More low-income fare programs for transit could reduce or reverse ridership decline

It’s news to nobody that transit ridership is down across the majority of transit systems in the United States — with cities looking at network redesigns, as is the case with New York and Seattle. But another way cities are able to bring on new riders is to introduce, or expand, their affordable fare programs to include more low-income people.

Public transit ridership in the United States (in millions)

WMATA, SEPTA, the CTA, the MBTA and Miami-Dade Transit — five of the busiest transit agencies in the United States — all charge riders for transfers. And only some agencies offer discounts for low-income riders, which can become a big barrier to accessing medical and social services or looking for better employment.

A new MIT study aims to help us understand the behavior of low-income transit riders and found that:

  • Participants who received a 50 percent discount took 30 percent more trips, with the majority of their trips being during off-peak hours (ie. midday and late evening)

  • There was heavy reliance on buses and there were more transfers between modes of transportation, like bus-to-bus or bus-to-subway

  • More trips were made to healthcare and social service

  • Trips were often paid using stored value (pay-as-you-go) rather than with passes

These findings are good for transit agencies, because they’re able to increase the amount of riders while spending little doing so. A bus or subway train is going to run whether there are three or thirty people riding it, making it more economically sensible to offer discounted rides as a way to fill up seats.

Eliminating transfer fees would solve the issue of inequalities between local transit modes, but it doesn’t solve the discrepancies between local transit and travelling on regional transit within the confines of a city.

Most European cities — the PATP in Paris, TfL in London, VBB in Berlin and SL in Stockholm, to boot — all offer unified fares that cover buses, trams, subways, commuter rail and even national rail (within the city confines), making all modes of transportation part of a single fare structure.

Taking a trip from Edgware to Woodside in London is as easy as tapping an Oyster card (or buying a ticket) and hopping on the Underground, transferring to commuter rail and then taking a tram. But taking a trip from Orland Park to Evanston in Chicago requires either a $6.75 and $5.50 ticket (there’s no way to purchase a single ticket to ride on multiple lines in the Ventra app) or a $2.50 “L” ride, followed by a separate $2 bus ride. That’s less than half the cost for a trip that’s 50 minutes longer, versus $12.25 for a 1.5 hour trip.

The main takeaway here is that introducing or expanding low-income fare programs in transit agencies could help to reduce the ridership decline that’s happening across the nation. But that requires willingness from politicians and could take years to implement (like New York’s Fair Fares program) — precious time that transit agencies don’t necessarily have to spare.

📸: Flickr 📈: APTU