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Bloomberg Tests Free-Transit Waters
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by Charles Komanoff

Mayor Bloomberg lifted a page straight from the Kheel Plan playbook yesterday in calling on the MTA to make crosstown buses free [PDF]. Bus riders
and transit advocates should be beaming.

Free buses will save bus riders time and money and will benefit everyone by luring some taxi and car users to transit and easing traffic gridlock. Ted Kheel recognized this as far back as the 1960s. Over the past year, he and I have quantified the benefits from free buses, and they're striking:

  • MTA Bus engineers recently clocked "dwell time" -- those
    maddening seconds and minutes taken up by passenger boarding -- on the Bx12
    Limited route from 207th Street to Co-op City. A typical run takes 56 minutes and
    17 seconds, with passenger stops consuming 16 minutes and 16 seconds --
    nearly 30 percent. The engineers found that doing away with fare collection could
    slash dwell time on the Bx12 to 2 minutes 36 seconds: an 84 percent reduction
    and a 24 percent saving in total trip time.

  • The combination of free fare and speedier service -- including less waiting,
    since faster buses would arrive more quickly -- would attract many more riders.
    We estimate 28 percent more (16 percent from the fare savings, 12 percent
    from the time savings).

  • The 28 percent gain in ridership wouldn’t require more buses, even on crowded
    routes, since the average fare-free bus would travel 32 percent faster. (That 24
    percent time saving equates mathematically to a 32 percent speedup.) In
    effect, absent the human gridlock to collect fares, buses could complete four runs
    in the time it now takes to do three.

To be sure, these numbers aren't fully proven. The speed gains were measured on one bus route among hundreds, and the imputed boosts to ridership are based on elasticity studies from years ago. But the numbers make intuitive sense. And they're certainly impressive. We place the time savings to bus riders alone at $460 million a year, even valuing passengers' time at a meager nine bucks an hour. The additional travel-time savings to motorists from attracting even a modest number of drivers to transit buses would probably be worth far more.

The mayor says his proposal might not cost NYC Transit much since most crosstown bus passengers are free transfers from subways. The story citywide is probably different, though. We estimate that free buses in all five boroughs would cost $740 million a year (after netting $30 million now spent maintaining farebox machinery). How could this lost revenue be made up?

One way would be a modest weekday congestion charge to drive into the Manhattan Central Business District: $6 during peak hours, $2 overnight, and $4 in-between, charged inbound only. That’s just one option; others can be seen by inputting various congestion prices into the Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet. (All figures in this article are derived from and sourced in the BTA; start with the "Bus Boarding" worksheet.)

Ted Kheel views free buses as a down payment toward universal free transit in NYC, financed largely through a fair congestion charge. With his more limited proposal, a down payment toward Kheel's, Mayor Bloomberg has taken the first step toward realizing that vision.

This post originally appeared on

Related posts:
Making Buses Cool Again
Greening the MTA
Free Transit For All?

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I think this is a great idea and the mayor should go for it. My own city, Perth Western Australia, has had something similar for a while now and it works really well. First, it has a Free Transit Zone, (FTZ) which basically covers the CBD. You can hop on any bus and travel in the FTZ for nothing. My city is quite spread out, so this is really convenient. I pay for public transport into the city, but can then easily and quickly end up in the eastern part of the city for work. It definitely reduces dwell time in the congested centre, as no one has to wait for commuters to even show their valid ticket.

But it turns out that most commuter buses hog the main arteries of the city, and the smaller streets are less well served. To address this the city brought in free Central Area Transit (CAT) buses. These buses function like a subway: they move regularly, say every 5 minutes, between fixed, clearly signposted stops. They cover the routes other buses don't cover, and again make switching from your intercity bus or train a simple, quick task.

Finally the city has a stored value card for public transport, called "SmartRider". This functions like the Oyster card in London. You buy the card for a nominal sum and put value on it. It's integrated between our bus, train and ferry (of course). All you have to do is swipe the card in front of the reader and you are on. Its very popular as it offers discounted fares, I would definitely say it has reduced the annoying dwell time! And for the ultimate in convenience, it can be linked to your bank account. When the balance drops below $6, hey presto it does a direct debit and next time you board, back to $36 (or whatever you nominate).

For me this means ticketing hassles have basically disappeared as well as reducing my travel times.

I am proud of my city for innovating in these ways, and I feel a little smug when I know that even big cities like Sydney have struggled to offer a sophisticated, unified ticketing system (much less give someone a free ride across town).

Posted by: Kay Hines on 10 Aug 09

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