Bloomberg Tests Free-Transit Waters

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.

m14.jpgPhoto of M14 bus: Kriston Lewis/Flickr.
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.