Public transportation access and subsidies

Strategy overview

  • Making public transit accessible: Strategies seeking to increase access to public transportation can take many forms, including the creation of new transit infrastructure; increased service quality and/or quantity on existing infrastructure; addressing financial barriers to transit utilization; or addressing non-financial barriers to utilization, like insufficient information on routes, connections, or arrival times.
  • Eliminating financial barriers: In transit systems with a moderate to high degree of coverage, partially or fully subsidizing fares can increase transit use, thereby improving resident access to work, school, health care, and more. Alternatively, transit systems can simply eliminate fares on particular routes or for an entire transit mode (i.e. the bus system).
  • Reducing physical barriers to transit access: Outside of significant investments in new transit infrastructure, like new light rail or high-quality bus rapid transit, transit systems can improve access and utilization by ensuring high-demand routes have frequent and reliable service, providing free transfers across transit lines or modes, sharing real-time information on arrival times, and ensuring that transit stations are physically accessible for individuals with disabilities.
  • Improving the ridership experience: For infrequent transit riders, navigating the system can pose a significant challenge. Increased investments in transit safety, maps translated in multiple languages, and strong customer service (i.e. training drivers to engage with new riders), can also contribute to an improved ridership experience.

A wide range of rigorous studies indicate reducing or eliminating fares is associated with increased ridership and potential increases in physical activity. Other means-tested fare initiatives are currently being evaluated.

  • A literature review of reduced or free transit programs in California found well-designed transit subsidy programs can enhance mobility and increase transit ridership, while improving the financial health of the participating transit agency.

  • A 2021 study on King County found that offering fully subsidized transit fares doubled ridership relative to those receiving partially subsidized fares.

  • A 2019 randomized controlled trial of low-income users of Boston's MBTA transit system found participants who received a 50% discount took 30% more trips, including more journeys to health and social service facilities.

  • A 2018 meta-analysis of the effect of new transit initiatives on physical activity found consistent positive associations with increased physical activity within some subgroups.

Before making investments in this strategy, city and county leaders should ensure it addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in public transportation access. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in these interventions could help, examine the following:

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

One indicator in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in this strategy. To measure this indicator and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Access to transportation: Average commute time to work, school, or college or The Low Transportation Cost Index, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

  • High-quality, reliable service as the starting point: The foundation of improving access to public transit (and thereby improving physical mobility across a metropolitan area) is transit service that is safe, reliable, and efficient. Without high quality service, efforts to improve access will likely have diminished effectiveness.
  • Center community voice and elevate the importance of equity: In the early stages of any effort to improve transit access, convene community members (or members of a target population) for listening sessions, surveys, focus groups, and more. These engagements can help program leaders identify existing barriers to access, shape program priorities, and build momentum for new initiatives.
  • Create dedicated capacity for outreach, recruitment, and enrollment: For initiatives providing partially or fully subsidized transit fares to specific populations, partnerships with local social service agencies or nonprofits can increase reach and uptake. Key responsibilities for partner agencies can include eligibility verification, enrollment, and card distribution. Partners may also help raise awareness of the program on an ongoing basis.
  • Integrate payment systems across transit providers: In many communities, target riders are often displaced residents who have moved further away from job centers. In such instances, target riders may need to rely on multiple transit agencies serving regional or suburban areas. To address this challenge, transit leaders should work across relevant agencies to facilitate unified payment systems and free transfers.

Evidence-based examples

Improvements to streets and roads that seek to make them more inclusive, accessible, and safe for all users
Supportive neighborhoods Stable and healthy families
Reimbursements, discounts, pretax deductions, and more to encourage and enable individuals to use public transportation
Supportive neighborhoods High-quality employment