Would more people ride the bus—even if it were free?

Local angle—I saw a totally empty Greensboro Transit Authority bus cruising down Benjamin Parkway yesterday 5:45. Just saying. So with that in mind, I direct you to this NPR story on Kansas City’s “radical” idea to get more people to ride city buses—-make it free.

But what would happen if —as a Columbia University fare researcher put it—a politician “had the courage” to stand up for free fares? NPR transcript below:

MARTHA GAY: So those working people that catch the bus – it’s not going to be any place for anyone to sit down because everybody’s going to be on the bus because it’s free. They can hop on anywhere at any time.

RODRIGUEZ: But transit officials don’t expect overcrowding. They insist the current system can handle 30% more riders without adding a single bus. And Kansas City already has some experience with free public transit. It has a free streetcar and provides free bus rides to veterans and students. While offering free bus fare may be more complicated elsewhere, Rosalie Singerman Ray, who’s researched free-fare models at Columbia University, says there are more transit systems like Kansas City’s than there are like New York or Denver.

ROSALIE SINGERMAN RAY: There are a lot of urban systems that don’t get very much fare revenue that have a lot of excess capacity on their bus and are really just waiting for a politician to have the courage to say I think we can make this work.

RODRIGUEZ: Still, in the Kansas City area, a commute that takes 20 minutes by car can take more than an hour and a half on the bus. Free fares may not be the solution until the entire system becomes more efficient.

Another instance of transportation fantasy conflicting with transportation reality. I’m happy to see that NPR tossed in that sprinkle of reality—at the end of the story, mind you–but better late than never.

Sam Hieb / Contributing Editor

Sam Hieb is freelance journalist from Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a contributing editor for Carolina Journal and for Piedmont Publius, a blog that focuses on political a...

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