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On Making Metro in Houston Less Expensive for the Good of the Poor, for the Good of All

The Houston Chronicle had an interesting headline on the front of the City and State section in September: Metro: Free Fare Days Are Signpost to Future, it read.

The story told of the great results of a plan by Metro over the Labor Day Weekend to promote ridership on its buses and light rail by waiving fares over the three-day holiday. We knew about it and had told our guests, who took advantage to get out and explore.

Metro said it saw a 40 percent spike in ridership over the same weekend the year before when standard fares were charged.  A quarter of the increase consisted of new riders.

As the headline suggested, Metro officials hoped the weekend would lead to some of these new riders using the bus on a regular basis.  I hoped it might mean there were more free fare days on the way, or a future when Metro would cease charging passenger fares at all.

It’s not as Utopian as it sounds. Free bus service makes sense on a number of levels – socially, environmental and economically. It could also help ease Houston’s infamously traffic-choked roads.

For most of us, it’s hard to believe that $1.25 could stand between a man and a day’s work.  But it’s not un-common for day laborers to ring our doorbell asking for bus tickets to get to a job site or across town where the restaurants are hiring. In his daily ministry of distributing sandwiches and water to the poor, Mark and other Catholic Workers are besieged with requests for bus tickets.

Bus tickets are the way our guests and others we serve get to critical medical appointments, legal help, to Catholic Charities, or to the  YMCA International Ser-vices.

Removing this transportation barrier in a city notorious for its lack of planning and walkability is a social justice issue for the poor who can’t afford cars and insurance, and for the undocumented who are legally barred from driving at all. Without transportation, the poor and even the elderly are non-entities in a city built for the automobile.

Three quarters of additional riders in Metro’s Labor Day experiment were purportedly existing riders who last year were dissuaded from such trips by the seemingly insignificant fare. These passengers represent extra dollars poured into sales tax coffers from which Metro draws most of its annual revenue.

Boosting economic activity in downtown Houston is precisely the reason City and business leaders in 2012 decided to offer free bus service in the downtown area.

The new Greenlink bus service has an 18 stop circuit connecting 2.5 miles of dining, entertainment and shopping for Houston’s wealthy white collar workers and visitors. Why not provide the same incentive to the city’s poor who are forced to pay for mass transit?

For environmental reasons, it also makes good sense to encourage more ridership with free service. While Houston’s air quality has improved dramatically in last decade thanks to new monitoring technology and regulation of industrial polluters, ozone rises to unhealthy levels several weeks a year, according to the EPA.

Even though Houston is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants which can emit thousands of pounds of smog-forming chemicals in a single belch, transportation sources account for half of all ozone producing emission.

The population of the greater Houston area is expected to explode by more than 3.5 million people over the next 30 years, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, likely adding as many cars to local roadways. Encouraging more people to use mass transit is essential to ensure future air quality, which is a basic right for everyone. Traffic, which is already a nightmare for millions of commuters, will become untenable.

Houston is already promoting greater use of bicycles by building a network of bike trails in the city’s core and beyond, and expanding light rail along important corridors.  In a city where people need every added incentive to forgo driving when possible, free bus service is something we should seriously consider to improve the quality of life for everyone in our city.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 5, November-December 2013