Free Bus Service Could Revolutionize R.I. Transit, But It’s More Complicated Than Simply Ending Fares
June 4, 2021
In a way, the bill is simple. Nine amendments to an existing law and, just like that, no more bus fares.
No more fishing through a pocket for enough change to board, or losing a Wave card to the bottom of a bag. No more worrying if the two-block ride is worth the cost. No more fees.
Across Rhode Island, bus fares would drop from $2 to zero.
The bill is simple, but, according to transit experts and advocates, the implications are huge.
Sponsored last month by Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, the bill (S0908) would amend existing Rhode Island Public Transit Authority revenue laws to eliminate all service charges and rates of fare for the general public by Jan. 1, 2022.
“Transportation is a crucially important issue,” Kallman said in introducing the bill at an April 28 press conference at Kennedy Plaza, “and free transit is a crucial stepping stone toward many simultaneous and interconnected goals: environment and social justice, emissions reductions, a healthy and thriving local economy.”
“Free public transportation is the direction that we’re headed in,” General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said at the press conference. “If Rhode Island gets ahead of this curve instead of being a step behind, then we have an opportunity to really catapult our state into building a real 21st-century economy that can give all Rhode Islanders a chance to succeed.”
According to a 2020 study by Belgian researcher Wojciech Kębłowski, fare-free public transport systems have popped up in nearly 100 places around the world, the first reportedly in the Los Angeles suburb of Commerce in 1962.
More recently, Europe has led the pack, hosting more than half of the world’s free transit systems. Estonia’s capital Tallinn rolled out free transit for city residents in 2013. The French city of Dunkirk saw increased transit use after removing fees in 2018. Last year, in a push to reduce car traffic in their small European country, Luxembourg officials removed fares for all buses, trams and trains nationwide.
Free transit in the United States has largely been confined to small urban centers, university towns and resort areas, but that’s beginning to change. In December 2019, Kansas City became the largest municipality to approve fare-free transit and has been incrementally phasing in a Zero Fare Transit plan.
Closer to home, Boston City Council member and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has advocated for a “free T,” and officials are working with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to develop a free bus pilot program. The Worcester Regional Transit Authority recently voted to extend the city’s COVID-era free bus initiative, which was set to expire July 1, until the end of this year.
The fare-free concept is new to the Ocean State. But according to Kallman, high population density paired with an existing statewide transit system poses a “unique opportunity” to make Rhode Island the first state to offer free public transportation.
But is free RIPTA bus service a realistic idea?
The eco argument
According to supporters of the bill, fare-free transit would help tackle Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas emissions — nearly one-third of which nationwide come from transportation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In switching a 20-mile commute from personal vehicle to public transit, commuters can lower their carbon emissions by nearly 5,000 pounds annually, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“If a third of the emissions are from transportation,” Kallman said, “then we need to offer better transportation options.”
Reduced traffic and emissions could also improve health in vulnerable communities that are often situated close to major highways and disproportionately impacted by poor air quality, according to John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island.
The economic argument
A 2019 study by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy found Americans spent an average of 13 percent of their income on transportation. But this percentage grew as income declined, the study showed, with the lowest earners spending up to 29 percent of their income on transport.
“Scrapping bus fares here would be a big windfall to many of the families who spend a big chunk of their income on transportation,” Kallman said at the April 28 press conference.
About 25 percent of RIPTA riders currently board at no cost through the agency’s Reduced Fare Bus Pass Program, according to Flaherty. The program removes fares for low-income riders who are disabled or over the age of 65 — though a $10 non-refundable application fee is required. All seniors and riders with disabilities, regardless of income, can also board for half-price during off-peak hours. Riders can also present a Medicare card to board at no cost.
Additional U-Pass and Eco-Pass programs allow area colleges and businesses to subsidize transit costs, providing free or discounted transport to students and employees. Left out of these programs are low-income users and people of color who don’t meet the stated criteria, and who — as Rep. Leonela Felix, D-Pawtucket, pointed out on April 28 — ride public transit more than twice as frequently as White Americans.
“One of the most significant barriers to equitable transportation, particularly for low-income families, is the cost,” Felix said. “This legislation will ensure that everyone — low-income workers, families, seniors, individuals with disabilities regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status — will be able to achieve opportunities for employment and education, which we know leads to better quality of life and better health outcomes.”
Though the bill would drop fees for all transit users, “it benefits more the people who need it more,” Kallman said, those who are earning less.
Fare-free buses also have the potential to drive post-COVID community-scale economic renewal by channeling people through central hubs and encouraging business, according to transit advocate and former RIPTA board member Barry Schiller. The American Public Transportation Association has reported that public transit can further support jobs, foster the growth of high-tech innovation districts and grow property values.
“As Rhode Island continues to experience the economic effects of COVID, this is a key aspect of building back better,” Kallman said of the fare-free proposal.
“Being the first state in the nation to be able to talk about having a free public transportation system is one more arrow in the quiver that we need to attract businesses into this state,” Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said on April 28. “The more people that we [have] come to work here, the better off this economy will be.”
But turning the fare-free proposal into reality will require $25 million of funding that, according to Kallman, lawmakers have yet to “figure out.”
According to a 2012 report by the Federal Transit Administration, fare-free transit systems often struggle to replace farebox revenues. It’s especially challenging for large systems. As of 2012, according to the report, no U.S. transit system with more than 100 buses offered fare-free service. RIPTA currently counts 240 buses in its ranks.
Rhode Island’s Transit Master Plan projected the state would bring in $24.4 million in fare revenue in fiscal 2020 — about 20 percent of RIPTA’s operating costs. By these numbers, the $25 million in estimated funding would make a free bus system seem feasible.
But according to Schiller, a portion of this revenue comes from third parties — including local companies and universities and Medicaid, which reimburses the state for non-emergency medical transportation — that may not compensate the state if fares are removed. Though supportive of the bill’s goals, Schiller said there needs to be a more “robust public dialogue on how to pay for and implement free fares.”
No mention of funding is made in the bill itself, but Kallman has proposed a range of potential funding avenues. Kallman has said funding could come from a combination of gas tax revenues and the not-yet-passed regional Transportation & Climate Initiative, which is expected to generate $3 billion over 10 years for green transport options in the region.
In a recent interview with ecoRI News, Kallman said funding could also be sourced from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which other locales have used to offset transit operating costs.
With no specific revenue source currently identified or written into the bill, money would be drawn out of the general fund, Kallman said. The fare-free buses would be considered a “piece of infrastructure,” she said, and would be financed through taxes and state revenues like other state infrastructure projects from sidewalks to highways.
She noted the $25 million would pale in comparison to and go further than annual funds allocated to highway projects, which can cost more than $400 million.
“This is one of those investments that costs relatively little, does a huge amount on a couple of different dimensions and is an act of faith and commitment into a clean and fairer future,” Kallman said of the fare-free proposal.
Fitting into the master plan
According to Flaherty, the proposal has already sparked an important discussion about how to increase ridership and eliminate barriers in transit.
But Flaherty worries that the fare-free proposal could “preclude making the bold investments” outlined in the state’s recently approved Transit Master Plan.
The plan, adopted by the State Planning Council in December, outlines a program to enhance Rhode Island’s transportation network with improved service and access, expanded routes and new high-capacity options.
Limited changes to the existing fare system are outlined in the plan, including a smart-card payment and fare-capping system that would eliminate the need for 1-day and 7-day passes. Instead, riders would pay $2 per ride for up to three rides per day. Fees would be capped at a maximum of $6 per day, with all subsequent rides taken for free. A similar monthly cap would eliminate the need for the existing monthly pass.
Though the fare-free proposal would negate the fare-capping system, it’s not intended to replace the long-term strategic plan, according to Kallman. Rather, she sees free fares as an opportunity to push further for expanded, affordable and reliable transportation.
“The state Transit Master Plan is a heck of a document and it has a really comprehensive vision,” she said. “But that vision has to be promulgated by increased ridership and through increased commitment on the part of the General Assembly and on state leadership.”
Free fares vs. better service
The potential economic benefits and emission reductions would both hinge on whether the fare-free service actually increases ridership — a point of debate among transit experts.
According to Grow Smart Rhode Island, 77 percent of Rhode Islanders live within a 10-minute walk of a transit stop, but less than 3 percent currently use transit to commute to work. Grow Smart believes the “most promising way to incentivize more transit use would be to improve the service itself,” Flaherty said.
Studies have shown that ridership increases with service improvements, including faster ride times, increased trip frequency and extended hours of service. Before implementing changes, Flaherty said it’s worth knowing if riders would prefer improved service or free service — though he noted doing both would be a “win-win.”
He said recent proposal to dismantle Providence’s central bus hub would mean longer travel times and added hassle — which could be at odds with the ridership goals of the free-fare proposal.
According to Schiller, though, the main factor holding people back from boarding isn’t inadequate service, but an ingrained stigma associated with bus transport.
The system is already better than many think, he said, but free fares could lure people onto the bus to give it a try. Once increased ridership is established, increased services could be more easily justified and in turn drive even greater ridership down the line.
Kallman and Magaziner agree that progress will take an all-systems-go approach, with ridership and routes pushing forward hand in hand.
“In addition to making public transportation free and accessible, we need to expand the number of routes, we need to expand the frequency and reliability of routes,” Magaziner said. “Our small size in Rhode Island can be an advantage if we have a robust, reliable and affordable transportation system.”