An Ohio city is experimenting with free public transit. Here's why Philly probably won't

How would people travel to work if public transportation were free?

It’s an experiment underway in Columbus, Ohio, where in the city’s downtown, 500 business and property owners have begun participating in a program to pay for the public transportation expenses of its workers. They’re charged 3 cents per square foot of space occupied, according to a story in The Guardian last week.

The plan was spawned as an antidote to sprawl in Columbus, where crippling traffic in the city center has pushed businesses into the suburbs with their plentiful parking. The city struggles with downtown vacancies, and of the 84,000 workers still in that area, only six percent use public transportation.

The transit program is generous. The Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District (SID), a private group spearheading the plan, which was approved last month, is ensuring that all downtown workers get a free pass whether they plan to use public transportation or not, and the passes can be used any time, not just during work hours for commuting.

Could something like this come to Philadelphia?

Unlike Columbus, there’s not as much need to create incentives to take transit. Sixty percent of Center City office workers use public transportation, said Joann Loviglio, spokeswoman for the Center City District. About 13 percent of workers drive themselves to their jobs, she said. About 26 percent walk or bike.

“Philadelphia has a strong transit system in place that doesn’t need this type of an inducement,” said Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District.

It is an idea that has come up here, though. SEPTA has been seeing a decline in surface vehicle ridership, with bus and trolley ridership down 2.7 percent from 2014 to 2016. At a panel hosted by Philadelphia Media Network last week, Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of business innovation, fielded a question about whether SEPTA would attempt to counter the drop by offering free rides.

Not likely, he said, noting that SEPTA counted on fare revenue for $500 million annually across the system.

“You’d have to find $500 million a year, annually, to do that,” Johanson replied, “just to give you a sense of scale.”