Five New York City bus routes will soon cost nothing to ride as state leaders join an experiment underway in other cities to attract more passengers and ease the burden on low-income commuters.
Starting Sunday, one route in each of the city’s boroughs will be free as part of a pilot program that lawmakers believe will increase ridership on mass transit toward prepandemic levels.
The free routes are:
the Q4 bus in Queens
the B60 bus in Brooklyn
the M116 bus in Manhattan
the Bx18 bus in the Bronx
the S46 and the S96 buses, which count as one route, in Staten Island
State leaders said the five routes were chosen based on several factors, including ridership, rates of fare evasion and poverty within adjacent communities, as well as the access the routes provide to commercial corridors.
Besides broadening access, the hope is that the program will also speed up travel times because riders board more quickly when they do not pay and that higher numbers of passengers will make buses feel safer.
Some lawmakers say that free public transit would especially benefit the city’s neediest residents, who most heavily depend on the system. But officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway and bus network, have said that a fully free transit system is not possible without replacing billions in farebox revenue.
Other cities have introduced free bus service that has resulted in faster travel times. Boston made three of its bus routes free in March of 2022, expanding an existing trial program, and Kansas City’s entire transit system went fare free in 2020.
In New York City the free rides program will benefit about 44,000 daily riders, representing a fraction of the bus network’s roughly 1.3 million weekday riders.
New York’s pilot program was scaled back from the original plan, which was to suspend fares on ten bus routes. Some lawmakers had hoped for a bigger investment than the $15 million funding the pilot program, which will span at least six months and could extend as long as a year.
They say that the experiment doesn’t go far enough and that the state should be working toward fully subsidizing the entire transit system. The argument is that there should be no cost to ride public transit, just as there is no charge to attend public school or receive police assistance.
“If you want to move New York better, if you want New York to be safer, if you want New Yorkers to have more access, then free public transportation is the answer,” State Assembly member Phara Souffrant Forrest, a Brooklyn Democrat, said during a news conference on Wednesday about the pilot program. “We need all the lines free.”
When the bus pilot was announced in July, Gov. Kathy Hochul said: “By establishing these fare free bus pilot routes, we are expanding access to public transportation across the city and improving transit equity.”
It is unclear whether the state will invest more money in the program to widen its reach, and the M.T.A. has not lobbied lawmakers to do so.
Asked whether the M.T.A. would ever make every bus free, Janno Lieber, the authority’s chairman, has said that without offsetting billions in lost fares, it would be impossible.
“We’re doing our best to get information from the free bus routes to see what we can all learn about it,” Mr. Lieber said. “But there’s no money in the M.T.A. budget for suddenly giving up bus revenue.”
Before this year’s budget, New York’s transit system faced a fiscal disaster brought on by the pandemic. Albany’s latest budget included an increase in the payroll tax paid by the city’s big businesses, which is expected to generate about $1.1 billion for the authority, among other changes that will allocate more revenue for the authority.
The city’s subway and bus ridership fell more than 90 percent during the pandemic. And while ridership has partially rebounded, commuting patterns have changed with the proliferation of remote work, and currently, bus ridership is at about 60 percent of prepandemic totals.
The authority briefly made buses free at the height of the coronavirus pandemic to ensure social distancing. But the M.T.A. has since ramped up fare evasion enforcement in order to recoup what officials say are hundreds of millions of dollars it loses each year because many people do not pay to ride.
Advocates tempered their enthusiasm for the free bus pilot by urging Mayor Eric Adams to deliver on a promise to create more dedicated lanes in order to speed up the city’s notoriously slow buses. They also urged Mr. Adams to significantly expand eligibility requirements for the city’s Fair Fares program, which subsidizes public transit fares for New Yorkers whose income falls below the federal poverty line.
A City Hall spokesman noted that Mr. Adams pushed for the free bus pilot and pointed to the city’s work to increase its annual budget for the Fair Fares program from $75 million to $95 million.
Charles Lutvak, the spokesman, said in an email: “The administration continues to do everything we can to meet the ambitious goals that the mayor laid out in his campaign.”
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