Free Transit Attracts Riders, Helps Communities in More Ways Than One

Article and images cross-posted from MobilityLab.org and written by Monique Wahba. Photos and graphic courtesy of Mountain Line and North Charleston.

In January, Missoula, Montana’s transit agency, Mountain Line, began a three-year, “zero-fare” demonstration project on its fixed-route and door-to-door services, meaning boarding passengers no longer pay to use the bus.

Implementing a zero-fare system was part of a larger transit improvement package that includes late-night service on its four most popular routes, increased frequency on key routes, and more door-to-door service to help senior and disabled residents.

The demonstration project costs $460,000 per year to operate. The University of Missoula and the city are its biggest funders, annually contributing $205,000 and $100,000, respectively. The balance is made up of 12 other community partners, including Missoula County, the metropolitan planning organization, hospitals and medical centers, public schools, the department for aging, downtown and parking associations, a shopping mall, and an affordable-housing provider.

According to a 2012 Transportation Research Board (TRB) report, Missoula is one of more than 35 communities in the United States that have implemented fare-free public transit systems. Mountain Line cites its inspiration as Corvallis, Oregon, where the Corvallis Transit System ridership grew by 37.9 percent in its first year of fare-less operation.

Mountain Line is aiming a bit higher. It serves just under one million bus riders each year and hopes to grow its ridership by 45 percent within three years. This would be an annual ridership increase of 400,000 or 1.4 million riders by the end of three years.

According to Bill Pfeiffer, Mountain Line’s community outreach coordinator, “In June 2015, just our 6th month of zero-fare service, we gave 50 percent more rides than in June of 2014. Before this February, Mountain Line had never broken the 100,000 ride barrier. We’ve broken 100,000 rides every month since, setting ridership records in every month of 2015. As of July 31st, overall ridership has already increased 26 percent from the previous year, and for the first time ever, our ridership increased during the summer months.”

Overall, throughout the country, zero-fare systems have resulted in many benefits, including:

  • Lower administrative costs: The costs associated with charging and collecting fares, like acquiring fare boxes, issuing various tickets (transfer passes and monthly passes, for example) and enforcing the payment of fares.
  • Savings in travel time : With no fares to collect, passengers can board more quickly. Less time spent at the stops (known in planning lingo as “dwell time”), in turn, helps reduce travel time.
  • Fuller buses: As current customers ride more often, ridership in the off-peak hours increases.
  • Improved quality of life: Reductions in traffic yield less pollution and congestion, improving overall health and quality of life.
  • Enhanced community pride: More than just an amenity, having fare-free transit service is a source of community pride. It has even helped communities earn recognition, like state and national awards as “best places to live.” Missoula Mayor John Engen called the fare-free service “a feather in the community’s cap.”
  • Modal shift: Up to 30 percent of the additional trips generated from operating with no fares come from people switching from other motorized modes. This is really significant because in my experience, transportation planners seem to always be talking about attracting “choice riders,” that is, riders who can afford to drive but choose to use other modes like transit. Typical suggestions center around providing nicer buses or more amenities at transit stops, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest offering reduced fares, let alone free ones. Isn’t it ironic that the way to entice those who have money to use transit is to offer them free service?
  • Transit equity: By removing the fare requirement, transit service becomes accessible to everyone, regardless of income. I have heard of transit systems providing reduced fares for their low-income residents. To qualify, a person must submit documentation to prove their income falls below the stated threshold and must provide verification of income periodically to remain eligible for the subsidy. Just think about the bureaucracy this generates and the humiliation for the recipient. A fare-free system disposes of all of this.
  • Improved transit image: According to Mountain Line, “When zero-fare community bus services are properly funded and maintained, the image of the buses changes from being the clunky transportation choice of last resort to the service that connects all elements of the community and provides equal opportunity to access all that a community offers.”
  • Increased productivity of public investment: With zero-fare, the funding per passenger drops significantly and the effectiveness and productivity of public investments in transit are enhanced.
  • Increased support from bus operators : Bus operators are reportedly very supportive of zero-fare policies in almost all locations where such service exists. Not having to collect and enforce fares frees them to answer passengers’ questions and focus on safe bus operation.

So with all these benefits, why don’t all transit agencies operate fare free? According to the TRB, fare-free public transit makes the most sense for systems in which the percentage of fare-box revenue-to-operating expenses is low.


Charleston, South Carolina launched a free bus service in 2013.

The TRB found that the three types of communities most likely to adopt a fare-free policy are:

  • rural and small urban
  • university dominated, and
  • resort communities.

Although a small number of public transit systems in larger urban areas experimented with offering some version of fare-free service over the years (from Denver, Colorado, in 1979 to San Francisco, California, in 2008), finding a source of funds to replace their substantial fare-box revenues proved too difficult. In fact, as of 2012, no public transit system in the United States with more than 100 buses offered fare-free service.

So fare-free transit systems clearly work in communities of the right size and type. Given the numerous benefits, it seems worthwhile for larger communities to explore or revisit the possibilities for going fare free in whole or at least in part.

So, for example, a city may find that going fare-free during the off-peak hours effectively attracts ridership during that time, increasing the productivity of the service and perhaps drawing riders to the peak hours as well.

Similarly, a community may want to experiment with fare-free service for a limited time -- like a month -- as a way to attract more riders in the long run. May is National Bike Month, so why can’t another month be National Transit Month? That could be a period to give fare-free a try.

Being from the Northeast, I would nominate one of the winter months, when people may not want to deal with the hassles of driving in the cold and snow.

In what ways do you think zero-fare systems would help or hurt public transportation’s overall good to society?

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Author Monique Wahba Monique is a proponent of transportation equity, stemming from her work in transportation planning in Portland, Oregon, and in neighborhood revitalization in Albany, New York.

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