For those of you did not go to UMass, Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, or Mount Holyoke, or did not live in the 5 College area at that time, may be unaware that the local bus service, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), specifically, the UMass Transit System, had free buses.
The free fares are a bit more limited now, probably because of the increasing tight budgets at UMass, but it continues.
There were a lot of students who didn’t own cars, and some of those students didn’t die, because of this service.
I started to think of the PVTA buses, when I read this essay suggesting that we should make mass transit free:
In March, when a cloud of particle pollution settled across Western Europe, Paris took a radical approach. The Ile-de-France region introduced alternate driving days (odd-number plates one day; evens the next) and eliminated fares on local trams, buses, trains and subways.
Traffic dropped by nearly 20 percent in Paris; congestion on the Périphérique ring road fell by 30 percent at rush hour; large-particle pollution fell by 6 percent. Measured by the impact on the roadways, the emergency measures worked as intended.
And on the rails? Unfortunately, the open-gate policy meant that the transportation authority didn’t count how many travelers boarded trains, subways, buses and trams during the fare-free days. The city performed a huge experiment in transportation policy, and nobody bothered to watch.
It doesn’t matter much in context. We can’t expect the traffic-choked French capital to make a habit of such initiatives. Alternate driving days are an intolerable hassle for car-dependent commuters; lost fares and the provision of supplementary service to the tune of 600,000 seats on the Métro, the tramway and suburban rail system cost the region nearly $3.5 million per day. Fares cover nearly half the operating costs of the RATP, the state-owned transit operator, so eliminating them would put a tremendous hole in the annual budget.
And yet, Paris would have been a valuable case study. The consequences of eliminating transit fares remain surprisingly obscure. Can a fare-free policy transform a regional transportation picture? Can it pay for itself? Or is it merely a publicity gimmick that inflicts needless financial woes on local transit agencies?
Many people reject the idea out of hand, saying free rides are a problem, not a solution. But “free” transit, of course, is only as free as public libraries, parks and highways, which is to say that the financial burden is merely transferred from individual riders to a municipal general fund, a sales tax or local businesses and property owners. A free ride policy represents the culmination of a long shift from thinking of transit as a business sector — one that was quite profitable in its heyday — to considering it an indispensable public service.
For bigger cities, the principal motivation for scrapping fares is not to save money but to increase ridership, and harvest the associated positive externalities: less traffic and pollution, more parking and mobility. In the handful of American cities where such programs have been tried on a short-term basis, the ridership surges have been huge. When Topeka made transit free for May of 1988, ridership rose 98 percent. When Austin made transit free for the fall of 1990, ridership increased by 75 percent. A similar experiment in Asheville, in 2006, recorded a passenger surge of 60 percent.
I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of free fares, but I am kind of surprised that UMass Transit wasn’t mentioned. It’s been going on for somewhere around 40 years.