The free ride: A romantic idea about mass transit whose time will never come

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Elevated subway tracks. (Bob Jagendorf via Flickr)
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Last week, following a jaunt on the Staten Island Ferry during which he rhapsodized about its romantic possibilities, Mayor Michael Bloomberg espoused a dreamy idea of another sort.

"If you were gonna design, keep in mind, the perfect public transportation system, you would have it be free and you would charge people to use cars, because you want the incentive to get them to do that," said the mayor.

It wasn't the first time Bloomberg has said something like this; the mayor of bicycle-commuting and congestion pricing and the Times Square pedestrian plaza actually has a bit of radical streak when it comes to transportation.

But is free public transportation actually such a radical idea?

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Well, yes. Yes it is.

“That’s totally fair to say,” Charles Komanoff, a transport economist, told me.

When I asked Elliott Sclar, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University's Earth Institute, whether he could name one world-class city where mass transit is free, he responded, “None that I’m aware of.”

In the United States, the zeitgeist seems to be moving in precisely the opposite direction.

“What’s been happening in recent years, with all the anti-government attitudes, and anti-taxes and so on, fares have been going up on these things, and the poor are the ones that are getting priced out,” said Sclar. “The M.T.A. now is talking about getting rid of the discount that comes with the fare cards.

The radicalism of the free-transit concept—coupled with the fact that we do not live in Bloomberg’s ideal world, whatever that might be—is presumably why he chose not to include the idea in his congestion pricing scheme, an idea that itself proved too radical for the bold thinkers up in Albany.

But as straphangers face the imminent prospect of escalating fares, it’s worth noting that at least one study shows the idea might actually work, even in real-life, warts-and-all New York City.

In 2007, Theodore Kheel, the since-deceased New York graybeard known, among other things, for his work as a labor relations lawyer, transit advocate, and environmentalist, underwrote a study titled, “A Bolder plan: Balancing free transit and congestion pricing in New York City.”

It came out in January 2008, as debate still roiled over Bloomberg’s proposal to create a cordon around Manhattan’s central business district, making it a toll zone for drivers.

In a letter to Bloomberg and then-governor Eliot Spitzer appended to his report, Kheel wrote that “car travel and mass transit are interrelated, like two sides of an equation, two weights counterpoised on a scale. Ideally, there should be a balance, but instead, our system is enormously, unconscionably out of balance.”

“Both of you have supported congestion pricing,” he continued. “You recognize that charging a fair price for automobile travel can diminish the awful gridlock in our city and in other cities worldwide. Yet you both support fare hikes for mass transit, a policy that drives commuters back to the car, effectively nullifying the very result you are seeking to achieve through congestion pricing. This is not sound policy.”

Kheel’s recommendation? Couple congestion pricing with the elimination of all subway, bus and commuter rail fares within New York City.

“The synergy is pretty obvious,” says Komanoff, the lead author of the Kheel report, who stressed that he stopped advocating free transit several years ago, citing its political impracticability.

The Kheel plan would work something like this.

Subways, buses and commuter rail within the city would be free. Drivers would pay $16 to enter Manhattan’s central business district south of 60th Street. Truck drivers would pay twice as much.

Bloomberg’s plan, by contrast, would have charged drivers $8 and truck drivers $21. Taxi passengers would pay 25 percent more. And parking rates would go up both within the district, and outside of it up to 96th street, so as to discourage drivers from parking at the border and then taking the train in.

By the report's calculations, the plan would reduce traffic within the district by 25 percent, and citywide by 9 percent. It would also have generated $4.2 billion annually, which, when the idea was presented, was more than enough revenue to replace tolls and fares, which, at the time, were bringing in about $3.5 billion a year.

Extra trains and buses would take care of any overcrowding that might ensue. And New Yorkers taking mass transit would get what amounts to a $20-per-week raise.

“As a society, we have chosen to make schools, police, and fire protection free because they are 'public goods' whose universal use benefits everyone,” the report reads. “That’s equally true of transit, and it’s time we managed it that way. Free transit will bring enormous benefits to all New Yorkers.”

Of course, in a Greater New York area in which commuter taxes and congestion pricing still provoke political firestorms, and where the legislators in Albany are more likely at any given point to take dedicated money away than to commit a penny more to the transit system on which the regional economy relies, this will never happen.

Also, about those billions in fare and toll revenues: “I can tell you categorically, no city in the world is forgoing that kind of revenue or anything close to that kind of revenue to provide free transit, even though on paper that might be an excellent thing to do,” Komanoff said.

That may be among the reasons that none of the city’s major transportation advocacy groups supported the report when it came out, and why they continue to regard the idea, politically and otherwise, as a stretch.

“Governments subsidize public transit because cities and regions derive tremendous economic and environmental benefits from these systems,” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, in an email. “But it makes sense for those that use the system to pay a higher share of the costs—it's a fairer approach.”