Washington, DC to Offer Fare-Free Buses in 2023

The nation's capital will offer free bus rides to residents and visitors. And it’ll be permanent.

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Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais (AP)

During the height of the pandemic, cities across the country experimented with free public transit. While many of those were merely temporary experiments, one city is going to make one facet of its public transit free. The Associated Press reports that Washington, DC, will introduce free bus rides starting in the summer.

Under the plan, bus rides, which usually cost $2, will be free to residents and visitors within city limits starting July 1st. In addition, 12 downtown routes will have 24-hour service, which could be a big help to the city’s nightlife (just kidding, there is no nightlife in DC). DC city council member Charles Allen said the move makes the city a leader in public transit.

From the AP:

Roughly 85% of bus riders are D.C. residents. The Metro system also serves neighboring suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

About 68% of D.C. residents who take the bus have household incomes below $50,000, and riders are disproportionately Black and Latino compared with Metrorail passengers, according to the council’s budget analysis.

[...]

In D.C., where bus fares amount to a modest 7% of total transit operating revenues, the transit agency may be able to more easily absorb losses from zero fares, said Art Guzzetti, the American Public Transportation Association’s vice president of mobility initiatives and public policy. He noted savings for city taxpayers from speeding up boarding, which could allow for more routes and stops, as well as reducing traffic congestion and eliminating the need for transit enforcement against fare evaders.

Currently, D.C. bus ridership stands at about 74% of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays compared to 40% for Metrorail.

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One possibly surprising person voicing concern over the idea is DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. While she supports free fares, her concern is the estimated $42 million annual bill. “District residents and taxpayers will have to pay for this program. Our neighbors, Virginia and Maryland, should absorb some of these costs as their residents will benefit from this program as well,” Mayor Bowser said in a letter to the city council.

As the AP notes, DC is one of many cities around the country that are experimenting with free buses, including Kansas City and Los Angeles. If nothing else, DC’s plan will be an interesting test of an idea that has been debated for years.