Close to Home: Fare-free transit delivers for riders and climate
In May, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors decided to dedicate more than $10 million of the PG&E wildfire settlement to a Climate Resiliency Fund. This admirable step affirmed the link between wildfires and climate change and reflected our community’s overwhelming desire to address climate change with bold action.
On Tuesday, the supervisors will consider staff recommendations for allocating a portion of the climate fund. Of the projects being considered (but not recommended by staff) for funding, eliminating fares on Sonoma County Transit buses stands out for its potential as a foundational element of a robust, equitable countywide transit system — which must be an integral part of any plan to meet a goal of cutting 60% of carbon emissions from the transportation sector by 2030. A coalition of 21 community organizations is advocating for elimination of transit fares using the Climate Resiliency Fund.
The fare-free model can shift people away from cars and onto transit. A ticketless system increases ridership significantly by simplifying the process for new riders. They can simply hop on without considering zones, fare structures or having exact change. It also rewards people financially for leaving their car at home.
Fare-free transit is an equitable climate solution that helps, rather than burdens, people who are least responsible for the problem. Eliminating bus fares helps working class people, youth, elders and people with disabilities who rely on the bus by reducing their daily expenses.
Finally, eliminating fares can create a smoother-running system by saving time and money. It provides systemwide efficiencies by avoiding time wasted while riders fumble for change or negotiate with the driver if they have none. The Los Angeles Metro system, which recently completed a two-year trial, found that going fare-free reduced boarding times by 10%. Fare-free eliminates costs for maintenance and repairs of fare collection systems. It can also improve working conditions for drivers by reducing the need for a policing role and streamlining the boarding process.
Sonoma County Transit already implemented fare-free circulator buses in six communities: Cloverdale, Healdsburg, the Russian River area, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Windsor.
Data collected in 2019 and 2020 demonstrated a 50% increase in ridership after introducing the fare-free model. Cloverdale and Sonoma logged 96% and 73% increases, respectively.
Santa Rosa CityBus recently made travel free for students through high school and found that ridership increased 20% percent above the pre-pandemic level.
A number of jurisdictions around the country also have implemented fare-free transit, including Missoula, Montana; Corvallis, Oregon; Olympia, Washington; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Kansas City, Missouri.
There is an inherent challenge in evaluating individual projects for their long-term climate impact. Climate change is a societal problem that will not be solved by one-off projects. Consequently, it will be hard to justify transit improvements using the county’s current point system for evaluating Climate Resiliency Fund projects. However, transportation emissions must be the top priority for reaching zero carbon by 2030 — and fare-free transit could be a foundational change toward a robust low-carbon transportation system of the future.
If the supervisors believe in building a strong transit system that offers a viable alternative to driving and lifts up working-class people, youth, elders and people with disabilities who already rely on the bus, they should put fare-free transit on the list of funded projects, commit to funding it beyond one year and begin the work of strengthening the entire transit network.
Emmett Hopkins of Forestville is Sonoma County organizer for the Climate Mobilization Project, part of a coalition of 21 community organizations advocating for fare-free transit. He is married to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
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