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Why Higher Fares Would Be Good for Public Transit

If transit is really to thrive in the United States, agencies need to reconsider their reliance on taxpayer subsidies.
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Flickr user Mr.TinDC

Low transit fares have a long tradition in American cities. In his 1921 reelection campaign, Mayor John F. Hylan called the nickel fare a "property right" of New Yorkers, even though inflation during World War I had raised wages, and turned what had been a profitable fare for the transit companies into a fare that guaranteed ongoing losses, eventually requiring a government takeover. New York was only somewhat ahead of the national curve. In the 1960s, a variety of pressures put for-profit transit systems in terminal bankruptcy, and public subsidy of transit fares became the norm across the United States. Since then, the price of a transit ride has been a permanently politicized number.

The political focus on the fare assumes that only one aspect of the overall transit experience—the price of a ride—is the overriding concern to a rider. But this isn't always the case. With America's transit systems woefully underinvesting in their own capital infrastructure, it is time to consider whether the interests of the riders themselves are actually served by an approach that prioritizes low fares over high-quality service. And with transportation patterns beginning to break from the car-focus of the last 60 years, it is also time to think about whether we can break from the model of pricing transit in a way that structurally loses money.