In the Beginning
In the mid-1980’s, community members and leaders saw the need for a public transit system in Mason County, WA to provide a safety net for seniors, people with disabilities, children and those without access to their own transportation. Two attempts, one in 1985 and another in 1988, to establish a Public Transportation Benefit Area (PTBA) in Mason County met with failure. Finally, on November 15, 1991, county voters approved the statute authorizing the establishment of Mason County Public Transportation Benefit Area. The proposition imposing a sales and use tax of two-tenths of one percent to fund public transportation was also passed (then again in 2000, the citizens approved a proposition increasing the imposition of a sales and use tax to six-tenths of one percent which is the current sales tax use to this day). These actions created the first extensive bus service ever in the county to be operated by either a public or a private provider. Citizens at that time demanded it would be provided as a “prepaid” service because the fares were already paid through sales & use taxes, also known today as fare free.
Providing Fare Free Public Transit Today
Today Mason Transit Authority carries forward the philosophy of its founding citizens. It is continued not only as philosophical practice but also as a smart business practice. Following is a summary excerpt from the research conducted and published in 2012 by the Transit Research Board of National Academies, with the research sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration in cooperation with the Transit Development Corporation. The entire report (Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Systems- FTA 2012) is available under “Fare Free Reports”.
- Synthesis results indicate that ridership has always increased significantly when fare-free transit is offered. Reported increases ranged from 21% in Boone, North Carolina, to more than 200% in Hawaii and Macomb, Illinois. Substantially higher increases of more than 1,000% have been experienced in Europe and China. Ridership has increased very quickly in many instances, with increases of as much as 60% within two months. The disproportionate increases in ridership beyond what typical elasticity formulas would predict might be attributable to the psychological barriers that are removed when fares are no longer required. Public transit agencies that consider offering fare-free service need to be prepared to respond quickly to increases in demand to avoid the degradation of the quality of service, negative media coverage, and the potential loss of long-time passengers.
- Although public subsidy and sometimes total cost may increase, the subsidy per passenger drops significantly. The effectiveness and productivity of the public investment in transit is enhanced.
- Public transit agencies with fare-free policies tend to experience a few more “problem passengers”; however, in the vast majority of cases, it is not a problem that seriously affects passenger satisfaction or community acceptance. Agencies can help minimize the problem with enforced codes of conduct, video surveillance, active supervision, cooperative relationships with local law enforcement and the court system, and passenger support.
- Fare-free systems have enjoyed a reduction in the expenses and administrative functions associated with fare collection. Charging even a nominal fare to avoid issues dealing with “problem passengers” could reduce ridership substantially and might not cover the costs of fare collection.
- As opposed to the earlier fare-free experiments in Trenton, Denver, and Austin, bus operators are reported to be very supportive of fare-free policies in almost all locations where they now exist. Although they might have to contend with a few more “problem passengers,”they regard that as a fair tradeoff for not having to deal with fares and fare disputes. Vehicle operators often serve as better ambassadors for the system and the community when they do not have to collect and enforce fares, and can spend more time answering passengers’ questions and focusing on safe bus operation.
- Fare-free policies generally result in more efficient operations because of the opportunity for passengers to board through all doors and the elimination of the fare collection process. These time savings are sometimes countered by the increased number of passengers boarding and the more frequent stops buses need to make.
- Public transit agencies in small urban and rural communities cite the significant benefits fare-free service offers to students, seniors, and lower-income residents. In both small urban and rural communities, local property owners are able to promote their locations as “being on the free bus line.” Transit managers reported that more people want to retire in communities with fare-free public transit. Universities have been able to minimize their investments in parking facilities when fare-free transit is offered, enabling them to build more teaching facilities and dormitories. University communities also noted that fare-free transit provides a measure of equity to nonstudent residents who are usually lower-income and would be the only ones needing to pay a fare when they board.
- Transit agencies offering fare-free service have expressed pride in their contributions to livability and environmental objectives no matter what type of community they serve. Many have documented the amount of carbon that has been eliminated and take credit for cleaner air, reduced traffic congestion, and less dependence on gasoline and autos.
- The elimination of fares essentially places transit in the same category of services as schools, libraries, and most community parks. Although these services are paid for with community taxes, people usually do not pay a service charge to use them. They are regarded as essential elements of what a community deems important and why it is worth living in. Removing the fare requirements of transit democratizes the service, making it equally available to everyone regardless of income, to use as often as they like. If properly funded and maintained, the image of the buses change from being the clunky transportation choice of last resort to the service that connects all elements of the community and provides equal opportunity to access all that a community offers. Fare-free transit has been a source of community bonding and pride that also has helped local communities earn positive recognition. A number of communities offering fare-free transit have received state and national awards as “best places to live.” Fare-free service is reported to help bridge the divides that exist in “town and gown” communities.