When climate change is top-of-mind for many people and governments, it would only make sense to make public transportation easier to access. The more drivers cities can get off the road, the less greenhouse-gas emissions will be released into the atmosphere. According to The Atlantic's Joe Pinksker, the U.S. government subsidizes up to 89 percent of operating costs for buses and rail systems, allowing most public transit to cost less than $2 on average. Pinksker asks:
If it might make transit more accessible to the masses and in the process reduce traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions, why not go all the way and make transportation free?
He challenges readers: should public transit be a right for all?
Maybe free public transit should be thought of not as a behavioral instrument, but as a right; poorer citizens have just as much of a privilege to get around conveniently as wealthier ones. If the debate shifted from means-to-an-end thinking to pure egalitarianism, the hope of free public transit might actually be realized.
But Pinksker admits that in cases where free public transportation has been attempted, locals were reluctant to change their behavior. According to Pinksker, the earliest urban experiment in free public transportation took place in Rome in the 1970s. The results were less than ideal:
Romans couldn't be bothered to ditch their cars—the buses were only half-full during the mid-day rush hour, “when hundreds of thousands battle their way home for a plate of spaghetti.” Six months after the failed, costly experiment, a cash-strapped Rome reinstated its fare system.
When train and bus systems are free for all, they only entice people who might otherwise walk or bike, not those who drive. With this being the case, there's no need for further subsidies or taxes to pay for public transit in entirety–the results would not justify the means.
Some argue a small payroll tax would be more than enough to fund train and bus costs for cities. According to The Urbanist's David Gordon, this system would shift remaining operating costs to employers and employees.
A fare-free [transit] system can quickly and significantly allow low-income people to have more disposable income, reduce traffic congestion by getting more commuters on buses, and reduce the regressive nature of our high sales taxes.
Gordon points out that the perks to free transit go beyond reducing greenhouse gases. A free system would also benefit taxpayers in search of faster commutes, as well as transit agencies looking to improve operations and increase ridership.
But others feel that making transit free will create a false impression for riders. Lucile Ramackers writes on Medium that passengers already don't cover much of the operating costs for public transportation–most of it is covered by the government:
The major problem with free public transport is that it creates the perception of a no-cost service. Just as car drivers commonly assume that there is no cost involved in driving their car somewhere.
Ramackers argues by increasing subsidies or taxes, improvements to public transit systems will be even more limited. As more people use these systems, the faults of outdated trains and buses will only become more of a nightmare. Instead, governments should encourage a number of different transportation habits to promote clean air:
Indeed, we should support any initiative aiming at reducing air pollution and the scope is wide: improve public transport experience, promote car-sharing, encourage biking, develop Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEV) — meaning electric cars obviously, but also electric motorcycles and scooters. The point is to widen eco-friendly and resource efficient options, so that anyone can choose the most appropriate means of transportation for their journey.