An important transit experiment is taking place in Albuquerque beginning in January, and it’s something worth watching in Santa Fe.
Why? Because Albuquerque has joined what has become a widespread movement to make riding public transit free of charge. Fueled by Albuquerque City Council members, the city has set aside some $3 million to offset revenue losses so that it can do a one-year pilot program.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American spends 25.9 minutes a day traveling to work one way. That adds up to nearly an hour a day; letting someone else drive is a bonus of mass transit.
Transportation can take a slice of an individual or family budget, too. Americans are spending around 15.9 percent of their typical budgets on transportation costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with married couples who have children at 17.1 percent.
A zero-fare model means money spent on transportation can be allocated to other necessities — rent, food or utilities — and will help working people stretch their paychecks.
Pew Research Center data shows Americans who are poorer, Black, Hispanic, immigrants or under 50 are more likely to regularly use public transportation. In urban areas, 34 percent of Blacks and 27 percent of Hispanics report taking public transit daily or weekly, as compared to 14 percent of whites.
Buses, such as the ones in Albuquerque, are essential for people who don’t have a car. They need affordable, reliable public transit — without ever having to face the embarrassment of being a quarter short of the $1 one-way fare to ride the bus. Riding for free is as easy as jumping on.
Nationally, Congress is getting in on the act. Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both Democrats from Massachusetts, introduced the Freedom to Move Act last summer. It’s designed to offer federal money to help transit switch to a system that doesn’t depend on rider fares — treating transit dollars more like highway funding.
There’s also a sustainability argument for creating mass transit that doesn’t depend on fares — it’s a way to woo Americans from cars. Reducing the time people spending in automobiles is part of reducing greenhouse gases. More robust mass transit, especially if it’s free, could move people away from car commutes. That’s a win, because it produces cleaner air and less congested traffic.
The new approach views transit not as a service but as infrastructure. Part of the effort would eventually involve spending less money building roads and more money building transit systems, so people are less car-dependent. The idea is to increase service while eliminating fares. Because without dependable and frequent service, mass transit won’t become the go-to option, except when people have no other choices.
But make no mistake: Fully committing to public transit means subsidizing public it without any guarantees.
Around the country, many cities, including Santa Fe, already offer discounted passes to certain population segments — seniors, young people — while other cities are providing passes to low-income residents.
Kansas City, Mo., with the help of $1 million from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, has moved to free fares, while in Olympia, Wash., the city started a five-year transition to free fares in 2020. The movement is in its early stages in the U.S., but around the globe, free mass transit is in place in some 100 cities.
What we are watching in Albuquerque is this: Will free fares increase the number of riders using buses? What will it mean to working people to spend less on transportation? Will car traffic be decreased? Can the city afford the experiment long-term? Will the federal government become a bigger player in mass transit at the local level?
The biggest question remains. Can Americans end their love affair with cars — at least enough to take the bus to and from work? Pay attention to Albuquerque’s no-fare experiment for answers.