The economic impact of the pandemic has disproportionately hurt low-income households, particularly under-served communities of color. To mitigate those harms and ensure a full economic recovery shared by all, we need immediate public transit fare relief for people who are struggling to maintain basic living standards. We are calling for the immediate implementation of a low-income fare program.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, 65% of Port Authority bus riders had annual individual incomes of less than $35,000. For these households, fares are a significant household expense, and for several municipalities in Allegheny County, transportation costs are the single biggest household expense. Nationwide, low-income riders have become increasingly reliant on public transportation during the pandemic; the percentage of riders with annual household incomes of less than $15,000 has jumped dramatically, from 20% to 35%.
Responding to this trend, transit agencies across the country have implemented free or reduced fare programs for low-income riders. For example:
– Richmond’s Transit Agency adopted fare free transit for the duration of 2020.
– Detroit suspended fair collection for a full year, and has a reduced fare program.
– Seattle Transit Systems have expanded their low-income fare programs during the pandemic.
– Los Angeles Metro is planning to institute free fares for low-income riders and students in January 2022, and to transition to a fully fare-free transit system.
– DC Metro is undertaking a study to evaluate free transit for low-income riders, and possibly transitioning to a fully fare-free system.
– San Francisco Bay Area transportation agencies launched an 18 month pilot program in July of 2020 providing 20-50% off fares for low income riders.
Evaluations of existing low income fare programs, such as those in Toronto and Boston, have shown many benefits for participants, including: an increase in overall transit use, more trips to health care and social services, and greater community involvement.
It is time for Port Authority to join the growing number of transit agencies acknowledging that a low-income fare program is necessary to respond to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Just as an eviction moratorium and a ban on utility shut-offs were authorized, transportation relief for low-income riders is necessary as well. By relying on existing income-based programs such as SNAP, Port Authority can greatly reduce the oversight needed to implement a pilot version of this program. Riders could simply show their EBT cards while boarding in lieu of fare payment.
In addition to helping low-income riders, this program would actually help Port Authority as well. Ridership is currently about 30% of what it was before the pandemic, which has presented a significant financial burden to the agency. Port Authority receives state funding partially based on the number of trips provided each year, and it is estimated that a low-income fare program would boost ridership by 9%, or between 600,000 and 1,200,000 trips per year, thereby increasing Port Authority funding.
A low-income fare program also presents a significant public health benefit. According to a survey of riders from the Washington Metro Area Transit Agency, the vast majority of trips taken on public transit during the pandemic are to food stores, pharmacies, employment, and medical appointments; a low income fare program makes it easier for people to access these critical, life-sustaining needs. This is especially urgent given the need to access testing and vaccine sites during the pandemic. In a recent Health in All Places white paper on transportation, the Allegheny County Health Department acknowledged the link between transportation affordability and public health, writing:
“Residents must be able to afford transportation options. Affordability refers to reduced financial burdens, particularly for lower-income households…This supports public health in several ways: it leaves households with more money to purchase goods required for health, such as adequate shelter, healthy food and medical care, and it reduces emotional stresses associated with poverty.”
This is also a racial justice issue. Prior to the pandemic, 41% of Port Authority riders self-identified as Black or African American. While there is no data available on ridership demographics during the pandemic in Allegheny County, nationally, the percentage of Black or African American regular transit users has jumped from just above 20% to nearly 40%. Research has made clear that Black residents of Allegheny County have long faced systemic barriers to their health, well-being, and economic success — key metrics of which are among the worst in the nation. Securing transit access is critical to redressing these harms, and requires alleviating the costs of ridership for those who can’t afford it.