What If the Subway Were Just … Free?

What if you could just hop on the El or the Broad Street Line and not have to worry about tokens or exact change? A SEPTA lover can dream.

Market Frankford Elevated | Derek Yu under a Creative Commons license. Free burst | Shutterstock.com

I scrambled up the steps of the Girard El stop.

“Come on,” I yelled to my oblivious companion. “I don’t want to miss the train.” By the time she caught up at the top of the stairs, I was fishing around for bills in my pocket. We didn’t have tokens. They don’t sell them at that El stop. I slid a $5 bill through the cage and my friend and I went through. I overpaid by either $1.20 (using the cost of two tokens) or 50 cents (using the cost of two fares).

Nothing I should complain about. But this happens to me more often than I’d like to admit. Many SEPTA stations don’t have token machines or booths. And ever since subway fares rose to $2.25 just over two years ago, I’m constantly shelling out $3 for late-night rides on the Market-Frankford El or the Broad Street Subway.

SEPTA Key — “the future of fare payment at SEPTA” — will alleviate these concerns. (Well, until I lose my SEPTA Key.) And, obviously, the fare payment is a problem of my own making: If I planned ahead and shoveled extra tokens into my pockets, I’d be fine.

But whenever I pay extra for a ride on the El, the idea flashes through my mind: What if the El were just … free?

Broad Street Line car | Ben Schumin under a Creative Commons license. Free burst | Shutterstock.com

Broad Street Line car | Ben Schumin under a Creative Commons license. Free burst | Shutterstock.com

I MAINLY GET AROUND by walking and by SEPTA. Over the past 10 years or so, I have transformed from a person with a grudging respect for the system to a staunch defender of SEPTA, even at its most ridiculous (as evidenced that whenever I encounter a stop without working token machines, I shrug and pay extra).

I am a big fan of the El. I’ve been riding it my entire life (we used to ride the bus or drive to Bridge Street and take the El to get downtown). In the past 15 years, I’ve seen El trains get more and more crowded. (Ridership year-to-date on subway-elevated trains is actually down 0.8% in 2015. System-wide, SEPTA hit a ridership high in 2013; SEPTA attributed the decline in 2014 ridership to bad weather and the fare increase in July of that year.)

I first encountered free public transit earlier this year on a trip to Miami. Near my hotel was the Metromover, a free automated people mover operated by Miami-Dade Transit. I rode it to get to another place (okay, a bar) in the city. Miami’s Metromover had a few seats, but everyone on my short trip stood.

Miami, which also has a free trolley, isn’t the only U.S. city with fareless transit options. Fare-free public transit exists in Baltimore (where the free Charm City Circulator bus goes through downtown, the inner harbor and surrounding areas), while Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh have fare-free zones on certain portions of public transit since 1985.

The idea is more prevalent worldwide. Châteauroux, France, a city of just under 50,000, instituted free mass transit in 2001. About a decade later, the city released a report saying the idea had worked: The number of trips an average citizen took jumped from an average of 21 trips to a month to 61, while ridership jumped 208 percent. Hasselt, Belgium, saw ridership rise tenfold after it dumped bus fares in 1997.

In 2013, the town of Tallin, Estonia, stopped collecting transit fares for residents. “We are frequently asked why we are offering free-of-charge public transport,” the mayor of Tallinn told Citiscope. “It is actually more appropriate to ask why most cities in the world still don’t.”

Like my late-night trips on the El, I fantasized about free public transit while on the Peoplemover in Miami. In my head, on a free Market-Frankford Line, the sun would always be shining, rainbows would frequently appear out of nowhere and Philadelphia residents would hold hands in a circle and dance around subway poles. Okay, perhaps my mind overstated the after-effect. But the benefits of free mass transit are obvious. Transit workers who collect fares could be redistributed to other jobs. Lower-income residents would no longer have transit fares taking a large chunk of their paychecks (27 percent of SEPTA riders overall make less than $25,000 a year, according to SEPTA’s most recent operating budget). Transit police would no longer have to police fare evasion. Plus, making transit fare-free should encourage ridership — and move people away from cars. Packed trains are more environmentally friendly than cars. Philadelphia may not have achieved Mayor Michael Nutter’s goal of becoming America’s greenest city, but sustainability is a stated goal of our political leadership.

SEPTA sign |  Jeff Fusco

SEPTA sign | Jeff Fusco. Free burst | Shutterstock.com

SEPTA IS ACTUALLY OCCASIONALLY free as part of a promotion. Miller Lite paid for free Broad Street Line subway trips the day of the Eagles home opener in 2013 and 2014. SEPTA’s tollbooth employees report to work as normally scheduled on days when subways are free due to a sponsorship, a spokesman says.

There’s no change to cashiers’ assignments during a sponsorship like this, so they report for normal duty. These types of sponsorships are only for a temporary time-frame and specific service(s) to and/or from an event. In addition, cashiers are union employees with defined job duties, work assignments and schedules, so that wouldn’t change during a limited time-frame and span of service connected to a free-ride sponsorship.

Unfortunately, free transit is not the sunshine-and-rainbows image I had in my head. A 2002 report from the National Center for Transportation Research detailed the real-world issues that cities have experienced with free mass-transit.

All well-informed transit professionals that were contacted for their opinions spoke strongly against the concept of free fares for large systems, suggesting some minimal fare needs to be in place to discourage vagrancy, rowdiness, and a degradation of service. It is also concluded that people are more concerned about issues such as safety, travel time, frequency and reliability of service, availability and ease of schedule and route information, infrastructure at stops, and driver courtesy, than they are about the cost of fares. When fares are eliminated, substantial revenues that help pay for such service characteristics are lost.

Even successful Châteauroux shows that downside: In 2001, there were a dozen vandalized seats. By 2012, that number was 118. “Drivers complained that passengers treated the bus like a personal car,” CityLab’s Henry Grabar wrote, “expecting to be dropped off at their doorsteps.”

And it turns out places like Châteauroux may be an anomaly. That experiment in Tallin, Estonia, has not led to an explosion of ridership. A study from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden says ridership increased just 1.2 percent due to the elimination of fares. “Based on this case study, it seems that in a relatively large city where public transportation already sees high use and is relatively cheap,” Fast Company’s Shaunacy Ferro wrote, “the fare-free system may not be the most effective way to get people out of their cars and onto the bus.” (The program in Tallin, Estonia’s capital, remains popular and does not cost that much money, relatively — about $3 million a year, according to one report.)

A 2012 report, from the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida, said fare-free public transit has not been successful at any large scale. The last major attempt at a fare-free system took place in Austin in 1989 and 1990. While ridership increased 70 percent, the system took a hit: Buses were overcrowded, passengers were disrupted and bus operators were unhappy. Seattle and Portland each had fare-free zones in certain areas, but both cities eliminated them in 2012. The two routes were eliminated as part of a way to avoid a budget shutdown.

The more recent report disputed the increase in problem passengers, saying “in the vast majority of cases, it is not a problem that seriously affects passenger satisfaction or community acceptance. Agencies can help minimize the problem with enforced codes of conduct, video surveillance, active supervision, cooperative relationships with local law enforcement and the court system, and passenger support.” It also said that, for the most part, fare-free transit systems were a success — but they have only been a success (or, really, even tried) in small urban and rural communities, college towns and resort areas. There is no current massive free transit system in a major American city. Tallin, the capital of Estonia, is roughly a third of the size of Philadelphia.

SEPTA, like most transit agencies in the U.S., receives most of its funding not from fares but from the state and federal governments. In fiscal year 2015 — which, for SEPTA, ended June 30th — the transit agency’s operating budget was $1.3 billion. It collected $478 million in revenue, with $102 million coming from the El and Broad Street Lines. It’s not something that’s realistic in a city like Philadelphia. SEPTA has not even considered free zones on transit.

“Fare revenue makes up approximately 40 percent of SEPTA’s operating budget,” spokesman Andrew Busch says, “and is therefore a key resource in paying for the everyday expenses of operating the system, such as labor, power and fuel.”

Basically, we’d have to drastically alter the way we fund SEPTA for free public transit to ever be a viable option. And given the culture war in Harrisburg over transit funding, that doesn’t look like it’ll be happening anytime soon. It would be interesting to see how a free downtown zone, or select free days would impact ridership — and commerce downtown — but, given the financial realities, SEPTA says it’s not considered such measures.

So I won’t think about free SEPTA when I ride the El any more. But I do look forward to the Eagles’ home opener on September 20th against the Cowboys. If I’m lucky, Miller Lite will be paying for it.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.