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.

(9) comments

Richard Reinders

It works in a big city because parking is either nonexistent or very expensive and traffic sucks. Most people in the west and So west states like having the freedom and option of just jumping in the car and going, not on someone else schedule. Emily makes a good point, free public transportation will bring many challenges.

Khal Spencer

Yep. Free parking in the SW makes for an interesting bit of "we are working at cross purposes' with respect to mass transit. So does continually adding lanes to our roads and highways. And sprawl makes it a hat trick as far as making transit a lost cause. Speaking sprawl, what's the current status of Santolina?

Mike Johnson

True Richard, people in big cites have no choice, people in NM do, and they will make their choices based on what is best for them, not society, the environment, or anything else. I really don't know how price sensitive people are when it comes to mass transit, like Khal says, time is also money, and the convenience of having a car and following your own schedule is pretty powerful and valuable. I do always find it amusing how the left wing types, like the esteemed editorial board, take every opportunity they can to bash cars, as though they are some evil force that causes people to do bad things. Certainly if "free" things are attractive, no matter how inconvenient, dirty, slow, and crowded, this should be a winner, I doubt that will be the case however.

Khal Spencer

A few things that matter.

1. The cost differential for transit in the case of anyone with a car is not the total price of car ownership and operation. Its just the incremental cost of driving that car and that cost is far less than the total cost of owning a car. For mass transit to replace a car, it has to do everything the family car does and do it better. Otherwise, if there is a car in the driveway, its typically more convenient to drive.

2. We started up Atomic City Transit in Los Alamos about fifteen years ago and I was on the planning committee, which was a subcommittee of the Transportation Board. We decided in our case it would cost more to have a fare box than the fare box would bring in, so the bus was funded out of County funds (probably with some additional input from state or federal sources). It would be good for the New Mexican to talk to the Public Works folks up there and see how it is working out, as we have an existing example that has been in operation for more than a decade.

3. People value their time. If transit replaces a car, it has to be time-efficient for the rider. That is often the killer to taking a bus.

4. As Emily asked, will the bus be an attractive ride or will it be a test of dealing with the homeless, rowdy clients, the heat, crime at bus stops, and taking twice as long as driving? The advantages of the car include security, comfort, privacy, and door to door service. Back in Honolulu, my wife threw up her hands in disgust with the bus and just started driving to her college where she taught for all the above reasons. Meanwhile, I could beat the bus to my university job on my bicycle!

The devils, as they say, are in the details. I wish the project luck but there is a reason buses are often underfilled and the roadways congested with single occupant cars. People don't make their choices based on the idyllic dreams of politicians. The do what works for them.

Mike Johnson

Well said Khal, I know the first time I ever took public transport, I couldn't wait to earn enough money to buy a car and be free, independent, and my own master.

Emily Koyama

A question the writer failed to ask....will the buses become air-conditioned/heated rolling "hangouts" for the homeless or bored teens? And if so, how to deal with that?

John Cook

Congratulations, Emily. You win the 'able to see the dark side of the sun' contest, today.

Emily Koyama

Yeah, 'scuse me for being a realist.

Khal Spencer

I'm really curious as to whether there is a dark side of the sun.

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