Transit ridership is at a historic low, fare revenue has plummeted, and people are fearful of riding Muni because of COVID-19. With lines suspended and riders nervous, Muni is a fraction of its former self. Car usage on the rise. To say the future of Muni is uncertain would be an understatement.
We must take bold steps to meet our Transit First mandate and bring public transit back strong. That means ramping up service, investing in operators and making Muni free. We must do all three. Fortunately, with renewed federal investments, we can do just that.
Free Muni is a key part of the path forward. We should pilot this now, in the pandemic, to get people back on Muni, put money back in struggling workers’ pockets, and jumpstart our recovery. Piloting free Muni in this way won’t cost a lot, and will show the benefits to our public transportation system and our overall recovery.
The benefits of Free Muni are manifold. Free Muni will increase ridership — reducing cars on the road and decreasing pollution and congestion. This isn’t a new concept. Over a decade ago, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom commissioned a report on Free Muni which found that “cities that did eliminate fares experienced ridership increases between 13 and 75 percent.” Similarly, a study from the Transit Cooperative Research Program found that fare-free transit boosts ridership between 20 percent and 60 percent. Free Muni during the pandemic and recovery is the pilot to spark a return to public transportation. In our Transit First city, we should be using every possible tool to move people from private vehicles to public transit.
Free Muni will also boost San Francisco’s economy by helping employees and customers get to storefronts and workplaces as we emerge from the pandemic. More directly, transit riders will save money, which will increase their spending at local businesses. Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released a study on the city’s nightlife industry pre-pandemic, and found that a lack of affordable transportation was one of the biggest hindrances for both late-night service workers and businesses. As we begin to fully reopen our small businesses, entertainment, and nightlife industries, we must ensure that a lack of affordable transit does not interfere or hinder these businesses’ reopening.
As we ease out of the pandemic, free Muni is the environmentally sound and equitable way to restore ridership while keeping money in the pockets of people who actually use public transportation — struggling San Franciscans. Free Muni during the pandemic would disproportionately benefit essential workers, low-income residents, and people of color. Even before the pandemic, more than a third of riders nationally were essential workers, a percentage that has only grown during this health crisis.
The recently implemented Free Muni for those traveling to and from getting vaccinated is a positive step, one that my office advocated for, and will reduce barriers to vaccination, promote public transit use, and save transit riders money during these tough economic times. But it is not enough. We should expand free Muni to everyone traveling to medical appointments, grocery stores, schools, work or other essential activities during the pandemic.
A few weeks ago, I sent a letter requesting that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency eliminate Muni fares for the duration of the pandemic. Within days, with no hearing or public discussion, MTA leadership unilaterally rejected the proposal, claiming there are no funds to do it.
Meanwhile, MTA is utilizing $53 million from the operating budget to finish the Central Subway. The MTA budget is over $1.0 billion and the MTA reserves sit at $129 million, even during a pandemic. Free Muni at this point would cost approximately $1.2 million per month (that was the average monthly fare revenue July through February). In February alone, the MTA only raised $1.28 million from fares.
This isn’t actually about money. MTA leadership appears to be ideologically opposed to the idea of Free Muni, viewing ridership as a privilege, not a right, which should only be provided for free to the poorest residents. That view is why MTA tried to raise fares in the pandemic, which we stopped, and why MTA continues to stand in the way of Free Muni. I sincerely hope their perspective will change.
San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston represents District 5.