Free Light Rail Rides

Portland, Ore., struggles to keep fare-free service alive.
by | March 2010

If you happen to be in downtown Portland, Ore., don't have any spare change and need to travel several blocks in a hurry, don't worry: Just hop on one of the city's light rail trains, because unless you plan to travel outside of the transit system's "free rail zone," the ride is free. Portland's fare-free service is an apt analogy of where the free transit movement is today: alive, but limited by numerous constraints. Add in that Portland has recently reduced the service (buses are no longer part of the fare-free zone), and you can finish the analogy by calling the future of free transit somewhat uncertain.

Free transit is based on the idea that the single biggest barrier to getting people out of their cars and into buses, subways and light rail is the fare that must be paid for each ride. Take away this obstacle, and people will flock to public transit, reducing road congestion and air pollution, and making urban areas more dynamic as cars on the roads decrease while transit-riding pedestrians increase. The idea also has been aided by the concept of free as today's new price tag, whether for some forms of music, information or, just possibly, public transit. What seemed like a far-fetched idea has gained more proponents in recent years, despite the fact that few transit agencies - and certainly no major ones - have wholeheartedly embraced the idea.

Fare-free transit got its biggest sound bite for attention in 2008 when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing as a way to reduce gridlock in Manhattan's busiest segments. A report published by lawyer Theodore Kheel and some transit-friendly organizations suggested the city should double its proposed congestion fee and, in return, drop fares on all forms of public transit, providing an even stronger incentive for drivers to leave their cars at home and ride the city's bus and subway systems.

The idea went nowhere, as critics noted that hordes of new passengers would overwhelm the transit system, negating any benefits brought on by free fares. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom dismissed a free transit plan for his city for the same reason. In fact, the one attempt to run a fare-free transit system on a large scale was abandoned by Austin, Texas, in 1990 - after just 15 months - in part because of overcrowding and rowdy passengers.

Some cities have tried Portland's limited free-fare zones for downtowns with mixed success; others have experimented with fareless days to reduce ozone pollution or have made the system free to students for limited periods to encourage new ridership.

Ultimately advocates may have to adjust their goals as the costs and logistics of switching to fare-free transit remains a challenge, despite the argument that just collecting fares is a costly endeavor and a reason to toss out the fare box. And given the severe strain transit budgets are under in this economy, the idea of free transit will, for the most part, remain just that: an idea.

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