Alameda County must keep AC Transit free beyond pandemic

Illustration of people lining up to board an AC Transit bus that requires no fare
Emily Bi/File

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The following views expressed by Jack Gil are their own and not reflective of the Berkeley Energy Commission. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown in March, AC Transit has implemented new rear-door boarding guidelines meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, fare collection has been temporarily suspended, which has allowed riders to make use of AC Transit services without having to pay fares out of pocket. The free access to public transit granted by this blanket suspension of fare collection has been of enormous benefit to the East Bay community and sets a good precedent for the creation of a free AC Transit service in the future.

The overall social benefit of making public transit free has been explored and documented by many public figures, from those in academia to those running for office. Former Richmond City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles, who is running for a seat on the AC Transit board of directors, has made free transit a focus of her platform. As cities across the country begin to adopt progressive transit policies, we must make sure our great city is not left behind — we can do so by listening to leaders who support a fareless transit system here in Alameda County.

As part of Berkeley’s push to lower our carbon emissions to combat climate change, the Berkeley Energy Commission has been advising the city government on how to best curb our fossil fuel use. According to the research my fellow commissioners and I have found, approximately 60% of the city of Berkeley’s carbon emissions come from transportation alone. Expanding the use of and access to public transit, as well as reducing reliance on private cars, will be crucial in shrinking our carbon emissions.

Precedent shows that eliminating fares for public transportation can significantly boost ridership. Corvallis, Oregon —  home to Oregon State University — saw a two-thirds increase in ridership after implementing fareless transit. If Berkeley is to become fully carbon neutral within the next 10 years and achieve our climate goals, pushing for greater use of our public transportation system is essential.

Additionally, the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn have greatly increased financial instability: Making public transportation free would help alleviate the already high cost of living in the increasingly expensive Bay Area. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends more than 15% of their typical budget on transportation — a proportion that has been on the rise in recent years. Low-income residents in particular, who make up a disproportionate number of AC Transit users — up to 65% — would benefit by being relieved of the financial burden of their daily commute. Furthermore, transit has been a major source of union jobs for working-class people of color in the East Bay. Black members make up 80% of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, which represents AC Transit drivers and mechanics. Increased use of public transit could also increase union jobs available.

Some may believe that raising and collecting fares will be necessary to keep our public transit system afloat once this pandemic is over, but what opponents of free public transit fail to realize is that fares don’t often make up a significant portion of public transit operating costs. In fact, before the pandemic, fares only constituted a fraction — about 13% — of AC Transit’s operating revenues. We also know fully tax-funded public transit is not some far-fetched idea — cities from Olympia, Washington, to Kansas City, Missouri, have already implemented free public transit programs.

With AC Transit potentially cutting bus service because of declining sales tax revenues, local governments must find alternative funding measures to continue providing these essential transit services and transition to a fareless transit system. Rather than cutting public transit, the city should find means of funding to maintain or expand current routes, such as Beckles’ proposed tax on corporations and the ultra-wealthy. Proponents of fareless transit in cities such as Boston have also proposed raising gasoline taxes to make up the difference from slashing fares. If Berkeley is to consider itself a truly progressive city at the forefront of climate change mitigation and social justice policies, then we too should embrace free public transit and set an example for the rest of California.

The student community in Berkeley should also be pushing to make AC Transit’s suspension of bus fares permanent. As students at UC Berkeley, we have the privilege of benefiting from our Class Passes, which grant us unlimited access to AC Transit bus routes without any out-of-pocket costs. I think it is only right that we demand these privileges be extended to all members of the Alameda County community.

At a time when major ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are pushing to replace our essential public transportation services and fighting statewide efforts to protect ride-hailing app drivers’ labor rights, now more than ever we must double down on increasing our use of and investment in AC Transit.

We need to push Alameda County transit authorities not to eliminate our vital community services amid a recession and a pandemic. Physical and social mobility go hand in hand, so expanding free transit options for our community should be a priority for our elected officials. We can and should make mobility a right for everyone, not just a privilege for those who can afford it.

Jack Gil is an energy commissioner for the city of Berkeley. *Title for identification purposes only.