Promoting Social Equity Through Transit Fares

Public transportation should play an important role in improving the lives of the less well off

One of the primary roles of mass transit is to assure mobility for all; by offering transportation at a reasonable price, accessible to everyone, buses and trains serve as a redistributive tool and reduce inequalities in our society. But politics and economics make the goal of universal mobility something less than a reality. Though a $2 subway ride may be cheap enough for most, there is no doubt that even the smallest savings in transportation expenses can improve the quality of life of the poorest individuals.

Consider how the transit systems in five cities — two in Europe and three in the United States — discount their transit fares for the benefit of people who cannot easily pay full charge:

Cities adjust their transit fares to meet varied needs
London Paris New York DC Chicago
Children Free (0-10 years) Free (0-3 years) Free (<44″ tall) Free (0-4 years) Free (0-6 years)
Grade school Free (bus/tram); 1/2 fare (rail) 1/5 to 1/2 fare (income-based) Free (3 trips/day) 1/2 fare 1/3 fare
Elderly Free (60+ years) Free (60+ years) 1/2 fare (65+ years) 1/2 fare (65+ years) Free (65+ years)
Disabled Free Free 1/2 fare 1/2 fare Free
University students 3/5 fare 1/5 to 1/2 fare (under 26 years)
Veterans
Free
In poverty / unemployed
1/2 fare (bus/tram) Free 3 months, then 1/2 fare
Big families
1/2 fare (3+ children)

—–

The chart demonstrates that while these three U.S. transit systems provide advantageous fares to children, the elderly, and the disabled, they largely ignore the needs of impoverished adults. On the other hand, London and Paris provide generous discounts for university students, people in poverty, and the unemployed. In addition, London provides free passes for veterans and their dependents, while Paris offers relief for families with large numbers of children. In both cities’ cases, significant subsidies are provided to the transit operators by local and national governments to make up for lost revenue as a result of these discounts.

It would be difficult to argue that transportation should be reserved for only those who can afford it, and therefore fare schemes that incorporate the needs of the poorest are necessary. Not only should we be pushing vigorously for more transit, but we should be asking for cheaper transit, at least for those without good-paying jobs.

To those who suggest that providing free or cheaper rides to the destitute would result in the permanent occupation of our transportation networks by the uncouth, look only to these two European cities for evidence to the contrary. To those who argue that able-bodied adults have a responsibility to find the funds to pay for their transportation, I suggest that our country doesn’t provide as many opportunities as we often claim it does. Even those who work minimum-wage jobs — consenting to our government’s rabid mission to get people off welfare — spend too much of their limited incomes paying to get around.

In this time of mass unemployment and reduced incomes all around, we must work to reduce fares for people who cannot always afford the mobility options transit offers.

A society is only as strong as are its least fortunate.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • You should also discuss the base fare. London has a very high base fare, higher than this of any comparable transit system. At rush hour, half-price tickets in London are still far more expensive than full-price tickets in New York. Conversely, the Métro is 15-20% cheaper than New York City Transit; as far as I can tell the only large European subway system as expensive as New York’s is Berlin’s.

    On another note: the Paris subsidy for large families is part of a general French policy to promote high birth rates. France gives generous tax breaks from the third child onward, lavishly funds day care facilities, and finds subsidies for large families, such as the Métro’s.

  • zaru

    I don’t know if London has changed its rules recently, but as of a few years ago the free fares for those aged 60+ were restricted to London residents, and only applied after 9:00 AM. Before 9:00 AM, the elderly paid full fare.

  • Chris

    Zaru, the rules in the UK changed recently so that the 60+ free pass now works 24/7 on buses everywhere in the country, not just the city. I think they still have to pay for the Tube.

    It’s also worth pointing out that everyone under 18 travels free on buses in London.

  • “Métro is 15-20% cheaper than New York City Transit”

    To compare systems of equal breadth you have to include some of the RER, with its fare zones that raise the cost above ours for some journeys of equal length. Most of the poor live in the banlieue, yet Paris subjects those areas to the kind of zone-based pricing that is maligned in American cities as regressive.

    But the French embrace a comprehensive progressive politics / social democracy that starts with progressive taxation, continues to healthy transit subsidy, and ends with discounts for those that fall through the cracks. We should emulate their transportation strategy in every respect. Focusing only on low base fares is not emulating them at all, it is crudely projecting our appetite for cheap junk onto a culture that has, on the whole, been willing to pay to improve its surroundings.

  • I think this is a really important issue. I love this statement:

    “A society is only as strong as are its least fortunate.”

    Unfortunately, this is one of the ideas I’m least hopeful of the U.S. understanding in the near future.

    Living in Vilnius, Lithuania, they also had significant transit discounts for students, elderly, youth, disabled, invalids, veterans, as well as war volunteers from Soviet occupation times (1939-1990) and a few other things. You could get anywhere on public transit, even out in the middle of nowhere to farmland.

  • Stefanie

    A quick point: Those enrolled full-time in universities in Chicago receive unlimited ride passes for the L and buses run by the CTA for $75 per academic term (about 3.5 months).

  • Nathan: at least these suburbs pay less in RATP taxes. Only Paris and Hauts-de-Seine pay the highest tax rates to fund the Métro; the rest of the Petite Couronne pays a smaller amount, and the Grande Couronne even less.

  • NV

    In London you also can (at least this was the case a couple of years ago) get discounted movie tickets if you’re on the dole. It’s just a totally different mentality over there.

  • smax

    It would help to look at the nature of the fare structure as well. Many people would argue that DC is more of a hybrid system than a true subway. a 100 mile network, the train extends deep into the suburbs and is excellent at shuttling people to and from the urban core on a daily basis, with as little as 2 minute lead times between trains in places. To that effect, fares are much higher ($4.50 one way) for those who live far out than they are for those who live closer (as low as $1.65 one way).

    Therefore, there is a bit of a locational subsidy as well. Urban residents typically pay less unless they reverse commute. While, strictly speaking, this is because a suburban commuter causes more ‘wear’ on the system, I would argue that, like Paris, there is a bit of an underlying push to encourage smart growth and living habits. Unfortuantely, most of the other decisions made by the DC metro area encourage the opposite…oh well.

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