Free Public Transportation, the Time is Now!
This is the first installment for a guest-author series on DC transportation policies, as there are different, key aspects and perspectives to note.
By David Schwartzman
With contributions by Annette Olson and Fritz Edler
Breaking news: The D.C. Council votes to deny free Circulator rides, Councilmember Allen says he will reintroduce the $100/month subsidy for all DC residents for public transportation (Washington Post, July 31, 2021), [Print, p. B1.]
“Momentum Builds for Free Public Transit,” headline, front page of the Washington Post, May 23, 2021. [Print].
“Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?” – The New York Times: “Free public transportation is a reality in 100 cities—here’s why.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/14/us/free-public-transit.html)
“Americans spend over 15% of their budgets on transportation costs— these US cities are trying to make it free.” (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/02/free-public-transportation-is-a-reality-in-100-citiesheres-why.html)
As a DC resident for the last 50 years, I recall in the 1980s Fred Hechinger, a prominent DC business leader with his legacy including the Hechinger Mall in NE DC, proposed free public transportation as a way to promote consumer spending. That did not happen, but the thought struck many of the value of this proposal, including myself, towards reducing traffic congestion in neighborhoods, reducing the effects of pollution, tying together disconnected communities, increasing worker gains, reducing pedestrian deaths, and much more. As a result, we missed out a huge opportunity to bring economic, environmental, and health justice for our residents and commuters.
Recently, Metrobus service was free for most of the COVID crisis, starting in late March 2020. Except for essential workers using the Metrobus, ridership plunged as commuters stayed home, either working online or drawing unemployment compensation. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) terminated this program in January of this year. As a result of reduced ridership, however, this June, WMATA approved service increases and lower fares to boost ridership back to the pre-COVID era (Washington Post, June 11, 2021, B1).
Now is the time, however, to radically rethink public transit in the context of achieving those benefits of economic, environmental, and health justice. In the fully vaccinated near future, making public transportation free, more convenient, and accessible for residents and out-of-town commuters would, first, leave critically necessary dollars in the pockets of the low-income working class. For instance, the average hourly rate for public parking in downtown DC is $9-$10, with 24 hours upwards of $35. Monthly parking costs around $250 per month, a huge proportion of a low-wage service job.
Second, air pollution and carbon emissions driving global warming have the same dominant source within Metro DC as in most U.S. cities: Fossil-fuel burning from transportation (i.e., cars, trucks, and diesel-powered buses) and power plants. The estimated carbon emissions in 2015 for the Baltimore-Washington corridor, for instance, was estimated at 1.9±0.3 metric tons of carbon. Traffic congestion declined, of course, in the height of the pandemic as commuters stayed at home, but as the Metro DC area economy recovers from the COVID pandemic we can expect a rebound in emissions of all types, including particulates, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxide, all of which directly impact our health.
DC’s Air Pollution and Asthma
“Washington is No. 3 in traffic congestion, study says” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/its-a-waste-of-time-washington-is-no-3-in-traffic-congestion-study-says/2019/08/22/e6602e0e-c4d6-11e9-b72f-b31dfaa77212_story.html.)
“The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found the Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA metro area ranked as the 20th most polluted for days with high levels of ozone smog. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly.” (https://www.lung.org/media/press-releases/state-of-the-air-dc.) April 21, 2020
“Pollution from mobile sources (cars, trucks, vans, etc) is the leading cause of ozone and smog in the District of Columbia, dangerous compounds that cause respiratory illness and childhood asthma.” (A fact sheet from the DC Clean Cars Program, Capital Climate Coalition, Chesapeake Climate Action Network. http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org/.)
“Asthma is a disruptive disease that requires lifetime management and causes stressors on both children and parents, and it’s no different in Washington, DC, with 12.9% of children living with asthma in 200819 and 4,689 emergency department visits for children who had an asthma-related illness. It is clear that asthma is affecting the children of Washington, DC at a higher rate than compared to others around the nation at the national rate of 8.6%.” (https://breatheeasyearly.info/locations/washington-dc.)
As you can see, asthma is a deadly result of air pollution, impacting our children especially. But urban air pollution is now linked to a wide variety of negative health impacts affecting the unborn, children, and adults. Besides increasing asthma attacks, these impacts include:
- Damage to children’s lungs is linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Birth defects that affect the heart,
- Harm to the fetus linked to low birthweights,
- Cancer later in life, and
- Damage to the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of heart attacks.
Further, recent studies point to a link to dementia, linked to exposure to ultra-fine particulates, as highlighted in an article in Science. Driving to work in the Metro DC area’s heavy congestion is especially hazardous to one’s health because of exposure to ultra-fine particulates.
How to fund free public transportation
“D.C. Council member proposes free public transit for residents…The District could become the next U.S. city to make transit free under a proposal by a D.C. Council member that would give each resident $100 a month to use for public transportation. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the plan would boost the region’s economy by helping businesses retain employees and recruit new customers who have been turned away by the city’s parking costs and traffic congestion. Free transit also would remove one of the top obstacles to jobs for many low-income residents, and it would keep the city affordable and accessible to families of color who are being priced out, Allen said.” (The Washington Post, by Justin George, March 1, 2020)
Now is the time to revisit Councilmember Allen’s proposal. Keeping in mind the likely boost in tax revenue from taxpayers as a result of free public transportation, there are several potential sources of funding to provide this public service. As I testified on behalf of the DC Statehood Green Party to the WMATA Board in January 2018, dedicated funding for WMATA could come from the taxation of regional wealthy residents, commercial property benefiting from WMATA proximity, and/or regional corporate profits to help build a free-transit program for all commuters, not just DC residents. In 2015, DC returns with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) of $1 million and above had a taxable income of $5.39 billion, while for the same top income bracket MD had a taxable income of $18.13 billion and VA $24.71 billion. For the WMATA region the total tax income of these millionaires was $48.2 billion, it now even higher, over $75 billion. A 1% tax on regional millionaire income alone would generate $750 million in potential funding.
In 2018, based on the most recent data available from the IRS, DC residents with incomes over $500 thousand had a taxable income of $10 billion. Considering DC residents alone at the moment, versus the greater WMATA region, DC could start with enacting a progressively increasing surtax on incomes over $500 thousand. A 2% surtax would now generate over $200 million in funding.
Another potential source of funding is from either a regional decongestion pricing, or DC could implement its own program for its downtown business district. This approach would have win/win benefits for both commuters and DC residents, with an eco-friendly choice: either pay for decongestion pricing for single-occupant vehicles by continuing to drive – or use free and convenient public transportation for your travel, thereby improving the quality of life for all. If London and many other cities around the world can reduce air pollution and traffic with congestion charging, why can’t the District do the same? If action is not taken to implement regional congestion charging by WMATA, the District government should seriously follow up MoveDC’s study to plan for a DC congestion charge of commuters driving into the downtown business center of the District, which would reduce air pollution and congestion in our city’s core, while requiring the accrued revenue go to subsidize and expand mass transit.
Further, the DC Council should consider legislation to implement a planning process via very broad community participation for congestion charging. This plan would be consistent with Home Rule because, unlike a toll booth for commuters coming into DC, both residents and non-residents would be affected. Thus it can potentially meet the goal of reducing congestion and air pollution with benefits to both commuters and residents .
These funding sources would go far towards providing for free transportation, as would the money saved in hospital admittance due to asthma, in ambulance and police services, in paving and repaving, as well as via the taxes coming from an active downtown area.
An alternative if free transit cannot yet be implemented city-wide: free bus service should start in the less affluent wards.
Overall, the true benefit is a more civil, healthy society.
The Need to Electrify Metrobus at the Same Time
“As of 2019, 99% of the battery electric buses in the world have been deployed in China, with more than 421,000 buses on the road, which is 17% of China’s total bus fleet. For comparison, the US had 300, and Europe had 2,250.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_bus)
DC Sierra Club is promoting electrification of WMATA’s bus fleet. See their latest testimony: “It’s Time for Metro to Get Serious About Bus Electrification, (https://www.sierraclub.org/dc/blog/2021/03/its-time-for-metro-get-serious-about-bus-electrification)
On June 24, 2021, WMATA approved a plan to electrify its bus fleet, with a completion date of 2045. This implementation rate of this plan was criticized by leading environmental organizations. “The Metro Electric Bus Coalition, a group of 26 organizations that includes the Audubon Naturalist Society, Sierra Club and Greenpeace USA, said Metro lags behind other major transit agencies in converting its fleet. The fact that we are facing a climate crisis and our region has a major smog problem should be enough for Metro to move quickly to electrify its bus fleet,” Elliott Negin, a clean-bus advocate at coalition member Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. (Washington Post, June 25, 2021, B1).
Forward to a DC with fewer cars, more public transit, walking, and bicycles: a just and green future
For an illuminating discussion of how to achieve this vision, see “How to end traffic European cities offer a roadmap for life with fewer cars” (https://archive.curbed.com/2020/1/29/21112477/car-free-in-america)
In our rapidly gentrifying DC, the process of which has displaced many long-term, mainly Black residents to make room for the professional class of younger residents, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed a plan for a DC with fewer cars, and less parking (Washington Post, May 3, 2021, B1), which has been said to favor the newcomers. But this goal need not result in displacing long-term residents. A recovery from the COVID crisis can and should have policies to stop this displacement and that reduce DC’s shockingly high racial and economic disparities, but should be a just opportunity to welcome back our “Ward 9” residents, residents who were forced out by runaway gentrification. Let’s use DC’s some of the needed ways mentioned above, along with federal funding, to make this a reality that benefits everyone in the city. For more on this approach see the resources of the DC Fair Budget Coalition, Empower DC and ONE DC.
July 22, 2021
 Doyeon Ahn, Jonathan R. Hansford, Shawn T. Howe, Xinrong R. Ren, Ross J. Salawitch, Ning Zeng, Mark D. Cohen, Barbara Stunder, Olivia E. Salmon, Paul B. Shepson, Kevin R. Gurney, Tomohiro Oda, Israel Lopez Coto, James R. Whetstone, and Russel R. Dickerson. 2020. Fluxes of Atmospheric Greenhouse-Gases in Maryland (FLAGG-MD): Emissions of Carbon Dioxide in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area.
Journal of Geophysical Research, April 15, 2020. https://www.nist.gov/publications/fluxes-atmospheric-greenhouse-gases-maryland-flagg-md-emissions-carbon-dioxide.
 Underwood, Emily (2017) The polluted brain. Science 355 (6323), 342-345.
 Kaufman, Marc, 2007, Drive Time Raises Health Risk, Science Notebook, Monday, November 5; A10, Washington Post, study published in Atmospheric Environment.
 From DC Sierra Club candidate questionnaire: “Decongestion pricing. MoveDC suggests that an effective policy to reduce traffic delays, air pollution, carbon emissions and deadly road crashes is decongestion pricing, whereby drivers would pay for the privilege to drive into the most congested parts of downtown DC. Similar systems already exist in London, Singapore, and Stockholm. In 2021, New York City will raise $1 billion for transit expansion with a decongestion charge. In Northern Virginia, the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport and the recently-announced expansion of the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail are being funded through expressway tolls.” https://movedc-dcgis.hub.arcgis.com.
 DC has 8 wards within its boundaries. The 9th ward is a colloquial term for those residents now living outside our boundaries.
 https://fairbudget.org/about/budget-reports/, https://www.empowerdc.org, https://www.onedconline.org.
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