Evaluation Framework for Fare-free Public Transportation

Communities around the world, including in the United States, are exploring the merits of providing public transportation without charging fares and identifying strategies for replacing passenger fare revenues. The economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits of fare-free public transportation are being weighed against the costs and benefits of current fare payment systems and the available capacity for increased ridership. Eight years ago, TCRP conducted a state of the practice review that produced TCRP Synthesis 101: Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems. It presents a literature review, survey results of transit agencies that had implemented fare-free transit services, and five case examples. This report concluded: (1) Fare-free public transit services are typically found in three different categories of communities: small urban areas with relatively modest ridership and large rural areas with relatively low ridership, resort communities, and university-dominated communities serving large populations of college students, faculty, and staff. (2) Large transit agencies in the United States currently charge fares to most passengers. While some large transit agencies provide services without fares to certain markets (e.g., based on income and age) and for certain transit services (e.g., circulators and streetcars), only a few have experimented with some version of fare-free transit or carefully analyzed the potential impacts of implementing fare-free service. Most are reluctant to confront the economic or political challenges of finding alternatives to fare revenues. More recently, consideration has emerged for the potential elimination of fare payments, in whole or in part, to engender broader societal benefits. Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators (2018) makes the case that addressing increasing societal inequalities and ecological crises should lead communities to rethink the status quo vis-a-vis public transit fares. Because public transportation benefits non-riders and enhances community development, its funding has long relied on a wide range of sources, typically inclusive of a local sales, gas, and property taxes. In considering a transition to fare-free transit for some or all markets, public transportation providers, local public officials, and stakeholders should consider a range of factors including: (1) Specific goals associated with eliminating fares for some or all transit passengers and appropriate metrics to evaluate success. (2) The total short- and long-term costs, as well as the opportunity costs, of current fare collection technologies and enforcement practices. (3) Alternative strategies for fare payment and management that allow public transportation fares to be customized to reflect community priorities, such as eliminating fares for specific markets. (4) The impacts associated with increases in transit ridership that may occur with the elimination of fares. (5) Methods for more flexible and less costly fare payment and management that allow public transportation fares to be better customized to reflect community priorities. (6) Alternative revenues for various public transportation fare elimination scenarios (e.g., how much would adult fares be raised to fully cover the cost of serving unbanked and underbanked passengers; or how much would local property taxes be raised to eliminate all public transportation fares). There are new revenue streams from congestion pricing or vehicles miles traveled that should be considered. (7) The relationship between fare payment and disruptive passengers. (8) Acceptance of fare-free public transportation in different environments, including transit agency size, modes, and locations. This is a complex area of research that requires a research team that is experienced, knowledgeable, and sensitive to a broad range of political, social, economic, and environmental considerations. The objective of this research is to develop a framework to evaluate fare-free public transportation. The framework should address the benefits and costs and the trade-offs that must be considered by public transportation providers, policy-makers, and other stakeholders as they consider eliminating fares, in whole or in-part, for public transportation. The framework should be useful to public transportation providers of all sizes. This research should address: (1) Criteria and methods for addressing policy priorities such as mobility, equity and social justice, environmental and health impacts, political concerns, community preferences, economic and fiscal effects, multi-sector synergies, and encouragement of behavioral changes; (2) The scope of fare-free transit for all passengers or for specific modes, routes, or market segments; (3) Capital and operating cost for fare administration for managing fare revenue and collection systems and enforcing fare collection, considering the impacts of sunk costs, legal obligations, and technology capabilities of existing and anticipated fare systems; (4) Potential system-wide impacts such as near- and long-term changes in ridership (including consideration of mode-shift and mode-share); operator safety and job satisfaction; quality and capacity of service; total operating, capital, and opportunity costs; disruptive passengers, funding and financing ramifications; and public transportation system perception; and (5) Alternative funding sources to replace fare revenue and the possible impacts of increased ridership and lost fare revenue on federal funding grants.


  • English


  • Status: Proposed
  • Funding: $100000
  • Contract Numbers:

    Project J-11, Task 39

  • Sponsor Organizations:

    Transit Cooperative Research Program

    Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC    20001

    Federal Transit Administration

    1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
    Washington, DC  United States  20590
  • Project Managers:

    Schwager, Dianne

  • Start Date: 20201101
  • Expected Completion Date: 0
  • Actual Completion Date: 0

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01739654
  • Record Type: Research project
  • Source Agency: Transportation Research Board
  • Contract Numbers: Project J-11, Task 39
  • Files: TRB, RiP
  • Created Date: May 18 2020 3:05PM