The earliest urban experiment in free public transit took place in Rome in the early 1970s. The city, plagued by unbearable traffic congestion, tried making its public buses free. At first, many passengers were confused: “There must be a trick,” a 62-year-old Roman carpenter told The New York Times as he boarded one bus. Then riders grew irritable. One “woman commuter” predicted that “swarms of kids and mixed-up people will ride around all day just because it doesn’t cost anything.” Romans couldn’t be bothered to ditch their cars—the buses were only half-full during the mid-day rush hour, “when hundreds of thousands battle their way home for a plate of spaghetti.” Six months after the failed, costly experiment, a cash-strapped Rome reinstated its fare system.
Three similar experiments in the U.S.—in Denver, Colorado, and Trenton, New Jersey, in the late 70s, and in Austin, Texas, around 1990—also proved unfruitful and shaped the way American policy makers viewed the question of free public transit. All three were attempts to coax commuters out of their cars and onto subway platforms and buses. While they succeeded in increasing ridership, the new riders they brought in were people who were already walking or biking to work. For that reason, they were seen as failures.
A 2002 report released by the National Center for Transportation Research indicated that the lack of fares attracted hordes of young people, who brought with them a culture of vandalism, graffiti, and bad behavior—which all necessitated costly maintenance.