Meet the Democratic Insurgents Who Want Transit to be Free

Free transit advocates (counterclockwise from top right): Congressional candidate Peter Harrison, plus Assembly candidates Jessica Gonza?lez-Rojas, Zohran Mamdani, Amanda Septimo, Boris Santos and Emily Gallagher.
Free transit advocates (counterclockwise from top right): Congressional candidate Peter Harrison, plus Assembly candidates Jessica Gonza?lez-Rojas, Zohran Mamdani, Amanda Septimo, Boris Santos and Emily Gallagher.

The fairest fare is no fare at all, according to a new crop of challengers for power in Albany.

Multiple candidates running in 2020 Democratic primaries are publicly saying that they support free subways and buses. Amanda Septimo, Boris Santos, Emily Gallagher, Zohran Mamdani, and Jessica González-Rojas, all of whom are left-wing challengers to incumbent Democratic Assembly members across the city, told Streetsblog that they’ll seek to institute free public transit if elected. There isn’t an agreement among the candidates exactly how or when we’d get to free subways and buses, but they are united by a belief that public transit is a public good and should be free at the point of service.

The push for free transit among the candidates is part of the emergence of a more energized and increasingly organized left-wing asserting itself in state politics, one trying to shift the window on what the government should provide for citizens, including something like a bus ride.

“I’m a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and there’s lots of conversations happening with the insurgent candidates, an energy to thinking big about public goods and human rights and something that gets us away from a system that actually serves everybody,” Gonzalez-Rojas, who’s running against Assembly Member Michael DenDekker in Jackson Heights said. “That ensures we’re not excluding people from these benefits because they don’t have the resources.”

It’s also a reaction to fare evasion and subway policing debate that increasingly gripped New York in 2019. As MTA Board members and executives centered fare evasion as the biggest problem facing the system, activists reacted by asking why New Yorkers had to pay a fare at all. Speakers at the monthly MTA Board meetings demanded free transit, protesters against police brutality included it among their demands and culture-jamming anarchists threw open the gates during SantaCon.

The idea has also reached the more mainstream political arena in New York. Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Oddo recently suggested that the MTA should make express buses free on the Rock, an idea that he said started as a sarcastic rebuke to advocates of breaking car culture before becoming a more concrete policy proposal.

On the federal level, Peter Harrison, who’s running against Rep. Carolyn Maloney in Manhattan, recently released a trillion-dollar plan to achieve free public transit across the country. And while not free transit, the city’s half-fair “Fair Fares” program, recently expanded to cover anyone under the federal poverty line (an income of $12,490 per year for a single person).

Increasingly popular in Europe, free transit hasn’t been seen as a solution in America, although that could be changing. Last year, Kansas City decided to eliminate fares on its bus system (albeit a tiny, $9-million program), and some advocates are suggesting that the federal government treat transportation as a fundamental human right and find a way to provide free public transit and even subsidized ride-hail trips.

In this changing climate, an infusion of free-fare voices joining the state legislature could at least change the debate.

“The possibility of being able to hop on a bus or subway for nothing, or a small fare, would go a long, long way to making New York City a more equitable place, and could unlock tremendous economic potential, and do wonders to enhance city streets,” said StreetsPAC Executive Director Eric McClure, whose organization itself doesn’t have a position on the issue. “There’s certainly a case to be made that the fairest fare would be no fare at all. It’s great that people are raising this as a campaign issue, and it’s something that the legislature should take seriously.”

Why free transit?

The Assembly candidates who spoke to Streetsblog about free transit argued that its $4.5 billion cost would be a fair price to pay for getting more cars off the road in the city.

“We’ve seen examples in other cities around the world, that when they are able to make transit free, it lessens the burden on the road,” said Gallagher, who is challenging Greenpoint Assembly Member Joe Lentol, who has been in the Assembly since Richard Nixon was president. “When transit is a joy to ride people really don’t gravitate toward private autos.”

After Tallinn, Estonia, eliminated transit fares — and simultaneously expanded bus lanes and raised parking prices in the city center — bus ridership rose 10 percent and car traffic in downtown dropped by the same amount. And a study of free buses in Dunkirk, France, found that the policy led to an increase in bus ridership, with almost half of the new ridership made up of people who left their cars at home.

Would it work in New York? Activist and analyst Charles Komanoff used his Balanced Transportation Analyzer [download] — the definitive transportation modeling tool — and came out with results that he said surprised him.

In a scenario where fares were reduced by 90 percent of what they are today, Komanoff’s model predicted a 40-percent increase in subway trips and a 50-percent increase in bus trips, a total of almost one billion more trips on public transit.

But Komanoff said he didn’t want to suggest his numbers were gospel. The increases should come, he wrote, with a Houston Astros-sized asterisk, because “a 90-percent fare drop is pushing the elasticities of the analyzer far beyond the domain from which they were derived.”

Candidates also talked about free transit in terms of transportation’s cost to low-income New Yorkers. Free public transit “would fundamentally alter economic inequality in the city,” said Mamdani, who’s challenging Assembly Member Aravella Simotas in Astoria.

According to a recent study by the Citizens Budget Committee, the median New York household spends 14.4 percent of its income on transportation costs. But that number rises to 22.4 percent for an individual living at the poverty line and 16.8 percent for single-parent family households.

There are other, deeper philosophical issues at play for a number of the aspiring legislators though, mostly owing to issues of equity or what a government should provide to its citizens. Multiple candidates in favor of free transit have been endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America chapters, and see fare-free public transit as a type of public utility the government should provide to residents. Mamdani, who has the Queens DSA endorsement, said that his support for the free transit was “part and parcel of being a democratic socialist.”

“The state needs to provide all that is necessary to survive and thrive, mobility as a human right and transportation is a social good,” Mamdami said. “So from there I think it’s a pretty clear line for me to believe in the state’s need to guarantee free clean quality public transportation throughout New York City and New York State.”

What would free transit look like and how would we get it?

Free transit isn’t an entirely new idea in New York politics, of course. Environmentalist Ted Kheel began pushing his Kheel Plan, a kind of proto-congestion pricing that would have provided used revenue from bridge and tunnel tolls for free transit, in 1965. And although the plan never came to fruition, Kheel argued for it all the way into the era of the city’s first aborted attempt to get congestion pricing implemented. And noted non-socialist billionaire Mike Bloomberg once proposed free crosstown buses in Manhattan in order to speed up their boarding, and also once suggested that “the perfect public transportation system” would be free.

Septimo, who’s running against Assembly Member Carmen Arroyo in the South Bronx, told Streetsblog that she will immediately fight for free transit when she gets to Albany.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and people who know me well are probably tired of hearing about it by now,” Septimo said. Her proposal is provide free bus and train service for every New York City resident, similar to the approach in Tallinn.

Septimo’s plan relies on funding free fares through tweaks to the corporate tax and the commuter tax. To get the biggest share of the money for free transit, Septimo said she also wants the state to start cashing in on the stock transfer tax, a tax on every stock trade that’s been on the books in New York State for over 100 years, but has been instantly rebated to traders since 1981.

Septimo said that collecting even half of the $15 billion that the stock transfer tax would raise more than covers free trains and buses, with money left over for additional service and capital improvements. Pointing to the additional taxes that she said she wanted to use for free service, Septimo said that the New York shouldn’t only go after Wall Street money, but made the case that the financial services sector benefits enormously from the subway.

“Wall Street benefits a lot from the subway, because sure, they can afford to buy every single employee a car, but there’d no space for them,” she said. “People could not get to work if you didn’t have this infrastructure. It’s a critical part of your business infrastructure, and it should be treated as such.”

Septimo is unique among elected officials and other Assembly candidates in her demand for an immediate, one-shot switch to completely free public transit. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, for instance, has proposed federal legislation that would set aside money for free fares for “working class” transit riders. Locally, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said he’s introducing legislation to fund a similar program at the city level, and Council Member Mark Treyger recently introduced a resolution asking the MTA to introduce free subways and buses.

A number of candidates said that they believe in free transit as an ultimate goal, but that they were willing to move towards it incrementally, using state money to set up programs similar to Fair Fares that would benefit the poorest New Yorkers.

Santos, who’s running against Assembly Member Erik Dilan, told Streetsblog that while he wants to get to fare-free transit eventually, he’d move deliberately on it. Santos suggested using state money to expand Fair Fares to cover more than the existing program (Seattle’s reduced fare transit option is open to residents at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, for instance) and testing out free transit for the neediest New Yorkers.

“I definitely support free transit, particularly for low-income New Yorkers, working-class New Yorkers that are way below the 100 percent area medium income in the city,” Santos said. “We should be doing the most is ensure that we subsidize those riders and make them free.”

Santos said he envisioned something like expanding the existing Fair Fares program and then piloting a program that gives free fares to the population currently covered by Fair Fares as a proof-of-concept before expanding the program further. To fund the initial pilot program, Santos said he favored a land value tax, a tax idea that goes back to the 19th century and places value on land itself to tax instead of the property that sits on it.

Gallagher is also in favor of starting with an expansion of Fair Fares.

“The first steps are looking at how do we expand Fair Fares? And then we need to look at what we’re paying for right now that is not really helping the system function, like trying to create a police state underground,” Gallagher said.

The case against free transit

Even pro-transit voices have been known to throw cold water on the idea of a free ride, reasoning that if a transit system is gifted with millions or billions of dollars from an outside source, that money should be used to provide more service instead of free service. A 2019 TransitCenter survey of bus and train riders found that most low-income bus riders want the quality of service to improve rather than the price of the service lowered.

Transit unions and economists have also found themselves on the same side of criticizing the idea of universal free public transit in Europe, according to The Guardian. One French transportation union official called said universal free transit ran the risk of diverting resources that could otherwise go towards improving service, and would cause riders to devalue public transportation. And transportation economist Frédéric Héran dismissed the idea that millions of drivers would ditch their cars, saying that studies of free transit’s new riders “have shown they will be cyclists, then pedestrians and very few motorists. This clearly shows it’s an anti-cycling, anti-pedestrian measure and not very discouraging to cars.”

A 2002 study of free transit efforts that had been instituted in Denver, Trenton and Austin also came down hard on the idea. That study found that while ridership increased on those transit systems, the riders that free transit attracted were not car commuters but were “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults.” And without a concurrent investment in service itself, public transit in those cities became so crowded that riders complained about their journeys. (Though the benefit of keeping inebriated adults from driving should not be understated.)

In New York City, free transit might exacerbate the MTA’s struggles with homeless individuals living in the system. But just as advocates have criticized the gubernatorial directive for the MTA to solve the issue of homelessness in New York, González-Rojas said better efforts by the government to deal with social issues could smooth over problems on public transit.

“We have look at that in terms of other interconnected systems,” she said. “How are we serving a homeless population? What are the investments we can make to better serve them?”

Transit unions in New York City might be a little more bullish on the general idea.

“There’s a tremendous amount of wealth in the United States, concentrated among very few people. So I think it is possible, not only to have free universal healthcare, free higher education, but to have free public transportation,” Eric Loegal, the head union representative for New York City Transit Train Operators, Conductors, and Tower Operators, said at a WNYC transit event in December, 2019. “We’re a long way from that happening, but we have the wealth and the resources as a nation, as a state, as a city to get to that point eventually.”

As for the question of capital investment or free fares, Septimo suggested her plan could do both.

“For a very long time we have approached public transit with a scarcity mindset, which constantly pits service, infrastructure needs, and riders’ needs against each other. The plan we’ve put together would make it so we no longer have to choose among the three,” Septimo said.

Ultimately, whether free transit can be achieved in the next legislative session or in the next generation, Mamdani echoed Septimo’s suggestion that voters were being given a false choice.

“The first thing you do is make sure that everyone actually has a bus to get on before saying we need to completely abolish the fares,” Mamdani said. “But this is kind of a legacy of the false choices of neoliberalism. Do we get service? Or do we get free transit? And I think that we can get both.”

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