This study sought to understand the potential and problems associated with fare-free transit policy. Washington state is extraordinary in the number of such systems that are fully fare-free. Experiences with fare-free policy in Washington are overwhelmingly positive; a result that is consistent with other completely fare-free systems in the U.S. identified in this research. We conclude that fare-free policy does make a difference and that smaller communities especially are better served by a fare-free policy. This positive review of fare-free policy conflicts with common thinking about the policy within the transit industry. We conclude that much of the negative interpretation of the policy is based on a very limited set of experiments with the policy at larger systems. This research points out why these experiments should not be used to dismiss the policy and why the policy's potential success is largely dependent upon transit agency management issues. Furthermore, we present a conceptual overview of why the removal of the fare box results in substantial ridership increases above the levels predicted using standard fare elasticity relationships. This conceptual overview of the relationship between fare-free policy and ridership levels is also suggested as a helpful tool for interpreting the value of increased ridership in juxtaposition to the different objectives of public transportation.
Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC)
Costs, Free fares, Impacts, Public transit, Recommendations, Ridership, Strategic planning, Transportation policy.