Transit agencies around the country are implementing free fare policies in hopes of boosting ridership on their systems. In Houston – one of two cities across the U.S. with a steady growth of transit riders – a few individuals recently called for METRO to join the trend of offering free fares, stating that such a policy would help Houston’s transit agency increase ridership as well and reduce congestion. We at LINK Houston know that there is no such thing as free, and we strongly believe that METRO should prioritize improving frequency, reliability, accessibility and bus shelter amenities to encourage more people to use its transit services. These are issues community members repeatedly raised during the planning stages of METRONext. In November of 2019, voters approved a $3.5 billion bond referendum granting METRO authority to borrow funds to implement those improvements – not a zero-dollar fare policy.
However, METRO heard the call for free fares and recently analyzed the feasibility of such a policy. According to the Houston Chronicle, METRO’s ridership would indeed increase to “an estimated 117 million trips” per year at an annual cost close to $200 million. This is a steep price tag considering METRO’s $1.25 fare for bus and light rail is one of the lowest fares in the country. Additionally, METRO already offers zero-dollar fares for passengers using METROLift, senior citizens age 70+, children under 5, jurors with a jury pass, and qualified veterans, as well as the Green Link downtown and students over the summer. METRO also offers discounted fares of $0.60 cents on local bus and rail for senior citizens ages 65-69, Medicare card holders, students ages 6 through college, and disabled riders who do not qualify for METROLift/paratransit. In addition to METRO’s special fares, some private entities have incentive programs to get people to use public transit . Rice University students gets a free METRO card, and the University of Houston has a new program to encourage more transit use. Businesses can still get some tax credits for transit reimbursement and thus pay for less parking.
Following the analysis, METRO leadership decided, “It is just not feasible to do free fares.” The agency would need hundreds of additional vehicles, operators and new facilities – all of which would take several years to implement – to operate under a free fare policy. And the agency would lose the much-needed revenue it collects from its current fare system.
To improve ridership, METRO should stay focused on what community members repeatedly ask for: make the buses come more often and on time, create bus stops that are comfortable and safe, and improve customer service.