In brief, the case for zero-fare transit is strongest at small agencies with low ridership, where going fareless can improve riders’ experience with minimal impact on current service capacity. For agencies with significant ridership or agencies looking to put good transit within reach of more people, however, forgoing all fare revenue would substantially impede the ability to provide service, let alone improve or expand it. At these agencies, more targeted approaches to fare policy are necessary.
A frequent question is “why not both”: Why not go fareless while also working to improve service? The reason is that the household costs imposed by the absence of good transit service stand out as the much more pressing problem to address. Transit in most U.S. cities is so infrequent and unreliable that major service improvements must be priority number one.
In Richmond, we've got so much more work to do building a useful, equitable transit system before we start talking about free fares. We could (and should) first double or triple or regional bus budget—then we can talk free fares.