Should New York City Have Free Buses?

Free bus service could come to 10 bus routes in New York City under a proposal by state lawmakers to lure more riders to the city’s struggling transit system and help those who cannot afford to pay the $2.75 fare.

Two bus routes in each of the city’s five boroughs would be designated for a free bus pilot program, according to the proposal, which is being pushed by state legislative leaders in budget negotiations. Though the routes have not yet been chosen, one in each borough has to serve a low-income community and the other a commercial corridor.

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Eric Adams voiced his approval of the pilot program in a video posted on Twitter and Instagram by Assemblyman Zohran Kwame Mamdani, a Queens Democrat and a sponsor of the proposal.

“I strongly support the thought of having 10 buses being free,” the mayor said in the video, adding that it would have a major impact on the city. “Our transit system is the lifeblood of our city. I use it all the time. Let’s see if we can get this over the hump.”

Though the city’s subway and bus ridership has gradually recovered from the height of the pandemic in 2020 — when it fell more than 90 percent from prepandemic levels — it has not fully rebounded as commuting patterns have changed and many now work from home.

On Monday, there were about 1.3 million bus riders citywide, or 59 percent of the prepandemic ridership, according to the latest data from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state authority that runs the subways and buses.

“Ridership has plummeted,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, who is a sponsor of the proposal. “We’re all trying to get people back into the buses and on the trains.”

But John J. McCarthy, a spokesman for the M.T.A., cautioned that “very real trade-offs” would have to be considered in foregoing bus fares.

“We would have to study any impacts on the M.T.A’.s operating budget, as well as on the M.T.A.’s daily operations,” Mr. McCarthy said.


The move toward free bus service has increasingly gained traction around the country. After Kansas City went to free bus service in 2020, ridership increased, but the cost of lost revenue has fluctuated between $8 and $10 million, said Cindy Baker, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

Ms. Baker said that the authority is paying for the bus service with $4.8 million provided by the Kansas City municipal government, as well as emergency pandemic funding, which will run out at the end of 2023. “We’re trying to work on partnerships from within the private sector” to continue the free service, Ms. Baker said.

Boston also rolled out a free bus program on three of its routes in March of 2022, expanding an existing pilot. Since then, ridership has increased seven percent across all three routes.

“The time for free buses already arrived,” said State Senator John Liu, another Queens Democrat who supports the proposal. “Many other major cities have already adopted the approach.”

The pilot program for New York City evolved from a more ambitious proposal by Mr. Gianaris and Mr. Mamdani in December, calling for phasing in free bus service citywide by 2027, beginning next year in the Bronx.

In the meantime, Mr. Gianaris said, the pilot program was “a step toward evaluating how great an idea it is,” and if successful, could be expanded to other bus lines.

The cost of the pilot program is projected to be $50 million from lost revenues — or about $5 million per bus line, according to state lawmakers. Mr. Gianaris said that would be covered by other measures state lawmakers are considering, like increasing an existing surcharge on corporate profits in the region.

Some transportation experts have questioned whether free bus service is the most effective way to increase ridership and help low-income commuters.

Zhan Guo, an associate professor of urban planning and transportation policy at the New York University Wagner School of Public Service, said that free bus lines could help subway-starved, low-income communities where residents are “captive bus riders.” But he suggested free transit cards might also be an option.

As for the pilot program, Mr. Guo hopes the free routes will not be selected merely “in a symbolic way.” Otherwise, he added, “you might not end up serving the people you wanted to serve.”

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