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Houston Considering Free Public Transportation

America’s traditional response in our ongoing war against traffic has been to build more roads and build more highways.

When those become too crowded, we widen those roads and widen those highways and when those become too crowded, we build more roads and build more highways and when those become too crowded, we again widen those roads and widen those highways.

It never ends, the roads keep being built, the cars keep coming.

The rush hour only gets longer and longer and our approach has stayed the same for decade upon traffic-snarled decade.

Houston’s new mayor Annise Parker is considering a different tactic in her car-dominated city where 70% of residents drive alone to work.

Welcome to Houston! (Photo by aloofdork, courtesy of flickr)

Parker has been mayor for just over a month and is already making major waves by suggesting that Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority explore the possibility of free service.

Only 20% of the operating costs of the MTA are derived from fares and by subsidizing the entire system, the city would be able to offer mobility to all, including those that are too young or too old to drive, as well as those unable to afford a car. Parker wants to shift the focus of the MTA to ensure that those “who depend on public transportation should receive priority in Metro’s planning.”

We offer free public education to our citizens, why not offer free transit to get them to work and school? Many cities offer trash and recycling services, employment and career assistance, police and fire response, parks, pools, and community centers.

Why not offer community-supported transportation?

Removing the upfront cost of transit makes it more efficient as buses and trains will not have to wait for people to pay their fare before continuing on their route. Removing the upfront cost of transit has been shown to greatly increase ridership, inevitably removing cars from the road and reducing congestion and pollution.

The town of Hasselt, Belgium was profiled by Dave Olsen after city officials introduced free public buses with the principal aim in making it “the natural option for getting around. And it did — immediately.” On the first day, ridership increased by nearly 800%. The first full year showed a constant increase of 900% over the previous year and by the second year was up by 1,223 %. A major motivation for officials in Hasselt was to “to guarantee the right to mobility for all residents in Hasselt… that an improved public transport system simply means a better use of the public space that will not only improve the quality of traffic, but the quality of life in general.”

Of course it wouldn’t be as easy as removing the fare box. Additional bus lines and stops need to be added, bus shelters need to be improved or installed, and service needs to be consistently fast and reliable.

It must to be more convenient and cheaper to take transit then to drive. By removing the fare, the cost equation disappears for many people. When transportation is actually public, when it is actually a service, people will use it because it will save them money. More people on transit means less people driving alone.

When 40 people elect to take the bus instead of driving alone, that takes 40 cars off the road and makes travel faster, more convenient, and more efficient for everyone.

Let’s take this solution to our own communities.

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