Washington has long been a leader in fare-free transit policy. In 1987, Island County became the first community to offer a complimentary bus service for its residents. 20 years later, the free transit system is still in place.
A number of communities nationwide have since looked into the prospect of free transit services in order to reduce road congestion, use of single occupancy vehicles, increase mobility and make better use of public resources. Yet in many of these cases, a fare free program was short-lived or resulted in negative externalities.
What makes Island County’s model successful? Could this system function elsewhere?
A report on Transit Ridership Efficiency as a Function of Fares by Gerrit R. Moore concentrates on rider performance and farebox recovery parameters for counties within Washington state. Listing each county’s operating costs, farebox revenue, ridership, population, population served and median income, the report provides a much-needed look at the ingredients needed for a transit-free system to successfully operate: strong support in a relatively small community.
Proponents of fare-free transit argue that it eliminates the need for complicated fare pricing policies, driver disputes over fares and serves a wider audience. According to Moore’s presentation, Island Transit had about 543,000 rides in 1994. Had fares been charged, ridership would have dropped to 15,800 rides. The benefits of free transit stem from the belief that transportation is a basic and necessary public good that should be available for all member of society regardless of income, age or reduced physical abilities. Moore argues that in collecting fares, Island County would have lost money if fares were charged. He cites fare boxes, which cost an average for $4,500 each, as well as personnel costs for two state employees that must count the revenue every night, as mandated by state law.
Ridership across the nation is at an all-time high yet 85% of transit agencies nationwide will undergo service reductions and eliminations over the next few years. When the price of oil peaked in 2009, ridership increased and buses became a viable choice for commuters with other transportation options. Challenges to free transportation include crowding, possible misuse by some social groups and increased stops due to the fact that people that would otherwise walk shorter distances will catch the bus. In essence, crowding will likely generate more ride complaints, but the removal of fare boxes is expected to reduce conflicts between drivers and problem riders. Similarly, gains in average boarding times will likely be offset by higher ridership, which may lead to slightly increased aggregate boarding times.
Free transit has been successful in other Washington communities, including Chelan-Douglas County, Mason County and Skagit County. Many people in this area depend on this service for their daily commute. Although larger systems such as King County Metro refuse to forego fare revenue, communities with free transit support the service through local, federal and state tax revenue. In the case of Island County, the free buses are financed through a local sales tax equal to 6 cents on every $10.