Defined as a policy of providing fare-free services to “the vast majority of routes and services provided within a given PT network, available to the vast majority of its users, most of the time, and for a period of at least 12 months” (Kębłowski 2020), full fare-free public transport (FFPT) circulated among transit agencies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having examined nearly 400 urban transit agencies across the country, we present an analysis of an entirely new dataset about FFPT in the US. Our findings indicate that more than 60% of urban public transit agencies suspended fare collection during the pandemic. We identify as many as 102 full FFPT cases (those that lasted more than 12 months).


Picture of a single bus, stopped at the depot, with the logo of Intercity Transit on its front. The dynamic display reads: Zero-fare / Just get on and go!
A zero-fare bus of Intercity Transit in Olympia (Washington). Credit: Intercity Transit.

Our analysis

Through a quantitative analysis we show that the adoption of fare-free transit during the pandemic was not limited to specific types of municipalities or counties, but rather occurred in locations with varying demographic and economic characteristics throughout the US. Transit areas where the Democratic Party has more support were more likely to suspend fares and introduced FFPT for a longer period of time than areas with higher proportion of votes for the Republican Party. Larger transit agencies, notably in terms of vehicle fleet, were more inclined to resume fare collection. These findings highlight the complex and multifaceted nature of decisions that underpinned the introduction of FFPT programmes, as well as their duration in response to the pandemic.

In addition, we present findings from 11 semi-structured interviews with executive level transit officials. The interviews provide an insight into how knowledge about FFPT circulated among localities and actors, what rationales underpinned the decision to suspend fares. The findings affirm the highly conditional nature of the policy and illustrate how it was adopted and utilized differently in almost every single case. While we identify shared rationales, such as the commitment to protect operators and riders, the conditions that led to the adoption of FFPT, both as a short-term and long-term policy option, varied significantly.

Read the full report

Missed opportunity or herald of change? The sudden rise of fare-free public transportation in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Written by Wojciech Kębłowski, Dori Goldberg, Merlin Gillard and Monika Maciejewska, the report is available for download here.