Free Public Transit Would Make R.I. Healthier Economically and Environmentally

By BARRY SCHILLER

In the past 10 years ridership on Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses has dropped from 21.1 million to 16.2 million annually. It’s not due to service cuts. Both hours and miles of service have actually increased a bit.

So while our public transit system still provides some basic mobility for the poor and disabled, it’s doing next to nothing to help attract employers, fight climate change, lessen congestion, revive the core cities, and reduce the outflow of our energy dollars.

But before giving up on transit’s potential to help our environment and economy, we should have a discussion about turning the situation around. We know it won’t happen with just tinkering with routes or some fancy shelters along the downtown corridor. At this point, it would need something dramatic, and so does downtown Providence.

Thus, I suggest free fares for all who ride the buses. It’s not so far-fetched. Here's why:

About a third of RIPTA passengers — senior citizens and those with disabilities — already ride for free. Allowing the other two-thirds to do so would avoid the need for the multimillions RIPTA is about to spend on new fare boxes, and, despite all the talk of “intermodal,” there are apparently no plans to have a compatible system with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and on processing those fares.

There would be no need to print, market, and distribute transfers and passes. It would speed up trips by speeding up boarding, thus both using buses and drivers more efficiently, and attracting more riders. It can truly put Rhode Island on the map and get the attention of potential progressive employers attracted by the idea of the one statewide free transit system.

RIPTA’s lost fare-box revenue, about $20 million, would be only about one-tenth of what the state is preparing to spend to phase out car taxes. Note commuters to downtown Columbus, Ohio, reportedly will get free bus transit to help reduce congestion and parking problems there. And having lived in Oregon in the mid-1970s when Portland was considered a failed city, one thing that turned around both its downtown and its transit system was a large downtown free fare zone — same in Seattle. Though over decades, its free fare was cut back and they had a problem with transit when it was used as a homeless shelter, but as most of our homeless population can already ride the RIPTA system for free, that won’t be as much of an issue here.

Further, if we don't take some kind of action, there is a risk that lower ridership will result in significant service cuts.

With so many demands on state resources, this isn’t an easy sell, but surely having our transit system truly help improve our economy, environment and mobility does deserve our attention.

Barry Schiller, a transit rider and longtime transit advocate, is a former RIPTA board member.