There’s a new book out called Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators.

On Monday, May 21st, the Transit Riders Union is hosting a book launch and a panel discussion of past, present and future efforts to advance the vision of free public transit here in the Seattle area. The event will be held 6:00-8:00pm at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE. You can RSVP on Facebook here.

Panelists will include Rosalie Ray, author of one of the book’s chapters; Ifrah Abshir, a leader in the successful campaign to win transit passes for Seattle public school students; City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Teresa Mosqueda; and several more guests. I will emcee the event.

The book explores the winning strategies and pitfalls of case studies of free public transit ranging across thirteen countries: the United States, Montreal, Toronto, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, China, France, Belgium, and Germany. As much a manifesto as a guide, this explosive book, the first ever on the topic in English, is written for those who want to truly revolutionise their city and move it forward.

Katie Wilson is General Secretary of the Transit Riders Union.

33 Replies to “Book Launch & Panel Discussion: Free Public Transit”

  1. Transit in most cases should not have a cost at the point of use, since there is really no way to price the marginal costs of each rider.

    Annual/monthly passes are the way to go!

    This is not the same as “free,” which is not possible anyway.

    1. Mark, we’re not talking about “free”, anymore than we would be with highways that aren’t tolled. We pay taxes. For thirty years, we’ve been three stories deep in right-wing organic fertilizer about how taxes for things like medical care are black-booted robbery, but private bills many times higher are freedom.

      So Isn’t this just a lot less complicated way, and therefore much cheaper, way to pay what we owe? Completely agree about passes. Except that as every STB comment-reader knows, I’ll be there Monday night to ask the Transit Passengers’ Union why we’re tolerating being told literally, in rules that take an hour to find through “links” and RCW.’s , that my monthly pass doesn’t count as “Proof of Payment!”

      And warned and fined accordingly. That’s jack-booted liberal, I mean Progressive, extortion. Been buying monthly passes since before ORCA, and they’d be my choice no matter what. When they start being honored again. We used to have “Annual” too. Anybody know what happened to them? [ot]

      Mark Dublin

    2. Free is possible. See Tallinn, Estonia, which buys unlimited passes for residents and charges fares only to only non-residents. King County sets Metro’s fares at around 20-30% of costs. That means 70% of operational costs are already tax-supported, and it would only take 30% more to make it free. I was just reading a book that had an English country library, where apparently people pay a few p per day to check out books. That sounds strange because our libraries are fully tax funded, If you can fund libraries and fire departments by taxes, then you can fund transit by taxes.

      I’m not saying we definitely should do that but we should leave the option open long-term. It would be better to debate proposals that include everybody than proposals that intentionally exclude people.

      If you’re worried that ridership will double or triple and it will cost too much to support, that doesn’t usually happen. Ridership in Tallinn went up 10% or so. Because people don’t want to ride around all day every day even if it’s free; they want to get where they’re going and get off.

      The other issue people raise is the homeless riding around all day and smelling funny and intimidating people. But why do the homeless congregate in parks, libraries, and buses anyway? Because they don’t have homes, of course! So let’s get on with building housing for the homeless and that problem will diminish.

    1. les, we hear this term frequently. So help me out. What’s your favorite thing that Seattle kicks its doctor about when it gets hit with a little rubber hammer? I haven’t seen that operation since Mad Magazine stopped using Don Martin for a cartoonist because he died. Or got run over by a steam-roller.


    2. Portland Streetcar price is $2 per trip, while TriMet buses on parallel streets are $2.50. So, making things less expensive increases ridership.

  2. According to , for King County Metro alone this would cost an additional $450 million in annual tax funding per year, assuming that any increased service required from induced demand could be paid for with the savings from not collecting fares and the increase in operating speed accompanying no fare payment. Are we going to pay for it with a $2500 head tax on Amazon and Starbucks employees?

    And saying we don’t pay to ride elevators is kind of like saying we don’t pay to park at the mall.

    Ironically, I tried to order this book on Amazon but it said it was “currently unavailable”.

  3. If we ever have a real discussion around congestion charges I think fee-free transit would be a great fall-back/compromise when the ‘War on Cars!’ crowd start spouting their drivel and ginning up the outrage machine. We can say, “Ok, we’ll drop the congestion charge idea but we’ll make transit free to ride.” I think this effectively kneecaps many of the (mostly) phony concerns surrounding the impact of congestion charges on poorer folks and would have a similar impact on people’s decision to drive alone vs. ride transit. (Why pay $6 in fares when you already have a car vs Why pay a $6 congestion charge when I can ride the bus/train.)

  4. Free transit experiments for the public at large have often run into undisciplined riders joy-riding. Now, with technology, fare payment can be implemented less painfully for many.

    Free transit is a great tool for things like transit training (for youth), special celebrations (victory parades), mitigation for transportation problems (road closures) and other reasons. However, some sort of general bar to admission is needed to keep it safe and clean for riders and to help fund the 25 percent more service that fares enable. It also helps agencies to more easily understand where service is more or less productive.

    1. I’ve taken Island Transit up to Deception Pass a time or two. It’s free of charge. Is that joy riding?

      Corvallis, Oregon has a decently busy transit system that is free of charge. Sometimes people use it to get to parks or movies. Is this joy riding? Or is it only joy riding if you decide to change your destination while you are traveling?

      I can understand the “rolling homeless shelter” issue that can happen, but the solution to that is to figure out a better homeless solution.

      1. You must realize that you can’t fairly compare a college town’s transit system, or Island County (my grandparents live on South Whidbey) to KC Metro, right? It’s laughable to draw comparisons between them. There is no way to make transit in Seattle free without making it unusable on many routes. It’s becoming de facto free (really, it already is), and the horribleness is already growing exponentially. The people arguing for free transit obviously don’t ride the services that would be most impacted by bad behavior.

        We don’t disincentivize bad behavior in this country like they do elsewhere, and that’s a big problem. Sweden (for example) is a very liberal, progressive place, but the bus drivers there would instantly deny boarding/kick people off for things I see on the 8 every week.

    2. “some sort of general bar to admission is needed to keep it safe and clean for riders”

      This assumes that people who can’t pay the fare are more violent or messy than those who can. And that comes down to the tendency in our society to single out a subset of people as “them” and discriminate against them, not have a basic minimum safety net for everybody, and not do enough about the high cost of housing and necessities that make bus fares a problem in the first place and make people fearful of losing their housing or not being able to get healthcare or becoming destitute in old age. All this causes chronic stresses day after day after day, and some people don’t handle it well or crack. So the idea of charging fares to keep miscreants away is the same thing as locking yourself in a gated community so you don’t have to see or interact with the people you’ve thrown away. Our public policy should be focused on addressing everybody’s basic needs and happiness, not on privileging those who are already privileged and denying basic services to those who are not. That is what the Nordic countries do, and Britain does to a lesser extent: put the resources of society toward the good of everybody rather than just the group that’s on top and can buy politicians, and they’re not afraid to tax the rich. There’s also another factor in the US: our tendency toward individualism, disrespecting authority, and looking out for number one and not caring how it affects others. That’s more or less who our society is not as violent as Japan’s, and thus why our transit is less safe and clean. But that tendency is throughout society among both rich and poor, so it can’t be that those who can’t pay bus fares have more of it.

      “to help fund the 25 percent more service that fares enable”

      Fares are arbitrary! We can fund service with fares, but that’s just a choice. It’s ultimately a values decision how much of the cost should be paid by fares, and it should be approached that way. One way of looking at it (which I favor) is that transportation is a basic function of a city, because everybody benefits if everybody can easily make their optimum number of trips between home, work, shopping, events, medical appointments, visiting family and friends, etc. That improves the city’s economy, productivity, health, happiness, etc. A city is a large number of people close together, so the most effective kind of transportation is mass transit. Therefore the city should provide it, everybody should pay for it regardless of how much they use it, and the default fare should be zero. The actual fare can be 25c, $1, or $2.75 if the city decides to go that way, but that should be seen as a deviation from the default or normal practice rather than the default practice itself. Another way of looking at fares is that transit is a commodity, like cars or ice cream or gold. So if you can pay you get more of it, lucky you. And if you’re well off the cost is not a burden at all, double lucky. But if you can’t afford it, well too bad for you, and there are absolutely no externalities if some residents can’t get around or are cost-burdened. But this is the “us and them” philosophy I mentioned at the beginning. We should distinguish between basic services that everybody should have access to, and extra commodities that well-off people can have but shoudn’t be subsidized. I believe transit should be in the former, and driving in the latter. So it makes sense to have everybody fund transit rather than focusing on passengers.

      “It also helps agencies to more easily understand where service is more or less productive.”

      Passenger counters can do the same thing. There could be automatic door counters, or the driver could press a button on a counter for every passenger.

      1. Nordic countries, at least Sweden, would not tolerate things that happen on KC Metro buses frequently. I did study abroad there, and was surprised how intolerant a very liberal country could be to public displays of bad behavior. It wasn’t infrequent that I saw the bus driver deny entry (presumably for not paying) or kick someone off for something (from my perspective) was mildly annoying. Granted, there are generous services these people can access, but at least in the daily public sphere, ‘acting out’ wasn’t permitted like it is in this country.

      2. “That’s more or less who our society is not as violent as Japan’s”

        Would you really argue that Japan has a more violent populace than the US? I doubt the statistics back that…I bet all crime rates are vastly lower there than here.

      3. I didn’t say low income riders; I said undisciplined riders.

        There are plenty of programs to subsidize fares for low income riders already.

        There are plenty of people from a wide variety of circumstances who can be a public nuisance. There are even those whose personal hygiene puts riders around them at a health risk regardless of income. Buses are not designed to be a mobile shelter option or a playground for undisciplined people. There are other places to go.

        I have been on public transit where nearby riders have both slapped stickers and tagged with paint while the vehicle was moving. I have been on buses and trains where someone smells so bad that no one can be within 10 feet. I have avoided sitting in mysterious puddles on seats.

        I don’t see how asking people to treat the vehicles I helped buy with my tax dollars with a little respect by paying a small fare is being unfair.

      4. Sorry, I reversed the sense or darn smartphone spellcheck did. Japan is much less violent.

      5. Obviously, fares do not eliminate unruly behavior on the bus. Fares do not prevent people from trashing the bus. Cities that run free circulator/local bus service (often called “trolleys”) alongside paid bus routes do not have a disproportionate number of homeless and unruly passengers on the free routes. Busses mainly reflect the people they happen to serve along their particular routes, not the fare paid. These are social science issues not transit fare issues!

      6. We did have a limited fare-free system for many years – the downtown free-ride zone. As I remember, it was ultimately terminated (at least primarily) for reasons other than “unworkability of fare-free transit”.

        However, as I remember, a couple of years before the free-ride-zone was terminated, it was cut off at 7PM. The stated reason was to reduce ugly/violent incidents on buses downtown in the evenings. I’ve been around enough to know that public agencies’ real reasons are not always the stated reasons – but the stated and real reasons often actually are the same. I did not then (and do not now) ride buses out of downtown after 7PM all that often (and when I do, I ordinarily ride the #24 or #31, which I don’t think are among the more troubled routes), but I never experienced anything untoward in the evening. I understood (maybe incorrectly) at the time that many of the requests for the early cutoff were from drivers who did not like handling ugly incidents..

        All this is a long lead-up to saying that: we did have a sort of fare-free experiment, and it was at least said to have not worked out well because it increased boorish and violent behavior. I would assume that somewhere in the depths of Metro’s data files and/or institutional memory, there should be some data indicating how bad the problem was and whether the cutoff of free-usage did or did not actually ameliorate the problem.

        That would seem to be relevant to this discussion.

      7. I would say that buses in the former Downtown free-fare zone carried many more short distance trips, often 2 to 4 blocks. While that’s a nice thing to offer, it really slowed down the bus speeds Downtown. By charging fares, it seemingly reduced the slower speeds and helped bus reliability by removing some of these very short, hop-on trips.

        Since we are more into an era where bus speeds matter Downtown, bus speed effects of free fares have to be considered.

      8. The best thing for downtown is high-performance circulation routes. The agencies are positioning Link and RapidRide on 3rd Avenue to do a lot of that.

        I never saw any difference between riders’ beahvior before 7pm or after 7pm, so the 7pm rule always seemed to be a hysteric knee-jerk policy. It’s the same kind of thing as those blocking ramps at the ends of the DSTT where buses have to stop and wait for it to go down. They were installed after 9/11 because some feds said they’re a safety feature, and for some reason they couldn’t make it lower by the time the bus gets there. (Why? There’s no guard to check the driver’s ID. If there’s a dispatcher watching, can’t they tell that it’s a legitimate bus from a few feet away? Or is it just the fact that the bus obediently stops that proves it’s a safe bus? But illegitimate buses can also stop.)

      9. @Al — >> By charging fares, it seemingly reduced the slower speeds and helped bus reliability by removing some of these very short, hop-on trips.

        Hmmmm, I wonder if the speed lost by all of these “short hoppers” was more than the speed gained by not charging to board. My guess is that even in the more congested areas, the time savings that came from avoiding fares more than made up for the added customers.

        But that is just a guess. All of the comments here are great, and most savvy transit riders would be able to come up these ideas. But to actually write a book, and convene a panel to talk about all of these ideas, you need real data. My guess is that the folks on the panel (as well as the author of the book) have done all that. They will likely talk about these issues (and then some) while adding context in the way of case studies. It should be a very interesting, and perhaps lively discussion. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it, but I hope to.

  5. les, Portland streetcar already has MAX lines for passengers to transfer to and from. And there are stop signs, which no streetcar should ever have to stop at.

    But Mayor Durkan’s current handling of the Connector, and her explanations, confirm your point for Seattle For what it’s worth, here’s my objectivity-free comparison between Seattle and Portland.

    Portland seems to have the style, if not the reality, of a city shaped by a few extremely wealthy families. Not corporations. Also, and Glenn can confirm right or wrong- an easier time making decisions. Maybe it’s because, in Seattle, people with different views are more prone to fight for them.

    But equal evidence that Seattle as a whole is a modern city with an extremely unhealthy distaste for making decisions, and hates being called on it.

    Would explain why the ORCA card system, which is supposed to speed and simplify fare collection, is implemented in a way so complicated that a printed explanation would be visible from a jetliner two miles high landing at Sea-Tac. And wall directly under the screen of the south TVM at that station has RCW.’s at a level where a dog can leave an explanation perfectly clear to the next dog who reads and replies appropriately to it.

    How am I doing?



    1. OMG, please stop about the ORCA system being complicated! It’s so tiring, and blatantly false. So you got caught not tapping on or off accidentally once, and the fare inspector gave you a lecture, boo-hoo. You learn from your mistake and move on. [ah]

  6. We could have provided everyone free metro passes for years with the budget used for ST3.

    1. True. but we would have kicked our high-capacity transit needs to a future generation. We could have done it with U-Link too but we’re lucky we didn’t because Metro’s service was melting down the couple years before it opened: it couldn’t keep up with the increasing congestion and unreliability of the roads or or the increasing passenger loads. Now you may say that Lynnwood and Federal Way and Bellevue are fine, we don’t need Everett and Tacoma and Issaquah Link, and that’s a fair argument. But Ballard really needs something better than the existing buses that take 40 or 50 minutes on a bad day, otherwise we’re isolating one of our major urban villages and putting a 30+ minute overhead on every trip between it and the outside world.

    2. I could’ve lived in a motel for years for what I spent on this house!

    3. @Mike — Yes, but don’t forget that free transit could save a lot of riders a lot of time. Ridership on the buses is much bigger than ridership on Link, and that will likely continue. So much so that even minor improvements — for each and every bus rider — could be a bigger savings than ST3.

      But it is hard to say. Not all of ST3 was a bad value. As you said, the savings from Ballard Link will be substantial, even if the rest of the system won’t improve much. But it still won’t be like U-Link, which is likely to be the second most cost effective transit project we’ve ever built (the first being the transit tunnel). East Link and Northgate Link are also very good values (although not quite as good). But those were already built (or planned). I think the ballardite has a point — it is quite possible that simply making transit free would be a better time savings than ST3.

      But i doubt that is his point. I don’t think he is making the case that we would have saved more time by making transit free than building ST3 (even though it is possible). I think he is making the case that it would have provided a greater benefit to society.

      That is a much tougher call, and you have to back up, and compare it with other things that the government could have spent money on. You also have to look at who pays, and how much they do. Those who don’t have much money (but aren’t extremely poor, or are poor but don’t want to fill out the paperwork) would benefit a lot. But would they benefit more from other social programs? What about your average worker? The city seemed to go bonkers over a proposed head tax, and yet requiring employees to provide free bus passes seems awfully similar. It is a disincentive to employ workers (or pay them well) — just like mandated health insurance. You simply wouldn’t need to pay for it if the government provided it for free. Of course that doesn’t mean the service (transit or government health care) would actually be good. If cut substantially, both would be terrible, and lead folks to pay for better options.

  7. This is current fare revenue. Subtract from this value the cost of dealing with fares (no ORCA readers, cash counting, pauses for people to pay, strugles over zones, etc.). Then also subtract the cost of FTA grants which provide a higher level of support for free systems.

    With everything included, some small agencies figure it is cheaper to not charge anything.

  8. Yes, if this were Oslo, or Singapore, or Tokyo, or Helsinki, then fine, free transit would work. However, in this country anti-social types are never dissuaded, shamed, or punished sufficiently enough to keep our public transit from turning into roving drunk tanks/insane asylums/homeless shelters. It’s hard enough waiting for the bus at 11pm on Broadway with the crazy and/or seriously aggressive inebriated people, but when the driver allows them on the bus for free, it can (and sometimes does) cause havoc. Additionally, the lack of hygiene from the homeless can make the bus almost unridable for the vast majority…I’ve seen people exit gasping for air (I’m not talking mildly annoying odors).

    Again, all you have to do is compare a ride on ST between UWS and CHS, and a comparable 8 + 48 at 11pm on any given night, and see what hell a de facto free system can create. I think the people advocating for free transit are only riding the 271 between UW and Issaquah (or some equivalent) and have a somewhat distorted view.

    Free just gets you to a horrible ‘tragedy of the commons’ place really fast.

  9. I think there is something psychologically important about things that are “free” vs subsidized. If you have to pay even a small amount it changes your perception of the value of the service.

    That said, one could imagine
    – no fares except during rush hours when overloading is a real concern
    – no fares except on certain routes: the expresses or downtown bound segments

    I think the City of Seattle should buy residents monthly passes from KC Metro, at a bulk discount of course. Could be means tested or not.

  10. There is considerable irony that the discussion here is about free transit at all, when SoundTransit and Metro can’t even agree on a revenue sharing option that would allow a Link ticket to also serve as a paper transfer on Metro.

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