Keep Houston Houston gives a wide-ranging argument against Metro eliminating fares as some folks have advocated. His last reason resonates with me:
People don’t value what they don’t pay for
It’s a pretty simple concept, really. Removing fares shifts the public perception of transit away from “something people pay for, which we also subsidize” to “a free public good.” In a sprawling, widely-annexed city like Houston, where most voters have little to no *actual* contact with the transit system (as evidenced by these sorts of crappy proposals), it seems inevitable that fareless transit would ultimately lead to reduced service quality, by eroding peoples’ respect for transit riders’ rights. If you think of transit as welfare, you’ll probably have less of an issue making it as onerous as possible to use – if you want the proof for this statement, just look at what we’ve done with the welfare system over the last 15 years.
I for one have no trouble imagining much of the current crop of self-styled bus advocates, many of whom just use the issue as a proxy for rail-bashing (as KHH noted earlier in the piece), becoming utterly contemptuous of “transit welfare” recipients once riding became free. He’s exactly right about the attitude, as anyone who has witnessed the fights over six month versus twelve month renewals for CHIP and Medicaid can attest. I’m certainly open to the suggestion that Metro’s fare structure could be made more progressive, but even if we weren’t in the throes of a serious revenue shortage that would make the idea of Houston subsidizing a larger share of Metro’s expenses laughable, I’d have my doubts about abolishing the fare. And for all the criticism Metro has taken about service levels, they’ve actually done pretty well on that score of late, especially when compared to other transit agencies. So yeah, what KHH said.