The free transit experiment, probably the largest in this country, is now over, after the first six days of Spare the Air days ended on July 21.
Some of the press reviews of the free transit days are critical. After all, the transit ridership went up by about 10%, and some regular transit riders complained about the crowding. Most of all it carries a heavy price tag of about $14 million.
To some of the transit supporters who advocates for free transit: there's the result.
The problem of providing free transit as a smog-reducing measure is that free transit has to be offered to everybody, not just commuters who regularly drive and take transit on Spare the Air days. Regular transit riders Spare the Air all the time and they pay a share of the transit operating cost. Giving regular transit riders free rides, while it could be justified in other ways, won't spare more air.
Another problem of free transit is that public transit is no longer only a transportation option, rather it becomes a public lounge space used by the homeless and others who have nowhere else to go, which drive away legitimate transit riders. Reports of alleged criminals using free transit is also disturbing.
The 10% increase in ridership can also highlight the relative inelasticity in transit demand in terms of fares as supposed to other factors like transit service improvements. In contrast, during the last two years, Caltrain was able to increase ridership by implementing the Baby Bullet service, despite having two fare increases.
However, regionwide free transit is a great marketing tool, especially in light of the very fragmented fare media in the Bay Area without Translink. Free fare removes the complexity of figuring out the fare, speed up bus service as passengers don't have to slowly feed dollar bills into the fare boxes, and allows low income riders to use more expensive rail service like BART and Caltrain for faster trips instead of local buses. Most importantly, free transit is like a trial offer as a way to increase the number of regular fare-paying transit riders who Spare the Air everyday rather than just on Spare the Air days. BART has reportedly seen an increase in fare paying riders after the free transit days.
Free transit has its values and its downsides. A free transit program should be designed in a way to encourage new transit rides that would translate into more fare paying riders after the program ends, and discourage free transit abuses.