Fare Free Bus Service?

By Dom Nozzi

I’m not sure how much of a good idea it would be to subsidize free bus use. I’ve not read much about it in the literature, so I assume there are important obstacles and problems. Given the fact that our heavy subsidies to single-occupant vehicle (SOV) travel practically beg people to get around in such an unsustainable way, it is entirely possible that even a free bus would not attract huge numbers of riders. And it would hurt the transit service image pretty badly if we were heavily subsidizing fairly empty buses. Again, the uneven playing field for transportation makes it quite rational to choose SOV travel.

SOV travelers also benefit from:

  1. Luxurious, plush, highly comfortable car interiors with full music, seat, and temperature control. Such amenities are rarely, if ever, available on a city bus.
  2. A perception of protection from crime. The car as a “suit of armor” helps explain why so many parents of their collegiate offspring want their children to own a car (especially in the aftermath of a headline news crime in the media). Bus rides involve riding with a group of strangers (who are potentially dangerous).
  3. Door-to-door speeds are usually much faster compared to a bus.
  4. Ability to tailor your trip: Carrying small or big loads, carrying carpooling friends or significant others, leaving and arriving when you want to, going to any destination that you desire.
  5. Driving a car is a powerful status symbol.
  6. Privacy.
  7. Free parking spaces are found at nearly all SOV destinations. As Donald Shoup points out, this is such an irresistible subsidy that free parking should be considered a fertility drug for cars.

Can free bus passes overcome all of that? Even in the face of cheap gas, free and abundant parking, and free roads?

Maybe, but I’m not sure.

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