Back in 2019 I laid out the case for METRO to eliminate transit fares and essentially be free (and Bill King did it way back in 2008). which they considered but ultimately decided against. Since then we’ve had a pandemic that has devastated transit ridership nationwide, and momentum is building around the country for more transit agencies to eliminate fares to raise ridership and speed up trips. Kansas City has been very successful with it, and now DC is moving ahead (hat tip to Jay).
Houston could totally do this since fares are such a small part of their revenue (maybe 3% at this point?). And it would be especially good now because Metro is looking at a huge contract to upgrade its payment systems – all that could be completely saved! But the counterargument completely ignored in this piece is homeless semi-living on the buses, which drives off other passengers.
I think the solution to homeless et.al. would be to kick everybody off at the end of every route before turning around. The question is how hard would that be to enforce by the driver? It might take a few months of stationing transit cops at key places to enforce and build the routine. Another option would be like with driver’s licenses: you have a transit pass, and it can be revoked or suspended at any time for violations. Nobody boards without a valid transit pass. Or something similar could be done with facial recognition cameras so people don’t have to carry a transit pass, but suspended riders could be identified.
So there are options for minimizing the downsides of free transit, but METRO would have to be willing to be bold and innovate and experiment. It’s potentially the second-best initiative METRO could take on (after a true moonshot of aspiring to offer half-hour or less express trip times from every park-and-ride and transit center to every major job center and both airports using a network of MaX Lanes in collaboration with TXDoT and HCTRA, with vehicle size and frequency tailored to demand).
If new METRO board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran and the rest of the Board are looking for a way to leave an amazing legacy to Houston and METRO, either or both of these would definitely fit the bill!
This piece first appeared at Houston Strategies.
Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.