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Free Public Transit Is Not a Climate Policy

Dropping the farebox on buses and trains can boost ridership and ease inequality. But the environmental case for making transit free is less clear.

A farebox is pulled from a bus in Lawrence, Massachusetts in February 2022 as the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority kicks off its fare-free bus service.

A farebox is pulled from a bus in Lawrence, Massachusetts in February 2022 as the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority kicks off its fare-free bus service.

Photographer: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Throughout last February, the regional Utah Transit Authority paused fare collection. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall suggested that this “Fare Free February” would accomplish two goals at once: commemorating the 20th anniversary of Salt Lake City hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics while also reducing emissions in a region where air quality has been a longstanding concern.

A few weeks ago UTA issued a report that evaluated the month-long pilot. Average ridership rose sharply compared to January: 16.2% during weekdays and 58.1% and 32.5% during Saturdays and Sundays, respectively. “Far more people will take transit when cost is not a barrier,” Mayor Mendenhall tweeted as she shared the report. “I’m so excited about the possibilities this presents for our air quality.”