FREE FARES – Are they the only solution for addressing social equity in public transit?

Dec. 19, 2019
To objectively understand the pros and cons of free fares, let’s look at some alternative and socially equitable solutions.

There has been a lot of discussion lately around the idea of eliminating fares from public transit. Free fares, on the one hand, succinctly address the lack of social equity faced by the most vulnerable of riders. While on the other hand, free fares have the potential to increase ridership and decrease individual traffic. Win-win, right?

To objectively understand the pros and cons of free fares, let’s look at some alternative and socially equitable solutions. There are, after all, more ways to solve a problem than to “throw the baby out with the bath water” as they say. Meeting some of the goals of free fares is possible using automatic fare collection (AFC) systems.

Best price fares

One way to provide social equity is through best price fares. Best price fares are a simple concept that eliminates the upfront cost of weekly or monthly passes and allows riders to enjoy a best price calculation when they ride. It works by rewarding passengers with free rides after they meet the fare equivalent of a daily, weekly or monthly pass. For example, if a single-day ticket costs $2, and a daily pass costs $4, the rider earns a daily pass after two trips in the same day. For the rest of the day, she rides without paying any additional fares. If the monthly pass is $72, she pays $4 dollars a day until the 18th day and then the rest of the month is free. Best price fares eliminate the anxiety on whether a daily pass needs to be purchased by the casual rider. More importantly, it eliminates the financial burden of purchasing a monthly fare card at the beginning of every month—allowing the least able to receive the same benefit as those with the means to pay for a monthly pass in advance.

Reduced and free fares

Reduced fare or free fare accounts are also possible. All of the rider’s information is stored in their account, not on a specific card or media. The card has the same look as all other riders except their specific status (reduced or free) is recognized only when their card is tapped to a terminal. This helps eliminate the stigma associated with carrying special or different looking tickets.

Another possibility is that the reduced or free fares can be activated and deactivated at any time. For example, in the event the rider has temporarily fallen into a financially rough season. The designation can be conveniently changed to the appropriate status—and back once the rider is able to pay full fares again.

Off-peak fares

Using an off-peak fare structure is another way to provide alternative fares to riders. For instance, most commuters are getting to work between 6:00 and 9:00 am, then returning home between 4:00 and 7:00 pm. For riders choosing to travel outside these high demand hours, lowered fares for off-peak travel provides a more communally reasonable solution, while at the same time reduces system overcrowding during peak hours. Creating off-peak fares is possible because the ability to designate fare tiers, times and zones is simply done in an advanced AFC system.

AFC systems reduce costs and increase convenience

Most agencies agree that the cost to maintain fare boxes and administrate the cash revenues from them outweighs the benefits. Riders using cash have to use exact change or you increase agency costs even more by issuing paper change cards. Because passengers enjoy the ease of tap and board AFC systems, along with the ability to manage their account in real-time, reliance on cash is reduced. Of course, riders can still use cash to purchase and top-up cards at retail locations located conveniently in their neighborhoods.

Data collection and business analytics

Regardless of which, if any, fare policy decisions are made to reduce costs for the agency and especially for individual riders or groups of riders, an AFC system has the unique capability to accurately collect ridership data (anonymously) across a service area. Knowing one’s riders is key to being able to provide them service that meets their needs and expectations.

Business analytics on AFC data is valuable to planning teams because it delivers rich information on origin/destination trends as well as transfer patterns. Agencies make better decisions to provide better service to their riders. Business analytics assures long term customer loyalty and efficient utilization of transport resources and services.

Free fares and the point of no return

For agencies considering the implementation of system-wide free fares, specific thought for the inability to return to a fare-based structure should be considered. Using a modern AFC system, fare changes can be made easily and then evaluated. Creative fares can be implemented quickly and changed just as quickly. This gives the agency flexibility in finding options that best suit their particular customers.


INIT’s advanced AFC system provides the convenience and flexibility for both riders and agencies. Riders receive the freedom of best fare pricing, flexible fare policies and even reduced or free fares. Agencies benefit from lower costs, robust business intelligence and options to creatively collaborate with riders to provide the best fare choices and service.