It’s not perfect, but the DC Council’s transit bill is a step in the right direction.
Should transit be fare-free? According to many urbanists and transit advocates, the answer is “No.”
The DC Council’s recent unanimous vote to eliminate fares for Metrobus trips originating in the District saw a pro-transit voice in Jerusalem Demsas come out with a critique (echoed by many on Twitter) of the DC plan. Her thesis is simple: a bad bus service that’s free is still a bad bus service, and money spent eliminating fares could be better spent elsewhere. Free fares are a politically expedient distraction from doing the hard work of actually making transit better.
I’m inclined to agree, but I think that analysis misses the political context of the Council’s “Metro For DC” bill. Yes, there’s plenty more work to be done to improve bus service in the District, but the bill is a shrewd political maneuver that will leave Metrobus service better off in the short- and long-term.
A bundle of bus improvements
Metro For DC has two prongs aimed at improving bus service in DC next year. First, the Council has set aside dedicated funding for WMATA in order to waive fare collection for all bus trips originating in the District. Second, the Council has allocated funds to provide overnight service on 12 bus routes and set up a $10M-a-year “bus service improvement fund” to pay for other enhancements to the system.
There’s an obvious tension here: Why not take the funds earmarked for free service, estimated at around $38M, and spend that on even more expanded service hours and other improvements? Surveys have shown riders care more about frequency and reliability than they do price, and improved service is probably more likely to grow ridership than free fares.
Ultimately it comes down to politics: a grand bargain that combines fare reduction with service enhancement leaves everybody happy(-ish) and sails through the Council. I would have loved to see even more money set aside for improving service, but I am happy to take this now and keep pushing for more later. The Council picked the politically low-hanging fruit, as they should — free fares may not be the most efficient way to improve service, but they do seem to be popular.
In addition to being politically expedient, eliminating fares is also logistically expedient. The cost to implement is basically $0, with WMATA only needing to turn off its inconsistent bus fareboxes (more on that later) starting July 1, 2023. Bus lanes, shelter improvements and new lines are all important but they also all take time to plan and build. Free fares improve the rider experience now while we wait for better later.
DC is trying to revamp WMATA funding
The real political project DC is undertaking is to revamp the way WMATA receives revenue, transitioning the agency from farebox receipts to direct government funding. The third facet of the Metro For DC bill is a previously-announced $100-per-month transit subsidy for District residents, which would take effect in 2024 if the necessary additional funding is allocated. That subsidy, combined with the direct subsidy for all bus fares, is an end run around the arcane compact that governs WMATA.
Almost every rail mass transit system in the US is governed by a single municipal or state agency with a clear source of dedicated funding; WMATA is run by four government bodies with no dedicated funding — DC and area local governments each make an annual contribution roughly in proportion to their share of ridership. This system creates a host of issues for WMATA, among them that it’s difficult for any single stakeholder to unilaterally improve service.*
Direct and indirect rider subsidies are a quiet way for DC to improve WMATA’s bottom line. WMATA’s own data suggest upward of a third of Metrobus rides are not paid for, and anecdotal reports of fareboxes not working are common. Drivers do not enforce payment (nor should they) and neither WMATA nor Metro or local police seem very interested in stepping up fare enforcement for bus riders. Absent that, the Council is doing WMATA a big favor by guaranteeing their fare revenue from District riders.
I’m optimistic that DC’s move will nudge the whole system toward a better funding model. Other jurisdictions will be pressured to follow suit and make WMATA and their own local buses fare-free, and with this semi-guaranteed funding WMATA may be able to take a more strategic view when it comes to planning its bus network. DC’s investment now may very well yield dividends in the future.
There is more work do be done
Emphasis on “may.” I recognize there is no guarantee DC’s fare subsidies lead to a virtuous cycle for WMATA — which is why it’s good the Council is also committing to concrete infrastructure improvements and increased service on certain lines. These will reap benefits down the road, and I have no doubt DC will continue to look for opportunities and funding to add bus lanes, shelters, and other rider improvements.
But it will take more political wrangling to get there. DC has maximized the political constituency of bus riders by making fares free; now it’s up to that constituency to continue pushing for improvements to make the system the best that it can be.
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*The WMATA Compact does allow for member jurisdictions to individually fund bus routes, but there are practical constraints to how much additional service Metrobus can provide. All jurisdictions must agree to a common plan for Metrorail service.