Opinion: Fare-free DC buses promote accessibility and sustainability
The delay on the fare-free bus initiative is a harmful step backward
Accessible public transit should be a right, not a privilege for D.C. residents. Making city bus fares free not only gives low-income D.C. residents, students and tourists the ability to ride without the looming worry of compounding costs, but it also incentivizes the use of public transit as a whole.
In late 2022, the D.C. Council enacted a fare-free bus system into law through the Metro for D.C. bill, becoming one of the first major cities to do so. In addition to the zero-fare program, the bill also directed certain buses to run 24 hours, allowing those who work late hours to be able to travel home via public transit.
Soon after the Council unanimously voted to pass this bill, D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, refused to sign it, prompting the Council to enact it without her signature. Despite this, the zero-fare program was delayed by one year after the Board Chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Paul Smedberg wrote a letter conveying his concerns with the program. Namely, the decision was specific to city limits, thus not including Maryland and Virginia. In addition, the WMATA Board and Councilmembers expressed that there was not ample funding, since the implementation of this free bus fare would effectively halt plans to redo the K Street Transitway.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, the District’s public transit use has taken a major hit. Currently, bus ridership stands at just 74 percent of what it was before 2020. With remote work retaining popularity despite pandemic restrictions being lifted, as well as lower rates of people dining out post-pandemic, utilizing transit is an instrumental way to incentivize bringing life back into the city.
Although this bill does not include the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia, it benefits D.C. residents and the District as a whole, which ought to be the D.C. Council’s main priority. Not only this, but members of the D.C. Council lack confidence in Maryland and Virginia to discuss the topic of expanding it to the greater metro area. While the WMATA Board necessitated a one-year delay, as D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson put it, “the District has a right to decide bus service within its borders.”
Not only does making buses zero-fare have tangible benefits in revitalizing the District back to its pre-2020 state, but it also brings about a plethora of seemingly small, but impactful perks.
Free buses decrease the rates of people taking their own car or unaffordable ride-share services, thus minimizing traffic congestion, which is a notorious and serious issue in the D.C. area. Lowering the number of cars on D.C. roads will also promote environmental sustainability by reducing emission pollution.
Although minor, eliminating bus fares increases the efficiency of boarding. By cutting out the step of having to insert cash or tap a SmartTrip card, riders can simply walk on and off as they please. This may seem inconsequential, but the time spent waiting for all passengers to pay the fare certainly adds up. By nullifying the fare entirely, riders shave minutes off their commutes.
Finally, this bill provides a safe and affordable way home for late-night workers. Most D.C. buses halt services at midnight, with a handful of select routes running until about 2 or 4 a.m. The Metro for D.C. bill outlines an important plan to expand overnight bus routes. Its delay by WMATA is also a delay in providing workers, primarily food service workers and healthcare providers, with a reliable and affordable way to get home. Those employed in restaurants or clubs work well into the night, and they, especially women, deserve the ability to safely and affordably travel home without having to rely on expensive ride-shares or face the dangers of walking.
Although the funds for this endeavor would have to be taken from the redesign of the K Street Transitway, implementing a fare-free bus program will have a broader impact on a larger population. Redesigning the K Street Transitway, albeit important, is an auto-centric, outdated plan that does not take into account post-pandemic commuting patterns, and requires revision before $123 million taxpayer dollars are spent on it. Those funds could be used to fund a fare-free bus system where benefits are felt District-wide.
The delay in implementing the Metro for D.C. bill sets the District back in its goal of accessibility and sustainability in public transit. It is imperative that the WMATA Board works closely with the D.C. Council, Maryland and Virginia in the following months to develop a way to make a fare-free bus system a reality.
Alice Still is a Sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication and a columnist for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis.