One Way to Encourage Local Climate Action—Make it Free!

By path2positive

Every few weeks I jump on the Metrolink Train in Southern California. From the station a block from my house to Downtown Los Angeles is about 45 minutes, much preferable to the near 90 minutes that I might otherwise spend sitting in traffic were I driving. It’s convenient, it’s fast – but it’s expensive. At around $20 for a round trip ticket, it's a luxury that I, and surely countless others cannot afford to enjoy regularly.

For public transportation to be a viable climate solution, it needs to be affordable as well as convenient.

Why Public Transportation

Public transportation networks, like the Metrolink, light rail, and buses in Los Angeles, exist in nearly every major city across the country. While varying in size, quality, and scope, they offer city officials and mayors an existing infrastructure that can be transformed into an active ingredient in any climate action plan.

The benefits of public transportation transcend socioeconomic lines and have a direct impact on residents, cities, and the climate.

  • Public transportation is good for residents. By providing low-cost mobility, cities are able to empower residents from across the socioeconomic spectrum with the ability to navigate city life. Getting to school, attending church, going shopping, getting to and from work, or simply meeting with friends are all made more possible when comprehensive and effective public transport options are available.
  • Research shows that public transportation is a good investment for cities. For every dollar invested in public transport, there is an estimated $4 in returns. More transportation options help connect communities with jobs, improve access to businesses and shopping centers, and link neighborhoods together—all of which have been shown to improve home values.
  • Transit solutions are climate solutions. In addition to benefiting residents by connecting communities, and providing numerous economic incentives, public transportation takes cars off the road—decreasing congestion, commute times, and carbon emissions. One estimate points to an annual, 37 million metric-ton decrease in fossil fuel emissions nationwide that can be directly attributed to public transportation ridership.

Why Go Free

While the benefits of public transportation are clear, what is also apparent is that too many potential riders are being priced out. One simple solution: make participation free.

With already constrained city budgets, offering public transportation for free may seem like a tall order. However, many cities have begun to experiment, to varying degrees, with dropping fares. The results have been encouraging.

In Salt Lake City, residents and public transport users are able to take advantage of a Fare Free Zone located in the city’s downtown. The system incorporates buses, paratransit, and the city’s TRAX train. All riders have to do is simply tell the operators that they intend to stay in the Fare Free Zone, and they are free to hop on and hop off as needed.

In Missoula, MT a 3-year, zero-fare program is underway to test the effectiveness of dropping fees. With the goal of increasing ridership by 400,000 users, the free line includes one of the city’s most popular routes, along with door-to-door pick up and drop-off for elderly residents and those that may have disabilities.

Finally, in Pittsburg, local officials have established a fare-free zone. The idea was to encourage public transportation downtown to reduce congestion. Officials were able to eliminate the delays caused by ticket purchases and checking, making intramodal transportation more efficient, while also increasing ridership.

The number of cities considering these options is growing, and the benefits are being felt throughout communities.

  • Economic incentives: without the need to collect fares, buses can do away with fare boxes—which can cost as much as $13,000 each. Additional savings from no longer needing fare collectors or ticket booths provide further cost reductions.
  • Ridership increases: dropping fares has shown to increase the number of public transportation users. In a study of 39 communities, researchers were able to identify a 20-60 percent increase in use. Greater public transportation use means fewer cars on the road, shorter commute times, less congested city streets, and less fossil fuel consumption.
  • Climate benefits: as more riders are encouraged to use public transportation, cities become cleaner, greener places to live. Some estimates suggest that by switching to public transportation, an individual with a 20-mile commute can reduce their carbon footprint by 4,800 pounds annually.

While a growing number of cities are already pushing for free transportation options, mayors and city leaders must identify the particulars of their communities to see which options work best. For some, simply reducing fares can go a long way in increasing ridership. For others, fares can be changed or dropped to encourage use at off-peak hours, weekends, or holidays. A third alternative is to simply have designated free zones in high-traffic, congested downtown areas.

As with any climate action plan, community involvement is key. In Salt Lake City, the Fare Free Zone is part of a larger effort to make communities cleaner, healthier places to live and do business. In Missoula, the costs of dropping fares was covered by community partners and investors—it was a true collaboration of interested parties from multiple sectors of the city. And in Pittsburg, free downtown transportation helped bring in workers, shoppers, and tourists—thereby facilitating the growth of the downtown economy.

When considering your options, it is important to identify the needs of your community, and to communicate the benefits of action. Fortunately, a growing number of tools are being made available to help mayors and city leaders with this task too. So to kick-start climate action in your community, check out the great resources and communication guides at Path to Positive Communities.


Stuart Wood is a writer at Path to Positive Communities and an adjunct professor. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, where he focused on climate change, political communications and psychology. Email him at [email protected]

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