A Q&A With Ted Kheel, Free Transit Advocate


Gothamist caught up with Ted Kheel, the 93 year old head of the Nurture New York’s Nature Foundation, which addresses the "fundamental conflict between development and the environment." Kheel will release the findings of his study "The Kheel Plan for Balancing Free Transit and Congestion Pricing in New York City" later this month:

Many New Yorkers would love for subways and buses to be free, but are skeptical of such a plan actually working? What do you say to the skepticism?

I think the skeptics will be amazed, when they see our report. We have a brilliant team of experts working on this report, and they have been working for almost a full year. They are running the numbers, anticipating the problems, and finding concrete answers. We know what the concerns are, and we took them seriously and are addressing them. Your readers should look at our preliminary mini-report, posted on the web.

  • Super Smart

    Scintillating stuff. Why stop with transit fares? A congestion fee on all federal highways would raise more than enough for universal health care and support nanotechnology research leading to immortality and robots able to clean under the bed, fold underwear, and lube bike chains.

  • I would expect free transit to reduce bike commuting, so I can’t understand this claim: “Our calculations show an additional 5,000 current peak-hour subway riders living close to the CBD would be expected to switch to bicycle-commuting….”

    Maybe someone on this list can explain why the usual reasoning about substitute goods does not apply, such as “Research Director and Lead Modeler: Charles Komanoff”

    Incidentally, this statement seems to be have a typo:

    “Some 20% of this value would be realized by bus riders, 32% by truck, taxi and auto users within the CBD, and 48% by vehicle users in the rest of the city.”

    That should be: “20% of this value would be realized by transit riders.” The current statement implies that subway riders get 0 value.

  • Jonathan

    Charles, the assumption is that Manhattan’s lighter motorcar traffic under the plan would encourage more commuters to cycle.

  • There would be lighter but higher speed motorcar traffic under the plan, so the effect on bicycling is doubtful. I could see it encouraging bicycling if some of the funding were reserved for bike lanes.

    Nevertheless, if there are people who bicycle rather than taking transit in order to save money, those people would be shifted off their bikes by this plan. Maybe the final plan will have figures on this.

  • anonymous

    Interesting development on the free transit front in Portland: the transit agency there is considering limiting the hours of the downtown free-fare zone, with the reason being given as safety of the riders. Basically, keeping out the riff-raff.

    All that aside, do people forget that transit also has an impact on the environment? It’s like giving everyone free unlimited fluorescent lightbulbs. Sure, they’re more efficient than incandescents, and there might even be an improvement in the short term as everyone replaces their old bulbs, but it sure would lead to a lot of mercury pollution in the long run.

  • I really don’t think people drive cars because taking transit costs too much!

    Making transit free is insulting to riders. It’s not welfare–it’s a service worth paying for. And if it’s free, it takes away our right to complain about crappy service.

  • anonymous

    Oh yes, and even in the USSR, the land of communism, transit wasn’t free. It was cheap though, only 0.05 rubles for a ride, the equivalent of something like 50 cents today.

  • I’d rather have high quality transit than free transit. This is not a false choice.

    Where I live, in Vancouver, BC, the city has given university students “free” transit (paid for at a deep discount in student fees). Ridership went way up (yay!), but new service was not added. What this means is that the quality of transit has deteriorated along routes going to universities, and many students have vowed to buy a car when they can afford one.

    I would be happy to pay a reasonable price for quality transit (and then allow those who cannot afford to pay a way to use transit). I don’t think it is price that turns people away from transit, but rather lack of service in outlying areas.

    ps- I have not read Kheel’s report yet. Perhaps he addresses this issue.

  • Louis

    Acting like patrons pay for transit is pretty insulting, too. It is obviously a public service, and poor fare collection is a red herring for the real problem of underfunding. Free transit has been shown to work very well, regardless of Andrew’s case study of a University shuttle.

    There are two choices: make transit less expensive (ultimately free), gain more ridership, and increase service accordingly (this is always worth it to the society, from a social/economic gains standpoint).

    The other choice is to raise prices, which deteriorates ridership, which in turn makes service expansion unnecessary, deteriorating ridership further, and often leading to budget shortfalls.

    There are really two ways you can have budgets work out in transit. Free transit, with full funding, and no transit, with no funding.

  • Louis

    By the way, Andrew E, it is OF COURSE A FALSE CHOICE!

    Here’s a more applicable case study, and not only involves a wildly successful bus system (yes with system expansion) complete with free bike rentals.


  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    The funding and fare issues revolve around a couple of themes in this thread. Capacity, the trains are at or very near capacity. And growth, where do you get the local funds to grow. Neither Weiner nor Bloomberg identifies any local funding source other than CP. Weiner opposes it Bloomberg apparently thinks it is the only game in town.

  • Hilary

    While there are good reasons to charge a nominal fee to use transit, as Portland (and LA if I recall correctly) have discovered — but this charge comes at the steep price of collection. It would be interesting to see comparisons of the different per-rider costs for collecting fares among various systems.

  • Hilary

    What is limiting the number and kind of businesses in the stations? Do they operate like concessions, with a percentage of their revenue going to the MTA? Aren’t they logical places for bank branches, postal services, shoe repair, cleaners, Staples, Kinko’s, Starbuck’s? Advertising underground isn’t objectionable, as long as it doesn’t obliterate the historic character of the stations. I think the stations have the potential to be redeveloped as economic hubs that, with attractive elevators or escalators, would even attract non-riders.

  • Louis

    The problem with the “nominal fee” theory is that all transit fees are nominal, with the possible exception of commuter rail.

    In NYC, the $2.00 charge is nominal. People that drive don’t take the subway because it’s too expensive- they just don’t don’t want to pay two bucks to ride the train. Fine. Make it free, then. Really, we should be doing whatever we can do, to hell with stinginess.

    As Hilary states, fare collection comes at a huge price. And as Second Avenue Subway Sagas recently published, monthly subway cards come out to about 1.05 a ride. Any working person can afford to get to work this way.

    Bus bus riders know the real cost of fare collection: the time added to the trip. As I’ve written before, the MetroCard dip and cash fares simply take too much time to collect, and it would be cheaper, friendlier, safer for drivers, and less intimidating, to simply do away with fares. They are more of an anachronism to private transit structures of the past than they are sensible policy for today.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As a transit rider I don’t share the “more for me and let someone else pay” sentiment expressed here, a sentiment that is all too pervasive. And I don’t expect to see a future where the are no private automobiles but private automobiles (and smokers) pay for all government services.

    The “cost of collection” happens to correspond with station agents, who are also the only official presence in the stations. Leave the stations unattended. Let anyone just get on the train and do whatever for nothing? Has the cost of vandalism been factored into the equation? The subway was a “tragedy of the commons” when fare evasion was rampant, and would be more so if it were free.

    Those who actually support mass transit, not just in the short run but in the long run, would want at least the rail systems to in at least some way pay for themselves. That should be the goal, not free transit.

  • Louis


    17 Reasons (or more) Not to Charge for the Bus

  • Hilary

    Larry, don’t you think that the agents could be deployed more effectively outside their booths? Today’s booths are bullet (and sound) proof fortresses designed to protect the agents in the lawless 70s or 80s.
    Louis, the evolution to “free” transit has a precedent in toll roads to freeways. Once the capital construction was paid for, the expectation was that operating costs would come from elsewhere. (I’m not advocating free roads, just pointing out the consistency.)
    I’m still thinking about the potential business revenue.. and wondering what happens to all the revenue that must be generated from the businesses throughout the Japanese system..

  • “And I don’t expect to see a future where the are no private automobiles but private automobiles (and smokers) pay for all government services.”

    Exactly. What is the ideal we’re shooting for? I see road pricing as an immediate treatment for the disease of unnecessary driving in New York (that siphons resources from mass transit and ransacks our daily environment), but ultimately we can’t hope to put the kibosh on motor vehicle traffic and expect that traffic to pay our subway fares. At best we can hope to regulate traffic and have motorists fund their own infrastructure, all the way down to the cost of policing them and caring for those they run down.

    We often accuse anti-pricing drivers of failing to “get real” about the limitations and costs of personal automobiles as transportation; we’d better stay real about mass transit ourselves.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Larry, don’t you think that the agents could be deployed more effectively outside their booths?)

    Yes I do, although that would mean it is a different job, one of a station “guard” not a station “agent.” The TWU is correct about that. I don’t think you can tell a 50 year-old woman to walk around a station in East New York at 4 am for the same money.

    Perhaps a separate title should be created and should pay more, and retired police officers should be eligible to take it, in certain situation (outside booths during night shifts and mid-days in outer-borough stations).

    The point is, my guess is Mr. Kheel is counting the elimination of station agents as part of the savings from free transit. If so that is incorrect — the vending machines and Metrocard have made them virtually obsolete for that purpose, though I don’t want unmanned stations.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Has the cost of vandalism been factored into the equation?

    Larry raises an excellent point. In previous discussions of “free” transit, it’s been mentioned that in places where transit is free, there tends to be an increase in vandalism, littering, public urination, public rowdiness, etc. Even a nominal fare of 25 cents eliminated this.

    I’m not entirely sure why that is. It may be that the thought of paying 25 cents to terrorize a subway car conflicted with the anarchic impulse involved; it certainly seems odd to say, “Hey guys! Let’s go smash up a subway car!” and then dutifully stand in line to swipe your Metrocards. Turnstile jumping definitely feels more in line with that, and the new turnstiles make it more difficult.

    Of course, the sidewalks are free, and what prevents vandalism there is the reliable presence of cops (where it is reliable) and the presence of people ready to call the cops and bear witness to the vandals’ identity.

    If you took out the turnstiles, I think you’d need to make sure that there was a sufficient presence of police and station agents to prevent vandalism. It would be more than what we currently have; I don’t know how much more, but I’d imagine there’s a model that would give an idea. The question is, would that wipe out the savings from eliminating fare collection costs?

  • Hilary

    Angus, Is it the presence of police or the presence of PEOPLE that is the deterrent to crime on the street? I’d bet on making the stations centers of more activity than accessing the subway.

  • Hilary

    ..and leave the commercial-free parkways for vandalism and body-dumping 🙂

  • Ian Turner

    Even in New York, there are plenty of stations that are completely empty late at night. Even waited for a Manhattan-bound R train at 77th St in Brooklyn late at night? You won’t see another soul there, and the trains come very few and far between.

    Free transit makes stations like these a magnet for vandals, who can do their work without having to worry about prying eyes. Having unmanned stations would only exacerbate this situation.

  • To Louis (comment #9),

    Yes, in Hasselt, free transit does seem to work. The main reason is that the local governments seem to want to fund it properly. There have been other situations (Austin, TX e.g.) where free transit was tried, ridership went way up, service deteriorated, and people got angry (same as in Vancouver, BC, even though transit is not technically free here).

    To do free transit properly, it needs to be properly funded. Actually, to do any transit right it needs to be properly funded, but with free transit, it is harder to measure how much funding it needs.

  • Hilary

    Perhaps surveilliance cameras throughout the system would be a better investment than fare collection? Don’t know, just wondering..

  • Hilary

    We have the London underground as an example of a surveillance-heavy system (albeit not free). How did the surveillance affect vandalism and other problems? Did it reduce maintenance and policing costs?

  • As for fare collection, here’s a solution that I’ve seen work in several places.

    Remove turnstiles, but have “fare paid zones”, where you are not allowed to go unless you have a validated ticket (or monthly metrocard). Load buses from all doors (buses are fare paid zones also). Then have at least one transit worker/security guard or what have you at each station who walks around and checks for validated tickets (and fines those without one).

    Studies have shown (at least in Vancouver) that if there is a small chance of being caught, the vast majority will pay. This has several benefits. Subway stations do not need gates and are much more inviting places. It is cheaper. It is safer because there are more uniformed workers walking around. It is faster to load buses.

    This could be a reasonable alternative to free transit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I think this could work on the commuter railroads, with their more affluent personnel. But the penalties for getting caught without a ticket have to be draconian.

    Los Angeles is abandoning the very system you cite, due to widespread fare evasion.

  • Louis

    Larry, 5 perceint is not “widespread fare evasion.” It’s a red herring for a private contract.

  • Fares exists to discourage use. This is the only way that the carbon/auto lobby will allow any public transit.

  • Gelston

    Fares also exist to employ armies of fare collectors.

  • former EP employee

    I would find this man’s opinion much more relevant, if I hadn’t worked for Earth Pledge (which was run by Leslie Hoffman, who is, I believe, now the ED of NNYN) and saw the inner workings of a truly disfunctional organization…

  • Louis

    Well, for what it’s worth, I went to Hasstel today. I was interested so I took the first train out of Paris, spent the day riding free buses and joy-riding peacefully on a free bike (not even a deposit).

    There was no crisis to report, merely a city with fairly little car capacity, but very very little traffic, very little congestion, terribly happy people, and full buses. Lots and lots of full buses. And lots of cyclists as well. And crowded, bustling downtown streets. Feel free to fire me some questions.

  • John Morris

    The whole discussion shows a lack of understanding of the whole role of prices and profits in a market system– which is to link the value and cost of the goods provided so the provider can measure and adjust service in line with demand. The current cost in the NY system as it is beyond “nominal” and at least provides some feedback on how well the system is serving customers.

    One good example of this is the “we are at peak capacity issue”, really only some lines are- at some times of day–in some directions. A market based solution to that means raising those prices in those hours.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    John, a market system is not a god. It is a way of allocating resources, and it’s only worth using to the extent that it meets your goals.

  • John Morris

    Please, people study the history and effects of communism before jumping into this. The non market nature of the current tax supported highway system is the main thing cause of the current problem.

    Economics is called the grim science for a reason because only economists will tell you can’t have everything for free all the time. Most human actions have costs and a market isn’t anything more than a mechanism to balance them out and make people think about them. The effect of communism is to shift and hide costs which just creates greater and greater problems.

  • John Morris

    Who’s goals Angus? A free economy allows people to purue their own goals while adjusting to other people’s desires and goals. What you mean is that your goals are beyond reality and beyond the need to be balanced with other people’s, I guess?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Whose goals are beyond reality? I’m not the one prostrating myself before some mythical creature. A “free economy” does not exist. Market pricing is useful sometimes (I’m no Richard Brodsky), but as a tool, not as an object of veneration.

  • Daniel

    You’re right John. Germany’s state run transit system is a disaster. Inter-city bullet trains that let you know via electronic signs on the platform when they’ll be 20 seconds late. Then once you’ve arrived, the trains connect to sleek, fast, convenient and highly functional light rail and subway and bike-sharing and bus systems all run by the same commies at Die Bahn. Bah!

    Now, if the NYC subway were run via free market principles then some entrepreneur could finally start up a new subway line beneath 6th Avenue to compete with the MTA’s shoddy F train. I want to buy the V and run it for $1 a ride.

    Free market capitalism — it’s the answer to everything!

  • John Morris

    “John, a market system is not a god. It is a way of allocating resources, and it’s only worth using to the extent that it meets your goals.”

    The god is not the market, but reality itself.

    Let’s look at how we got to the point we are in NYC. The government came in and used tax money to provide “free” highways, “free” bridges, etc… It tried to give people the unlimited right to jam a car into the city in spite of all the self evident limitations on space and the result has been the disaster we have today.

    Congestion pricing a basic plan to adjust the city to the facts of reality.

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