Economists love to say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – meaning that someone, somewhere is always footing the bill, even if it’s not you. This conundrum is driving a lively debate in cities like Boston and Washington, where advocates want to make public transit, or at least select services, free.

In their view this is a good way to boost ridership and promote equity, since low-income households rely more on public transit than the affluent do. But urban policy scholar Nicholas Dagen Bloom, author of a recent history of public transit in the U.S., argues that taxpayers and politicians aren’t likely to provide the big subsidies that free transit requires. In Bloom’s view, a better strategy is to offer fare discounts for low-income families, students and other target groups, and attract riders with frequent, high-quality service.

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Jennifer Weeks

Senior Environment + Energy Editor

Chicago’s Washington-Wabash station opened in 2017 – the first new stop on the city’s elevated rail system in 20 years. Youngrae Kim/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Low-cost, high-quality public transportation will serve the public better than free rides

Nicholas Dagen Bloom, Hunter College

Everyone likes getting something for nothing, but history shows why the math behind free public transit doesn’t add up.

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