Photo by Jordan Gorski

For the past year or so, my favorite place on the Internet has been a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens. It’s a forum of about 124,000 public transit and urbanism fans who post memes about everything from Amtrak to hostile architecture to Uber. It’s where I discovered a particular nexus of Charlotte-based transportation nerds, who have extremely strong opinions on the state of our local transit system — particularly the LYNX Blue Line, which opened March 2018.

We’ve discussed a lot of the Blue Line’s flaws: its careless disruption of historic neighborhoods, its bumbling security officers who stay armed to the teeth, its lack of integration with other transportation depots (like the airport and the Amtrak station) and so on. But I’ve never heard any criticism for the “honor system” of ticket payment for the light rail. In fact, many of the people I’ve met in this Facebook group like this system because they believe that public transportation should be free.

The reasoning behind this concept is relatively straightforward:  people already pay taxes to create and maintain our systems of public transportation, so why should they pay extra to reap the benefits? Proponents tend to point out that government subsidies already cover 29 to 89 percent of operating costs for light rail and metro systems in the United States. Here in Charlotte, the federal government paid for about 50 percent of the Blue Line and Blue Line extension’s construction, the state government paid 25 percent and the remaining fees were covered by local taxes and other funds. So free-ride advocates ask a valuable question: are fares necessary for a sustainable system?

This query is especially relevant as the threat of climate change looms. Greenhouse gas levels are higher than ever, and one of its major contributors is the sheer number of cars in use. And if that doesn’t scare you, then maybe Charlotte’s traffic will. A study by the transportation analytics company Inrix Inc. estimated that Charlotte commuters spent an average of 24 hours sitting in traffic last year. Some analysts have posited that offering free rides will coax people out of their cars and onto the light rail platforms.

I spoke to Nadia Anderson, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and the Director of the City.Building.Lab, about whether doing away with fares would be a good plan for Charlotte. She questioned the effectiveness of a completely free system. “It’s good for people to have a little skin in the game,” she stated. “A lack of fares may cause the system to be taken for granted.” A report from the National Center for Transportation Research showed that fare-free rides tended to attract the “wrong” crowd — namely rowdy teenagers whose trail of vandalism and graffiti required costly repairs and maintenance. In fact, several case studies have shown that making public transportation free doesn’t usually entice people with cars; people who are already using alternative methods, like walking and cycling, tend to take advantage of fare-free systems.

The argument is fascinating, but based on the multitude of case studies and reports, I don’t think that making our public transit free is the best method for increasing ridership. Our city — our whole state, really — is extremely dependent on cars. Doing away with fares will likely not make public transit more popular simply because our current transit system is not robust enough. 

But whether you’re an urbanist meme creator or just a student trying to get around, I think it’s important to keep having these conversations about improving our public transit. There are other ideas that deserve consideration, like reduced fares or employer-sponsored tickets, and if we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint and make our city more integrated, we need to explore these options together. Anderson agrees; she believes it’s time to get out of the car and engage with the Charlotte area. “What you encounter along the way is just as important as your destination. That is what makes for a vibrant city fabric.”

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