The earliest urban experiment in free public transit took place in Rome in the early 1970s. The city, plagued by unbearable traffic congestion, tried making its public buses free. At first, many passengers were confused: “There must be a trick,” a 62-year-old Roman carpenter told The New York Times as he boarded one bus. Then riders grew irritable. One “woman commuter” predicted that “swarms of kids and mixed-up people will ride around all day just because it doesn’t cost anything.” Romans couldn’t be bothered to ditch their cars—the buses were only half-full during the mid-day rush hour, “when hundreds of thousands battle their way home for a plate of spaghetti.” Six months after the failed, costly experiment, a cash-strapped Rome reinstated its fare system.
Three similar experiments in the U.S.—in Denver, Colorado, and Trenton, New Jersey, in the late 70s, and in Austin, Texas, around 1990—also proved unfruitful and shaped the way American policy makers viewed the question of free public transit. All three were attempts to coax commuters out of their cars and onto subway platforms and buses. While they succeeded in increasing ridership, the new riders they brought in were people who were already walking or biking to work. For that reason, they were seen as failures…
Another report followed up 10 years later, revisiting the idea of a fare-free world. The report reviewed the roughly 40 American cities and towns with free transit systems. Most of the three dozen communities had been greatly successful in increasing ridership—the number of riders shot up 20 to 60 percent “in a matter of months.” But these successes were only to be found in communities with transit needs different from those of the biggest cities; almost all of the areas studied were either small cities with few riders, resort communities with populations that “swell inordinately during tourist seasons,” and college towns. In other words, slashing fares to zero is something that likely wouldn’t work in big cities.
Despite that, one big city has tried. In January 2013, Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, announced that it was making public transit free to all of its citizens. A study released a year later revealed that the move only increased demand by 1.2 percent—though it did inspire Estonians that year to register as Tallinnian citizens at three times the normal rate. The authors of the Tallinn study reached the same conclusion as the NCTR: Free subway rides entice people who would otherwise walk, not people who would otherwise drive.
1. More evidence that once people can drive they don’t want to go back to mass transit? We might expect this in the United States but could it also be true elsewhere in the world?
2. Even experimenting with this sort of strategy requires a long-term perspective. thinking about giving up fares for the good benefits of less driving. I’m not sure many communities would be willing to undergo such a test.