~ Why are there user fees for public transit but not for the use of other transportation infrastructure? What would happen if public transit were free?
The impact of not having user fees for other transportation options is instructive. Simply: an abundance in the supply of transportation capacity can stimulate demand for it. It works for bike lanes in cities:
Science has verified something that may appear obvious at first glance: The direct connection between the presence of bike lanes and the number of bike commuters. The more infrastructure exists to encourage biking, the more people bike—and the more society reaps the public health, energy, and lifestyle benefits that come with an increasing share of people-powered transportation.This isn't true just for bikes; it's true too for roads. Build more capacity and the number of drivers, trips and miles driven increases:
It's not hard to see why this happens: according to classic economic theory if supply increases and the price remains fixed, demand will also increase. And here the price is right—free! Sure, it costs to build bike lanes or roads, but nothing for the user to actually use them. Like the initial cost, maintenance is paid by all of us general taxpayers.
So why are there user fees for public transit? By building more free roads we encourage more driving, with all of the economic, social and environmental ills that go with it. By charging ever-higher fees on users of public transit we discourage its use, feeding the bogus meme that there is insufficient demand for public transit to justify its expansion, or even its steady support.
Build more public transit, and make it free to use, and watch demand explode, even as vehicle traffic, and the demands on road expansion, repair and maintenance decrease. It might even save us money.
Cross-posted to the Fare-Free Northwest blog.