Expanding access to the city : how public transit fare policy shapes travel decision making and behavior of low-income riders

TitleExpanding access to the city : how public transit fare policy shapes travel decision making and behavior of low-income riders
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsRosenblum J
Academic DepartmentDepartment of Urban Studies and Planning

Over the past five years, as transit fares have been rising faster than inflation, interest in establishing programs providing discounted public transit fares to low-income individuals has blossomed in the US . Limited research exists, though, on how affordability of the fare influences travel behavior, and affects access, to destinations such as healthcare, and, ultimately, quality of life. This hampers efforts by policy makers and advocates to evaluate the potential for means-tested fare programs as an intervention to ameliorate the impacts of transit costs. This research aims to answer the following questions: 1. How do travel patterns of low-income transit riders differ from those of average riders? 2. What is the causal effect of a fare subsidy on the number of trips taken by low-income riders? 3. In what way does transit cost impact healthcare utilization for low-income individuals? 4. How do low-income transit riders decide whether to purchase a pass or pay for trips individually? 50% fare subsidies cause an increase of 2.3 trips per week (27%), equivalent to a fare elasticity of -0.54. There is a statistically significant treatment effect on trip rates to healthcare appointments, and evidence from the interviews suggest that trips for regular maintenance visits for chronic conditions are the type of healthcare visits likely to be forgone because of an inability to afford the transit fare. I found that scarcity mindset, the behavioral economics theory which suggests that living in poverty impedes cognitive capacity, is not universal among low-income individuals. I also found that 30% of individuals paying for trips individually would have received better value by purchasing a pass product. Low-income riders take proportionally more off-peak trips, and African Americans have longer commutes even controlling for income.

A major policy implication of this research is that means-tested fare programs will provide tangible benefits to its recipients because the cost of public transit has been shown to limit mobility of low-income residents. This research also suggests that healthcare providers should be proactive in providing free public transit for patients. Next-generation fare collection systems will open the door for innovative collaboration with other social service agencies. The findings in this dissertation inform the future of public transit fare policies. Finally, with evidence of travel time disparities by race, structural causes must be addressed.