A muddled train of thought: Some Americans are upset at the prospect of free public transport this New Year’s Eve


IT MAY be pantomime season, but unlike Cinderella revelers in Washington, DC, who stay out past the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will not find themselves stuck at a party with no transport home, and facing a long walk through a dark Forest Hills. For the first time, MillerCoors, a brewer, is paying for rides on the city’s Metro trains and buses, covering all fares between midnight and 3am on Thursday night. It is part of the company’s Miller Lite Free Rides programme, which will extend to transit systems in nine American metropolitan areas on New Year’s Eve, and has previously paid for nearly 5m holiday and special-event rides over 28 years. Travellers on the “L” in Chicago, DART in Dallas and the Metro Transit in the Minnesota Twin Cities will also be among those receiving free rides on Thursday.

Did all of these cities welcome the beer giant’s open wallet with open arms? Not exactly. Prior to approving the arrangement, Washington’s Metro board, for example, worried that it might send the wrong message. Alcohol-related advertising in the subway system was banned until the board voted last month to lift the prohibition. Mort Downey, its chairman, says he is worried that the Miller deal could be construed as a promotion of drinking.

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Any such hesitation is pure foolishness. Cash-strapped public transit systems around the country need all the funds they can get. It was only this year that Metro publicly contemplated fare rises and substantial service cuts to make up for a chronic budget shortfall. If the federal and local governments aren’t willing to boost funding, then it is great news if the private sector begins to step in. And while transit systems’ chiefs might consider beer purveyors an unseemly partner, they are actually a perfect fit. Absent a reprise of 1920s-era Prohibition, governments can’t stop people from boozing. What they can do is provide a safe way for people to get home after they have tippled to excess.

Still, the programme probably won’t accomplish what MillerCoors says it will. The company claims that Miller Lite Free Rides helps “keep our streets safe and prevent drunk driving on major holidays and throughout the year”. Most people in cities like Washington, where more residents commute to work by public transit than by car, aren’t really choosing between riding Metro and driving home after drinking in the new year; they are choosing between the affordability of Metro and the convenience of services like Uber. And given that Uber is likely to enter steep surge-pricing mode after midnight on Thursday, Metro comes away the overwhelming winner on price, regardless of whether train fares are $2 without the Miller Lite promotion or free with it.

The transit systems don’t stand to gain much either. Instead of collecting fares from passengers, they’ll collect them from MillerCoors. A better arrangement for all involved might be corporate sponsorships of extended transit services. What if every Thursday night the Metro’s closing time was pushed back from midnight to 1am, funded by a generous corporate donor? Passengers starting their weekend festivities early would surely appreciate this Budweiser Hour or Guinness Night. The sponsor wouldn’t have to spend all that much, since passengers would still pay fares that would cover much of the cost. (When the American University in Washington, DC, paid for an extended Metro service after Nationals baseball playoff games last year, the cost to the university was small due to the contribution of fares.) But the benefits would be big: a cost-effective way for people to get around the city late at night—and yes, maybe a small downtick in the number of drunk driving incidents. One could envision similar schemes to make transit services more frequent on weekends, or even to add ad-plastered cars to overcrowded trains at rush hour.

The Miller Lite arrangement may not be the best use of funds. But at least we are talking about private funds to improve public transit. The transit operators should be grateful for all they can get. Instead of looking this gift horse in the mouth, they should put a beer to its lips and raise a toast.