More cities are moving to free public transit. Seattle is not one of them.
More cities are moving to free public transit. Seattle is not one of them. COURTESY OF SOUND TRANSIT

As of January 1, public transit riders in Olympia will no longer have to pay for bus service.

Olympia is one of several cities and towns across the U.S.—including Kansas City and Park City, Utah—that have recently stopped charging for public transit. Besides the inherent benefits of getting people out of cars and onto buses for both the environment and reducing traffic, authorities in Olympia hope to increase ridership, speed up service, and attract new businesses to the area, The Olympian reports.

Ending fares in Olympia will make little difference to the agency's bottom line. Fares net less than 2 percent of the agency's revenue, while, at the same time, the outdated fare-collection boxes need to be replaced, which the agency says would cost at least $1 million. Free transit, in Olympia, will hopefully make the system more accessible and popular while costing very little. It just makes sense.

But could such a thing work in Seattle? Some people certainly hope so. On Black Friday, the Puget Sound Anarchists and other activists staged a fare strike on local light rail, although their effort may have had a bigger impact had BECU not sponsored free fares for the Apple Cup at UW on that very day.

There are, however, some major differences between Olympia's transit system and Seattle's. For one, people in Seattle actually use it. In 2018, Sound Transit saw roughly 47 million boardings, and fares accounted for between 28 and 38 percent of Sound Transit's revenue, depending on the service.

There is some good news when it comes to fares: Currently, about half of Sound Transit riders have employer-provided ORCA cards, and the ORCA LIFT program, which provides reduced fares for low-income people, continues to grow. But if we want fast, robust, sustainable transit, it has to be funded somehow, and unless leaders dream up some other revenue plan (say, Sound Transit brought to you by Expedia Dot Com) the only way to provide free public transit for everyone would be to increase taxes somewhere else. Seattle could up the sales tax, but that's even more regressive than bus fares, and while some, like David Gordon at the Urbanist, have argued that a payroll tax could be used to fund transit, big employers like Amazon are likely to oppose this, and we've seen what happens when Amazon opposes a tax.

Besides, now that Tim Eyman has somehow convinced the good people of Washington state that $30 car tabs are worth defunding public transit, Sound Transit and other transit agencies may soon be relying more on fares instead of less. So while free transit may happen in a distant utopian future, if you want to ride the bus for free any time soon, I would recommend heading south: According to a spokesperson from Sound Transit, the agency "is in the process of evaluating its fare enforcement program for possible improvements, but I am not aware of any plan to make its services fare-free."