-free for decades and they’d never go back to charging fares again. Once we ditch the fare-box, we’ll unlock a long list of benefits and only a few down-sides, all of which we will explore below.

I should mention that during the pandemic, Athens Transit decided to stop charging fares to let passengers board from the rear door. This helps to keep the driver properly distanced and healthy.

Let’s take a closer look at zero-fare transit and discover how Athens might benefit from expanding our current zero-fare system to cover all riders, and keeping it free for all even after the pandemic is over.

Zero-fare transit

Benefits for transit riders & drivers 🚌

Whether you’re young or old, Black or white, rich or poor, everyone deserves to be able to get around town safely and conveniently. Helping those who struggle to afford transportation get to work, school, church or the grocery store is the right thing to do in a city with such a high poverty rate. 

An Athens Transit bus

While removing fares could be a huge financial boost for transit riders and for Athens’ poorest residents, it will benefit everyone else, too. While the next four benefits help out transit riders and drivers, the other fifteen are for the rest of Athens.

If you’ve never used public transportation before, it can be a little confusing. People may worry that they won’t know how to use the fare-box and that people behind them waiting to board will become impatient. As easy as the fare-boxes actually are to use, this is a real worry for some people, especially those who don’t speak English very well or at all. These worries mostly evaporate with a zero-fare system — everyone can just get on and ride! 

This is part of the reason why zero-fare systems tend to greatly increase bus ridership wherever they are tried. It’s not just about the money, although that’s certainly part of the appeal.

During normal, non-pandemic times on Athens Transit, if you wanted to transfer from one bus to another, you had to ask the driver for a small paper transfer pass. These stay good for an hour and let you board another bus for free during that window of time. 

But if you miss the next bus, or if it’s late, you might have to pay again. Did you remember to bring extra cash with you? Hopefully you did, because Athens Transit does not accept credit or debit cards. 

This possibility adds stress to some transit trips and limits mobility in a way that’s not necessary.

A related benefit is that zero-fare transit makes using the bus for short trips suddenly worthwhile, opening up a world of convenience. Imagine being free to get on and off whenever you like!

Once we separate the system’s funding from it’s functionality, the transit system will be able to focus solely on the needs of passengers and not have to worry about anything else that might conflict with that mission.

UGA buses and students outside Sanford Stadium

If you’ve ever watched students board a UGA bus, you know that the driver opens both the front and back doors at the same time, letting people get on and off much more quickly. This is one of the main reasons why UGA stopped charging fares in the first place — it makes the boarding process much quicker.

On Athens Transit, passengers enter from one door only, forming a line outside the bus. That line sometimes is forced to stop as would-be passengers fiddle with loose coins, slowly inserting them into the fare box one at a time. They might drop them. The machine might frustratingly keep spitting out their crumpled dollar over and over as everyone behind them just has to wait. 

This slows down the boarding process, and if a fare-box is on the fritz or an unexpectedly large group of people want to board, the bus might be unable to keep to schedule. That could cause frustrations and delays for passengers on down the transit line.

It doesn’t have to be this way! Faster boarding is nice enough by itself, but as an added benefit we’ll even save some money in fuel costs (and CO2 emissions) because the buses won’t be idling for as long while passengers board.

In other cities with zero-fare systems, bus drivers can become big fans because it means they don’t have to deny cashless people the right to board. If someone has to get somewhere in a hurry, at times they try to argue with the driver or even plead with them to be let on. Drivers sadly have to refuse these requests, and it can put a strain on bus driver morale. 

Fortunately, this problem is immediately solved once we pull out the fare-boxes for good.

Benefits for walkers, bikers & car drivers 🚶 🚴 🚗

Zero-fare transit allows walkers and bikers to extend their range, get past a dangerous intersection or take shelter from a sudden thunderstorm — for free. Don’t have pockets to fit cash in your workout shorts? No problem! 

But you might want to think about bringing your phone with you to use Athens Transit’s app. This ingenious piece of software lets you see bus locations in real time and can help you estimate when the next one will arrive, making transit more convenient than ever.

Even if you never use zero-fare transit yourself, you might still see a benefit if it can lure other drivers out of their cars. Who doesn’t love having the road to themselves? Check out benefits #15 – 20 on this list to see what we have to gain by reducing car traffic. These are the really big ones!

Benefits for our local government 🏛️

Zero-fare transit will definitely mean at least slightly improved sales tax revenue for the county, check it out:

It’s well-known that people with less wealth are more likely to spend any money they do get their hands on, rather than save it. This is the economic principle behind stimulus checks like we’re seeing now during the pandemic. We also know that transit-dependent people are more likely to spend money at local shops, rather than online or in another county.

While we don’t have demographic statistics on Athens Transit riders, if they are similar to transit riders nationwide, they’re likely to be poorer on average. Many of them are also likely dependent on transit as their main method for getting around town.

Put together, this means that if we let Athens Transit riders keep their fare money, they are very likely to spend that money back into the local economy, spurring economic growth and increasing the amount of sales tax collected.

Once all the fringe benefits like this are accounted for, it wouldn’t be too surprising if zero-fare saved the local government money. If if does end up costing something, that amount is likely to be very small relative to the benefit we receive.

You might be scratching your head at this one, but it’s true! Even though transit revenue will of course shrink after going fare-free, it’s important to realize that transit costs will also shrink.

Right now, Athens Transit has to pay to print the tickets, buy the fare-boxes, repair the fare-boxes when they break, count the money and do audits to make sure no one made any counting errors (or decided to pocket the money). We spend something like $150,000 a year just to collect fares. Even worse, most of this money leaves Athens and doesn’t circulate in the local economy (for example, there are no local fare-box manufacturers here).

Zero-fare transit increases ridership, and it also lowers costs. If you care about transit metrics (who doesn’t!), our cost per rider metric would greatly decline if we make this switch, highlighting the system’s improved efficiency.

Not only will zero-fare transit make for a more efficient system, it might also slightly improve the amount of financial help we get from the federal government at the same time. 

The federal government is a big supporter of transit throughout the nation, and it uses formulas to determine how much money to give each transit system. One of the variables in those formulas is the total ridership. Systems with higher ridership get more federal dollars, making the financial case for zero-fare systems even more appealing.

Some transit systems in very low ridership rural areas actually bring in more money as zero-fare systems than they do charging fares!

Benefits for UGA 🎓

Let’s imagine a hypothetical town in which one group of transit riders is predominantly white and well-off, whereas another group is predominantly Black and working class. One group has to pay to ride, and the other doesn’t. Can you guess which group might be which?

I’m not trying to argue that this is truly an example of racial discrimination, but it’s not hypothetical and the town is, of course, our very own. It has an unseemly appearance, if nothing else.

There shouldn’t be any reason for someone to feel for even a second that they have a lower status than someone else, when all they’re trying to do is go shopping or get to work. Let’s even it out and avoid a situation where half the riders have a perk the others don’t have.

UGA only stands to benefit by avoiding any potential resentment directed at them or at their students.

UGA also stands to benefit financially from this switch. Right now, UGA pays a negotiated rate based on Athens Transit’s normal fare per passenger trip, with a discount for buying in bulk.

After the switch to zero-fare, there might not be any way for Athens to collect revenue from UGA riders anymore. Even though UGA ridership has been dropping off in recent years (coinciding with the rise of Uber, Lyft and increased student housing density downtown), this would still be a significant savings for UGA.

It’s not a total loss for Athens Transit, either. Currently, the only way Athens Transit qualifies for some federal assistance called STIC funding (for small, transit-intensive cities) is to combine their ridership numbers with UGA’s. Right now, Athens is sharing this money with them.

In the absence of a revenue-sharing agreement between Athens Transit and UGA, Athens would get to keep UGA’s share of the STIC funding by default. This will be true for as long as UGA continues to report ridership numbers to the federal government, according to Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie.

To sum up, UGA would end up getting the same great service from Athens Transit at an even lower cost, whereas Athens would get to keep at least some of the money they are currently getting from UGA ridership (because they would no longer be sharing the federal STIC dollars).

Zero-fare is a win for both agencies even without a contract agreement.

Benefits for EVERYONE 🧑‍🤝‍🧑

As stated above (see #8), zero-fare means that economic growth in Athens would improve a bit. Since this growth would start from the bottom and percolate upwards, it’s a win for essentially everyone living here.

This one might be a bit of a stretch because the buses would also have to run later into the night to take full advantage of this benefit. But, transit does have the potential to save lives by preventing drunk driving. UGA Transit, which runs a bit later than Athens Transit, has probably saved many lives already by transporting drunk people back home safely, as have various taxi services. 

If Athens Transit ran later and was free to boot, it would become an attractive option for getting home after a night out. Right now, you’d have to have some cash left over in order to ride home on Athens Transit even if it ran late enough (and who carries cash anymore?).

A thoughtful reader might ask why Athens Transit doesn’t take credit cards. Indeed, there are fare-box models available with this technology, but they are more expensive. While we could outfit our buses with the most expensive fare boxes available to take advantage of this and other benefits without switching to a zero-fare system, that would only make the financial case for removing those same boxes even stronger.

Potential BONUS benefits! 😮

If we can lure car drivers out of their cars and onto the bus, a whole range of truly amazing benefits come into play that you can see below. Zero-fare transit can be an important part of making these benefits a reality, but running the buses more frequently and later into the night might also be necessary.

These next benefits don’t apply solely to zero-fare, but rather to any investment made in our transit system:

Public transportation generally burns less fuel per passenger mile than does car travel, as you can see in the graphic below:

Graph showing carbon emissions per passenger
Carbon emissions from different transportation options. Data from the US Department of Transportation.

Driving alone (i.e. in a single-occupancy vehicle) produces an average of almost a pound of CO2 per passenger mile. Bus travel is more efficient, on average by about one-third. Carpooling can also greatly lower CO2 emissions, directly proportional to the increased number of riders per vehicle. This makes carpooling a great choice, in fact, it’s almost as good as a bus at full occupancy.

These numbers look good for both transit and carpooling, but they don’t account for the fact that the bus will be driving along its route anyway, regardless of the number of people riding. The same is not true for carpooling. This makes transit an ideal choice for anyone concerned about the environment, since very little additional carbon will be burned with each new rider.

Saying that a different way, even a bus with just one passenger emits less carbon than a bus with no passengers plus a solo car driver.

ACC’s hybrid buses, and UGA’s all-electric buses, make bus travel an even better choice for the environment still. In fact, promoting transit is probably the single most important policy choice we can make on the local level to combat climate change. Removing fares is an excellent tool to these ends.

We’ve got to talk about parking.

Everyone who travels by car needs a place to park once they reach their destination. That makes parking lots an ever-present part of modern life. They’re so commonplace that we might not realize how much space they take up right in the center of town. Acres of our most valuable land are wasted on fields of concrete that don’t serve any actual human need and provide nothing of value were the social context different.

With the exception of a park-n-ride lot here or there, transit riders don’t need parking lots.

Without the need for parking, housing would be less expensive, and we’d have space to build more of it. Buildings could be clustered closer together, making our city more walkable and bikeable. More money would be raised in property taxes, which could go to pay for more transit lines or increased frequency.

This is huge. It has the potential to completely transform urban life.

Cars aren’t just expensive for individual owners; they’re amazingly expensive for society as a whole. We might not even realize what we’re giving up in exchange for a little bit of convenience.

Stormwater woes
Parking lots aren’t just an expensive waste of space, they harm us in other ways, too. For example, they can cause significant stormwater and heat island problems. 

Surfaces like concrete tend to cause flooding because they don’t allow water to percolate through. If you’ve ever wondered why we have to pay a stormwater fee — now you know. Stormwater infrastructure to manage flooding, like drainage ditches, culverts and rain gardens, cost a lot of money.

Stormwater can also pollute our water supply. As we know, sometimes cars tend to leak oil or other fluids onto the pavement, which the rain can wash straight into our drinking water reservoirs. Following cause and effect here can lead to the surprising conclusion that greater use of transit can actually improve the quality of our drinking water, or at least cause us to spend less on purifying it.

The “heat island” effect
In addition to stormwater woes, we also have to worry about the “heat island” effect caused by concrete surfaces and other forms of pavement. When the sun rises, it heats up parking lots as anyone who has ever walked across one barefoot knows all too well. This trapped heat will slowly radiate up, warming all nearby buildings even after the sun sets.

In the summer, this means higher AC bills for any structure surrounded by pavement. It’s another hidden fee of our car culture.

The best way to reduce both of these problems is with more green space and fewer roads and parking lots.

Cars and other vehicles can damage roads as they travel along them. The bigger the vehicle, the more damage. This adds up to millions spent every year on repaving roads. If we delay the repaving, we’ll probably end up spending the same amount of money, just on car repairs instead.

While buses are indeed very large vehicles and they do damage roads much more than cars, the same argument made earlier for CO2 emissions also applies here. The buses are traveling along their route anyway! We might as well take advantage of them and keep our cars at home.

While rail transit and biking are the forms of travel that really shine here to help us reduce road maintenance costs, bus transit may also save us money on road repair (although I admit I haven’t done the math on this one).

The flip side of reduced emissions is cleaner air

Car culture’s cost to our health is truly enormous and hard to wrap one’s mind around. Every city dweller is slowly being poisoned by car exhaust, which can be difficult to notice on an individual basis but shows up like a four-alarm fire in the statistics. This effect is even worse if you happen to live next to a coal or biomass power plant.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute did an economic analysis of the health benefits of transit, and found that if a typical American city changed their transit system from “average” to “high” quality (e.g. more convenient, more frequent service), the health benefits alone would amount to $355 per person per year!

The CDC sites this study as part of their reason for including the improvement of public transportation as one of their HI-5 interventions with the greatest potential for impact on public health.

Bus commuting also involves walking to the bus stop and back at the end of the day, and this small amount of exercise is part of the reason why transit improves health outcomes so much, in addition to cleaner air.

The other reason why transit improves health outcomes is that it’s much, much safer than driving a car.

This is the single most important benefit on this list in my view (either this or reduced CO2 emissions). In fact, $277 of the $355 savings found in the Victoria Transport Policy Institute study mentioned above is due to reduced traffic accidents. 

In Georgia, there were 1,491 traffic fatalities in 2019. Together with the countless non-fatal accidents happening every day, car travel poses a clear and present danger to lives, health and property. It’s one of the top causes of death in the US.

The cost is staggering. We pay for it directly through car insurance premiums — as well as hospital stays and burial expenses — but also indirectly, through health insurance premiums.

Fatalities per billion passenger miles for different transit modes. Blue represents user fatalities (drivers or riders) and yellow represents fatalities to others (walkers, bikers, other cars). Check out the source for this info here.

Fortunately, bus travel is over 60 times safer than travel by car! Even when the added danger buses represent to walkers, bikers and other vehicles is accounted for, buses are still almost twice as safe as cars in total, as the graph above shows (I’m comparing “transit bus” to “passenger car”).

We have the potential to save hundreds of lives in Georgia every year through better transportation policy.

Downsides of zero-fare transit

Athens Transit was expected to receive $496,000 from fare revenue in fiscal year 2021, had fares been charged, according to the ACC budget. In the same year, UGA’s contribution is $391,354, for a total of $887,354 that Athens Transit will have to make up after switching permanently to zero-fare.

One might see this as a downside, and that perspective makes sense. But another take is that this means $496,000 would be transferred to some of Athens’ poorest residents who will spend the money to spur economic growth. Sounds like a good thing to me!

Assuming we feel this expense is something we want to avoid, it’s important to realize that it’s not actually that much money. Athens Transit will spend a total of $7.3 million in fiscal year 2021. Money gained from passengers and UGA amounts to only 12.2% of this total.

Once we deduct things like fare-box purchases and repairs from this total, the cost will be even lower. Taxes will not need to be raised to afford it. Also, I should point out the cost isn’t wasted — it returns to us many times over in benefits to the community. The same cannot be said of fare-box purchases.

Some may argue that money spent on zero-fare is better used to extend transit lines or increase frequency. But once we try to spend this money on other transit improvements, we might be disappointed at how far it goes. $887,354 just isn’t that much money.

I’d argue there’s no better way to spend the money on transit; no other improvement for a similar cost has anywhere close to the transformative potential as does removing fares.

Some communities which experiment with zero-fare transit are surprised by a huge increase in ridership and are caught unprepared. The packed buses in some of these experiments have caused dissatisfaction from long-time riders, who resent suddenly not being able to find a seat. On time performance has actually suffered in some of these communities, even though normally zero-fare helps the buses move along quicker.

Fortunately, a dramatic system-crushing increase in ridership is unlikely in Athens. That’s because about half of the riders already ride for free, being associated with UGA. So, their demand for the service would be unaffected no matter what we charge (or don’t charge) the other riders.

We have every reason to believe Athens is an excellent candidate for zero-fare transit. In fact, we’re doing it already! So, it will probably work great here, but we might want to do a formal trial run just in case.

Another problem some transit agencies face after making the switch to zero-fare are disruptive passengers. Some don’t even have a destination; it seems that they almost want to start living on the bus.

While housing the homeless is an important and necessary endeavor, they probably shouldn’t be housed inside transit. Buses just aren’t designed for this. Other passengers might not want to sit near them, and might even start being afraid to ride.

To avoid this, bus drivers in these areas are trained to ask people if they have a destination in mind. If they don’t, a quick stop at a police sub-station is normally enough to get them to disembark without any trouble. However, in some places this problem can unfortunately erode bus driver support for zero-fare.

Other types of problem riders in some areas include drunk or rowdy college students, but hey, they already ride for free here.

If you’re interested in this topic, much more information can be found in the study “Implementations and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit.”

If you still have questions, Commissioner Tim Denson is hosting a virtual town hall meeting about zero-fare transit on February 23 at 5:30pm. It’s a free event, but make sure to register so we can avoid zoom-bombers. I’ll see you there!

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