Well, actually, lowering bus fares is not a bad idea. If you want to give low-income people a break and attract increased ridership, this is a reasonable suggestion.
But there's a better idea: expand service and make it free.
Doing this will save poor folks more money, will likely prove more effective at attracting new riders--and will benefit the community in other ways as well.This idea is not as crazy or as fiscally irresponsible as it sounds. Read on!
Lower Fares Effort
According to this Athens Banner-Herald article, the Athens Bus Campaign, an effort led by anti-poverty activist Michael Smith, proposes cutting bus fares by 25 cents (from $1.50 to $1.25 for an adult fare). Smith says the fare reductions would not only cut expenses for low-income people who ride the bus everyday but would also attract more ridership and thus fill the budget gap created by the reduced fares.
Not bad logic.
But like some other folks, I'm not convinced that lowering the fares by 25 cents will--by itself--do much to attract new riders. I think Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie is right when he says the most effective way to boost ridership is "to make your service more frequent and available."
Shaving off 25 cents for two rides a day, five days a week, most weeks of the year (25 cents x 2 rides x 5 days x 48 weeks) cuts transit costs by $120 a year--which is a modest, but real savings for low-income folks. This is a viable way for a local government to actually do something to help low income folks directly. Free, however, is an even better deal (surprise!). Compared to today's today's current $1.50 fare, paying nothing would save riders $720 annually.
So, if we really want to boost ridership and also cut costs for low-income riders, here's what we need to do as I suggested in an earlier post: increase the frequency of service, add more routes, extend hours of operation--and offer free rides for everyone, all the time.
"Hold on," you may say. "First of all, even if we could afford to do this, not everyone rides the bus. So why isn't it fair to charge actual users for their use?"
Well, to paraphrase Aaron Renn, who runs Urbanophile, a blog about cities, no one is charged to check out library books or to take a walk in county park even though not all of us take advantage of these services. Police officers and fire department workers don't ask for tickets or fares when they respond to emergencies. And, there are plenty of other public services that aren't used by everyone but are paid for by us all: schools, is just one example.
"OK, then sure," you may continue, "free is great in principle but we simply can't afford to give out free bus rides in this fiscal climate. Free buses are a pipe dream!"
We might not be able to afford it. That's true.
But consider this: the bus is already roughly 64 percent "free." Which is to say that only 36 percent of revenues for the bus come from passenger fares (which includes UGA's payments)--the rest is government subsidy (20 percent fed, 44 percent local).In 2000, the bus system cost about $2.3 million to operate. (These decade old numbers are the only ones I could find on the Athens Transit web site.) If current costs are comparable, that means we'd only need to kick in another $840,000 or so to fund the system at its current capacity. But we want more buses and more bus stops and shelters--so let's say we'll need three times that amount or $2.53 million every year.
That's a big number for a smallish city in a bad recession--and there's no chance that Athens taxpayers will support that increase.
So, is that it? The smoke has cleared; the dream has died?
No, because while $2.53 million looks big from a local perspective, it's not so big if we can boost federal, and--potentially--state contributions.
Of course, getting these extra funds won't be easy. We may, in fact, have to help create the federal and state programs we'll need. So, this is probably a good juncture for me to confess that my proposal for a free and expanded bus system is--unlike Michael Smith's more modest, more locally-focused and easy-to-implement fare reduction proposal--a multi-year project.
But I think the downside of the longer time horizon could be compensated for by the upside that an ambitious, creative campaign for a free and expanded bus system would generate. Done right, such a campaign would capture lots of positive attention for Athens--and might just put us in a position to actually receive and spend new federal and state funds to build a truly outstanding local transit system.
And remember: we're not starting from scratch here. Athens Transit is already progressive, creative and well-run. College students and faculty already ride for free. We've got some nationally recognized bus shelter designs. There's a relatively new, really nice Multi-Modal Transit Center.
What's needed is an ambitious and detailed plan to scale up. Let's deploy enough buses to dramatically reduce wait times and expand hours of service. Let's plan very simple direct routes, and have many of them converge downtown to create a very frequent "circulator" route. Let's put up more really cool bus shelters. Let's scrap the tacky advertising. And let's work with other small cities in Georgia and across the country to build a coalition to advocate for federal and state funding of free bus systems.
By the way, it's possible that a well-designed free bus system will do a lot more than cut transportation costs for citizens, reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. Such systems may prove attractive to employers. Potential employees may find free bus service very appealing, and--by and large--employers locate where they can most easily find employees.
Importance of Being Ambitious
Now, before one's natural pessimism kicks-in again, please note that there are reasons to be hopeful about the prospects for increased federal and state funding for local transit programs--at least post-recession.
On the federal front, federal transportation spending priorities are changing at least a little in favor of mass transit. For example, as part of stimulus spending, the Federal Department of Transportation in February awarded $1.5 billion in Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. More than half of that money went directly to local jurisdictions for a range of projects, including streetcars to link working class neighborhoods to downtown areas and to fund local multi-modal transit centers.
National transportation advocates are lobbying for billions in additional funding for bike lanes, buses, light rail and sidewalks--and, for the first time in recent memory, aren't being dismissed as quacks by politicians.
Even on the state front here in Georgia, there seems to be increasing recognition of the need to--maybe--do something about reducing traffic congestion other than building more roads and freeway lanes.
Plus it's likely that gas prices will start climbing a bit more aggressively--on average--as the years pass and generate more support for mass transit.
Here's the deal, though: unless there's ambition there's no plan; and unless there's a plan, there's little chance of getting funded. Because Georgia had no plans and had demonstrated very little interest over the years, the state got passed over for high speed rail funds. Let's avoid that mistake locally. Let's get ambitious and start planning now.
Free the Bus!Go Free and Multiply!
Fare is Free, Free is Fair!
Buses Should be Free Like the Country and Flagpole!
(Clearly, a good slogan is needed. Any suggestions?)
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APPENDIX: Advantages of Going Free (adapted from a post by Aaron Renn)
1. No fares = no expensive fare collection equipment, and no cash box related accounting, security, etc.2. No fares = quicker bus boarding, less bus idling time.
3. No fares = really good way to boost ridership.4. No fares = great city marketing asset.