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Free transit zones – are they worth it?

Mar 24, 2010

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture Vancouver Office

At the beginning of 2010, two American cities made notable changes to their transit systems. Baltimore implemented the first of three entirely free bus routes called the Charm City Circulator, while Portland began charging bus fares in its well-known “Fareless Square” downtown.

Those looking for trends in the transit world will certainly be confounded by these opposing moves. What do they indicate about the viability of free public transportation for inner cities?

A large area of downtown Portland, commonly known as “Fareless Square” has been a free transit zone since 1975. It was initially implemented to combat air pollution and a lack of parking in the downtown core. Although the square has succeeded in attracting greater transit use, it has also been faulted for encouraging crime and annoyance on buses. This type of free transit zone also makes it slightly more difficult to collect fares when patrons board buses in the free zone and then continue travelling outside the zone.

Trimet (Portland’s regional traffic agency) reasons that 34 years ago when the square was implemented, bus service was the predominant form of public transit. With the recent expansion of the MAX light rail system, in conjunction with the streetcar, Trimet claims that 95% of trips within the square can be accommodated on these systems, which remain free within the zone (now referred to as the “Free Rail Zone”). They have also cited increased revenue from bus fares as an incentive for the move.

While Portland is trying to capitalize on fares in order to expand service, Baltimore has implemented a tax on parking. The 16% parking tax, expected to generate about 5 million annually, will be used to fund The Charm City Circulator, a series of 3 free cross-town bus routes. The city is hoping that free transportation linking downtown and key sites around the city will provide some economic benefit by encouraging shopping and patronage of the city centre and entertainment districts. Not only will these lines be free, but they have dedicated lanes through congested areas of Baltimore, ensuring that service will be efficient and the planned 10 minute headways can be provided.

So what can we learn from these examples about the relative merits and drawbacks of free transit lines or zones for inner cities?

Firstly, increased transit ridership equals economic benefits. Or at least, the City of Baltimore is sufficiently convinced of this to implement a comprehensive and well-thought-out transit strategy, including a new tax to fund it.

Secondly, the fare (or lack thereof) is not the whole picture when it comes to encouraging transit use. True, paying a fare can be a psychological barrier, even if the fare is very affordable. I know I’ve opted to drive and put my $2 in a parking meter rather than use the same $2 for the bus. However, convenience and efficiency are real attractors to a mode of transportation and in order for a free transit area to be useful it also has to provide good service. As an aside I should add that this assertion is borne out by my experience of living in Calgary for 4 years, during which time I never once used the free light rail that traverses downtown (it was generally faster to walk!).

The structure of the free transit system is also important, in order to reduce some of the potential drawbacks, such as difficulty in collection fares when travelling outside the zone. Baltimore avoided this problem by making the entire Circulator route free. This can be accomplished on a smaller scale by using a dedicated downtown bus or streetcar. When integrating with systems that use an honour system (generally combined with ticket checkers) like Vancouver’s Skytrain, the fare collection issue isn’t a problem.

Lastly, despite the fact that adding a free transit zone or line may increase ridership, it’s not going to pay for itself. Cities considering this option would be wise to look to the indirect benefits of free transit service –increased urban vitality, greater social equity, economic stimulus, decreased pollution and vehicle congestion- and then find a supplementary way to fund it.

Image Credits:  Portland Streetcar, GoByStreetcar, SaveFarelessSquare, Portland Bus, Baltimore1, Baltimore2


  1. And then there’s the “it feels free but isn’t really” concept. I just got my Translink smart card for the Bay Area. Currently works on four or five systems (BART, Muni, AC Transit, CalTrain, and Golden Gate Transit), slated to work on all. This gismo allows one to move around happily from system to system without the pain of transfers, correct change, or unique system-only fare cards. It applies discounts as appropriate, duns one’s credit card and “refills” automatically. Not sure how the ticket checkers deal with it, but apparently they do know whether or not one swipes the reader. I find I’m liking transit better and using it more. Pretty cool technology, huh?

  2. These half-solutions, though well-meaning, often do more harm than good. Transport is a system, like blood supply. It is not amenable to partial or temporary alternatives. There is plenty of justification for making the whole urban system fare-free. This is not a new or untested idea. It works. The benefits are tremendous.