Elizabeth Bauerle is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s medical center. To get from her home in the north Seattle suburb of Shoreline to her job on the Seattle campus, she can either drive or take two buses.
Like all of us, Bauerle weighs cost, convenience and personal values in deciding how she’ll travel to work. She says the two-bus trip can take as much 20 to 30 minutes longer than driving. That time difference would matter less to Bauerle if she wasn’t paying for the bus out of pocket, but the cost plus time has her grabbing the car keys most mornings, joining the roughly 34 percent of University of Washington employees who drive alone.
Bauerle is part of a campaign to try and change that equation for employees like herself. UW Pass or Fail — a new campaign lead by a broad coalition including university employees, the Seattle Transit Riders Union, 350 Seattle, SEIU Local 925 and others — is pushing the University of Washington to fully cover the cost of transit passes. Currently, university faculty and staff can get an unlimited transit pass for $50 a month. Though that’s nearly half the normal $99 cost for an unlimited monthly regional transit pass, the campaign argues that as a state employer with tens of thousands of employees, the University of Washington is lagging behind other state employers, Seattle universities, hospitals and large companies that provide employees with free transit passes.
Beyond simply matching comparable institutions, the campaign also argues that it makes sense for the university to encourage transit ridership both to ease congestion and further its climate impact goals.
“It is actually cheaper in the long run for [the university] to make transit free for employees than building more parking,” said Rosalie Ray, a Columbia University PhD student and contributing author of “Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators,” at a May 21 launch party in Seattle for the newly published book.
Co-edited by Jason Prince, an urban planner and faculty member at Montreal’s Concordia University, and Judith Dellheim, a researcher at the Rosa Luxumberg Foundation in Berlin, the new book comprises 19 wonky, academic essays from a variety of contributing authors. The anthology makes a collective economic, environmental and social justice case for fare-free public transit and looks case studies from cities around the world that have implemented free transit policies.
Both Ray and Bauerle spoke on a panel about free transit at the May 21 event in Seattle, which doubled as a kickoff for the UW Pass or Fail campaign.
Around 200 cities worldwide have some form of fare-free transit, whether fully free or just free for certain user groups, in certain zones or at certain times of day. As of the book’s publication, there were 97 cities and towns with fully fare-free public transit (the book uses the term fare-free transit because, of course, transit costs money whether fares or taxes pay for it).
Most of the fare-free systems are in Europe, with 21 in Poland, 20 in France and another 15 elsewhere. Estonia’s capital Tallinn, home to about 450,000 people, is the largest city in the world with a fully fare-free transit system. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States has 27 fare-free systems — mostly in small towns and colleges where the cost of fare collection out paces the revenue it raises. There are also 11 fare-free systems in Brazil, two in China and one in Australia.
“There are many cities making small and large poetic gestures [to fare-free transit],” says Prince. “Our book is trying to present the opportunity to the next city that will really do something on a big scale with transportation.”
To Prince, making that major shift is now critical. “We’re facing two great challenges in the 21st century. One is climate change. If we’re serious about mitigating the effects of carbon change we have to take strong action on transportation … the second great challenge of the 21st century is income inequality.”
Globally, transportation is responsible for more than 22 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; meanwhile, transportation is often the second highest household cost. Prince points out that fare-free transit could help incentivize single occupancy vehicle drivers to shift to more environmentally friendly buses or trains and help ease financial strain for low-income households.
“We can feed two birds with one bit of bread by attacking transport with a completely new model,” Prince says.
Recently, several cities have experimented with temporarily free transit to help address air pollution including Salt Lake City, Brussels and Seoul. Paris is considering making its system fully fare-free to address its smog.
“The more programs we have, whether employer programs or city funded programs or county programs, that get transit passes into people’s hands for little or no cost, the easier it is to have that conversation [about fare-free transit],” Wilson says.