Should All Public Transit Be Free?

Erik Olin Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, thinks providing free transportation would reduce traffic and pollution, and create more efficient labor markets.

Should All Public Transit Be Free?

More than half of the world’s population lives near an urban center. But as our cities grow increasing traffic has clogged roads and highways.  In much of the U.S., a car—there are 246 million registered, as of 2009—is a near-necessity. Meanwhile, longer commutes have been linked with severe health problems, according to a recent report by Gallup.


Public transportation systems hold the promise of more efficient movement—and a healthier population—but in many U.S. cities there are few incentives to promote widespread use of buses, subways, trolleys and trains.

A way to realign these incentives and increase public transit use is to make all public transportation free to passengers, Erik Olin Wright, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Big Think. According to Wright, the benefits of free public transit are broader than are apparent with strict financial bookkeeping. The full value comes in a range of ancillary economic, health and ecological benefits, including:

  • "Reduced air pollution, including especially reduced greenhouse gases, which would help mitigate global warming."
  • "More efficient labor markets since it is easier for poor people to get to jobs. This is a benefit to employers for it makes it easier to hire people and it is a benefit to the people without cars who now find it easier to get jobs. But it is also a benefit to the society at large because it contributes to a long-term reduction in poverty."
  • "Health benefits: reduced asthma and other illnesses linked to automobile generated pollution." 
  • "Less congestion on the highways for those who do need to drive."
  • These "positive externalities" need to be highlighted to gain public support for free transit, says Wright.

    College towns have been a testing ground for free-ride transit—for students and non-students alike. Programs currently operate in cities such as Clemson, South Carolina, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  As well, popular tourist towns from Park City, Utah, to Hawaii’s Big Island have created free systems. Baltimore, too, recently started the Charm City Circulator, a fleet of twenty-one buses traveling three free routes in the city. Other transit systems have free-fare programs for children, students and the elderly.

    The key is to scale an already-subsidized industry with select free-fare groups into a system-wide program free to all.  This would create a tipping point toward more people using public transportation. "Of course public transportation has to be paid for,” writes Wright, “but it should not be paid for through the purchase of tickets by individual riders—it should be paid for by society as a whole through the one mechanism we have available for this, taxation."

    "This should not be thought of as a 'subsidy' in the sense of a transfer of resources to an inefficient service in order for it to survive," he says, "but rather as the optimal allocation of our resources to create the transportation environment in which people can make sensible individual choices between public and private means of transformation that reflect the true costs of these alternatives."

    This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

    A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

    Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
    • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
    • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

    First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

    Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

    All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

    BepiColombo

    Image source: European Space Agency

    The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

    Into and out of Earth's shadow

    In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

    The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

    In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

    When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

    Magentosphere melody

    The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

    BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

    MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

    Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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    Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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    The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

    Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
    Strange Maps
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    • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
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