Finance Social Justice

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)
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.

Finance Social Justice

On Christmas, Thinking of Transit as a Tool for Social Justice

We’re not Christian here at The Transport Politic, but we still respect the values of giving and charity encapsulated in the ideals of Christmas. If anything, this holiday should remind us that the most impoverished among us need our support in times of need. Today, when jobs are being lost by the hundreds of thousands, when millions of people are moving from the middle class back into poverty, we should make sure that our society can hold its own weight.

We typically don’t spend time on this blog defending transit, because we assume that our readers are for the most part on “our side.” And yet today, we should remember that transit is tool for social justice.

Transit is a great equalizer. Because our buses and trains are subsidized, public transportation provides for the mobility of people of all classes. Without mass transit, millions of people in the United States wouldn’t be able to get much of anywhere. Low fares ensure that free movement remains more of right than a privilege; they ensure that getting around isn’t an activity reserved only for the rich and middle class.

In the name of this deepening recession, the MTA in New York City begins discussing $3 base fares and transit systems across the country start cutting service. Shall we allow the dark face of the market economy to intrude upon the benefits that transit provides?

This is not to say that efficient management and financial prudence isn’t a priority. But on Christmas, we must remember the role transit plays in providing for a more just society. In this case charity isn’t necessary – just remember to pay your taxes.