The Case for Free Transit


A reader asks what I think about Irwin Kellner’s argument that mass transit ought to be free. Broadly speaking, I agree.

To understand how to think about this, it’s easier to start by thinking about roads. Say there’s no road between Washington, DC and Frederick, Maryland. You can go from the one place to the other, but it involves going way out of your way even though it could be a pretty quick trip on a direct road. What you need to ask yourself about building such a road is what would it cost and would it be worth it? You don’t build the road expecting to turn a profit. And you shouldn’t really build it expecting tolls to finance it. You should build it because you want to encourage people to drive from DC to Frederick. But if you build the road and it comes to pass that it’s choked with traffic during certain periods of time you don’t respond by making the road wider. Just like with building the road in the first place, you make it wider if you want to increase the number of people driving. If you want to eliminate the congestion problem, then you charge people to drive on the road during the peak times. The transit situation is similar. If you don’t want people to take the Metro from Bethesda to Gallery Place, then you shouldn’t build the Metro. But if you do want people to take the Metro from Betheday to Gallery Place then you shouldn’t charge them to ride. But if it turns out that your route is too popular at certain times of day, then you want to charge them in order to prevent overcrowding.

That’s how things should be in principle. In practice, politics is much messier than that, and budget politics is especially messy. There are all kinds of dedicated revenue stream issues and various other factors that mean that reliance on fares is typically a second-best option in a world where the realistic alternative isn’t free transit, it’s no transit. In theory, however, transit and roads should both be free most of the time but perhaps quite expensive at particular times when otherwise there’d be dramatic crowding.