I get the appeal of fare-free transit: making it free-at-the-point-of-use gets more to use it. However, few seem to be asking whether this is the best way to get people out of cars, to which the evidence says the answer is likely no.
Proponents of fare-free transit note that Connecticut’s bus ridership has recovered nearly to pre-pandemic levels in the wake of the recent suspension of the fare. While the fare holiday likely bumped up ridership somewhat, evidence from elsewhere suggests that service increases and general ridership recovery have also helped. Let us also note that before the pandemic, New Haven local buses provided just over 20,000 daily trips in a service area with 800,000 inhabitants.
A look under the hood suggests that the riders getting on transit due to elimination of the fare are not switching out of a private car or cab, but from walking or cycling. Decades of observations clearly show that real decreases in car use take material investment into frequent, reliable service and reductions to the parking supply. Going forward, Connecticut needs to do the same.
Having used CT Transit New Haven buses a fair bit, I suspect that the unusually clunky payment system intensified the effect of the fare holiday. Going forward, the state should modernize.
Unlike most systems, which feature plenty of ticket vending machines, here, riders can only buy tickets on a bus or at a staffed window on the New Haven green. Unsurprisingly, most riders pay either in cash or with the fussy GoCT Card upon boarding. I have often seen buses sit for upwards of a minute at stops, both pre- and post-pandemic. Even New York has figured out how to take mobile pay and contactless bank cards while automatically computing weekly fare caps and free bus-rail transfers. I almost never have to tap my phone twice at a NYC Transit turnstile or bus.
Many fare-free transit advocates have hinted at a real issue: over-policing of fare dodgers. Through my eyes — those of a large white man — CT Transit strikes a good balance, with drivers usually waving on the occasional non-payer, or someone who fed a dollar bill and cannot find the additional 75 cents, or someone whose GoCT Card is acting up. Dedicated unarmed fare inspectors seen on most other transit systems would likely encourage higher compliance. Tackling and handcuffing fare-beaters is not called for.
Connecticut must run buses frequently if it hopes to stimulate ridership. At a trip every 15 minutes, a frequency seen on very few Connecticut local bus lines, transit service starts to compete with cars. The buses along West Finch Avenue in the car-oriented sprawl north of Toronto attract double the ridership of all CT Transit New Haven, which serves a walkable city with a solid job base. Yes, the Finch buses’ high ridership partially stems from connections to the Toronto subway, but it also arises from good service —no less than six buses per hour all week into the wee hours.
Decades of evidence shows that simplifying routes so that buses run more frequently reliably increases ridership; most people will walk a little farther for a shorter wait.
Just about all heavily ridden transit systems charge fares to their passengers. Fare income does not require legislative action to appropriate. New Haven’s bus system recovered 20% of its operating costs from fares just prior to the pandemic. Fare payment modernization and concentration of service in urban areas would likely push this figure higher, boosting the service’s resiliency to spending cutbacks in downturns.
The state should also reduce the extent to which bus service parallels rail lines. While a bus driven by one driver can only realistically move 50 passengers, trains can typically fit hundreds of travelers per onboard staff member. Relatedly, boosting all the local rail services branching off the New Haven Line to at least hourly service would cost little relative to the fixed costs of rail operations.
Thus, it is best to run buses where rail lines do not reach and integrate schedules and fares for easy connections. While some parallel routes are understandable, such as the 261 serving the Route 1 commercial corridor, infrequent tails such as the outer 215 or 255 should give way to bolstered service on urban routes like the 234 or 268.
Connecticut has strong cities, and most of its people live in well-defined areas —the ingredients for strong transit ridership. Transit is a far better deal than a cab ride—when it runs in a usable manner.
The state needs to follow up with frequent service if it expects people to ride, not just make a token offering free.
Robert Hale lives in New Haven.