Will Free Bus Fares Significantly Increase Bus Ridership?


By Dom Nozzi

September 8, 2005

It is commonly believed that free bus fares will substantially increase bus ridership.


Given all of the enormous, often subsidized benefits that nearly all Americans “enjoy” as motorists, free fare is unlikely to attract a meaningful number of motorists. In particular, as Donald Shoup would point out, free and abundant parking almost begs people to drive a car. Since almost every car trip an American makes (98% is, I think, Shoup’s number) is to a free and abundant parking space, this is a huge barrier that alone will trump free fare, in my opinion.

bus stop next to bulb-outBut there are many other reasons I don’t believe free fares would recruit a significant number of motorists.

For starters, buses don’t allow passengers to carry a lot of cargo, as can be done with a car.

In addition, buses tend to be “loser cruisers” that bruise the ego (at least in most communities).

Buses are less secure than suit-of-armor cars. This is particularly a problem for many women, who often don’t like the idea of sitting next to smelly, leering, potential rapists and muggers.

Buses tend to be way slower than cars, which is a huge problem in our busy lives.

Buses don’t send the message that you are “hip” or “important.”

Buses reduce travel flexibility. You cannot go to destinations not served by the bus route, and you cannot depart whenever you wish.

Bus service tends to be far too infrequent to be convenient and fast to use.

Roads are free to use when driving a car. Nearly all roads in America are not tolled (ie, motorists tend not to pay a user fee for the expensive asphalt they use).

I could go on and on with this list.

Given all this, I don’t see how free bus fare will recruit a meaningful number of motorists. There is simply too little reward in comparison to all of the huge benefits given up.

As Shoup would point out, there are one or two things that CAN trump those benefits for a lot of motorists: priced and scarce parking, and more compact residential development. Each of these inducements tend to be the case for students attending universities, which goes a long way toward explaining their relatively high bus ridership.

I’ll admit that free fares have a decent chance of recruiting poor people, those without a car, or both. But in this case, the question comes down to this: Should we operate a bus system to be, in effect, a social service agency?

If so, bus service is likely to be doomed to a future of low-quality service that won’t do much to recruit motorists.

After all, why put effort into improving a service that your impoverished, car-less customers are often FORCED to use anyway? And why put money into a service that is used by such a small number of people?


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