Cities across the U.S. have been embracing a bold new transit policy: zero fares. The results are promising.
Albuquerque public transit bus -- image via the city of Albuquerque
By Liam Crisan
What if there were a way for your city to reduce traffic and pollution while putting cash in the pockets of residents? There is: free public transit. And in many places, it’s already happening.
In late 2023, Albuquerque, New Mexico became the largest U.S. city to fully embrace fare-free public transportation. This decision came after nearly two years of a successful “Zero Fare” pilot program.
As ridership dwindled during the pandemic, the city expanded free rides from a few routes to the entire system. Barely a year later, ridership was up 49.4 percent and the program proved to be more cost-effective than previously imagined. Now, free fares are here to stay.
The policy has been tested in cities from Richmond and Alexandria, Virginia to Kansas City, Missouri and Olympia, Washington. And last fall, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority — which operates the nation’s largest public transportation network — announced a fare-free pilot program of its own.
The logic is simple: if most roads are toll-free, shouldn’t public transportation be fare-free?
I spoke recently with Christopher Ramirez from the group Together for Brothers, which led a coalition backing free fares in Albuquerque.
“We had a couple sessions with the young men of color we were working with,” he told me. “We were asking: What are some of the biggest problems and root causes in our community? Without a doubt, in all the sessions, it was access to transportation.”
As Ramirez recalled, “During one of the strategy sessions, one of our high school students said, ‘Why don’t we just make it free for everybody?’ and we laughed. By the next week, we realized he wasn’t joking. By the end of the month, we decided to include it in our campaign.”
Zero fares is a direct way to put cash in the pockets of those who need it most. Most of those who use ABQ RIDE are people of color, 74 percent are low income, and 73 percent don’t have access to a car.
Before the “Zero Fare” pilot, 90 percent of riders surveyed reported not being able to afford the fare at least once in the past month. “Zero Fares has helped me save,” one rider told the group. “Worrying less about budgeting for my weekly commute is a big stress reliever.”
Eliminating fares also reduces discrimination. As Ramirez explains, when the city rolled out free fares for students, Black teenagers were sometimes denied boarding because they “looked too old to be in high school.” He mentioned one high school senior from his group who was denied more than a dozen times for this very reason.
There are those who shudder at the idea of taxpayers assuming transit operating costs. But in Albuquerque, a government analysis found that the initiative would actually save money. In the year before the pilot program, according to Ramirez, fare revenues didn’t even cover the cost of administering fares.
Instead of a viable revenue strategy, paid fares were essentially a tax on the poor. As Ramirez told me, “Getting the city to admit that was really challenging.”
Public transit is a worthwhile investment, no matter how we pay for it. Every $1 invested generates $5 in economic returns. Better funding and more ridership means more jobs and increased commercial activity. By connecting people to medical, educational, professional, and community-building resources, affordable and accessible public transit changes lives.
The bottom line? Wherever you live, public transportation reform is a necessary step in building an economy for all. Ensuring mobility is a matter of equity — and when we do it right, everyone benefits.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative 3.0 License.