Free Bus Rides to Boost Ridership, Expand Services

A Boulder County, Colorado, transit expert explains why free bus rides will lead to more transit funding and expansion opportunity. Check out our exclusive interview with Scott McCarey


The Regional Transportation District and Boulder County Transportation Department in Colorado have launched free bus service for passengers on the Longmont local bus routes. The no-fare program for four select Longmont bus routes is not part of a strategy to reduce traffic congestion or lower carbon emissions – although those are positive residual effects. Rather, the transit agencies want to increase ridership to reinstate services in the Longmont community and improve mobility for low income residents.

Why Free

To Scott McCarey, Manager of the Boulder County Transportation’s Multi-Modal Division, reducing fares is not enough to increase mobility. Cities need to make fares user-free.

“Ridership in Longmont dipped after an increase in fares,” McCarey told Gov1. “As ridership started to dip, the transit agency could not justify the same level of transit service as before due to low passenger numbers. The RTD had to start cutting back on some of its services to meet performance metrics.”

Because services were cut, residents in Longmont had a harder to navigating the city without a car, and ridership continued to decline further. McCarey said the Multi-Modal Division wanted to provide Longmont with better services by bringing people back to public transit.

“Best way to increase ridership is to have heavily subsidized fares,” McCarey explained. “We just buy up all the fares to cover the RTD costs and let ridership build back up.”

Adding more transit services to a specific community can be very expensive, especially when ridership is low. By subsidizing the fares temporarily, transit agencies can jumpstart ridership numbers, making it more feasible for the new services to be added and sustained down the road.

The Process

“We asked ourselves, ‘Can we make bus rides free?’” McCarey explained. “Do that first. Get that barrier out of the way to enable higher ridership.”

McCarey recommends taking the following steps:

  • Determine how much revenue the transit agency was getting with the fare box revenue
  • Pay the transit agency that amount upfront rather than at the point of sale
  • Have the transit agency put bags over the fare boxes and allow passengers to ride for free
  • Track the increase in ridership numbers until a threshold is met
  • Generate public support for expanded services in communities more reliant on public transit
  • Develop a funding plan for long-term sustainability

Because 62 percent of passengers on local Longmont services report an average income of less than $25,000 — and 79 percent do not own a car — having transit services in the area reinstated was vital.

According to McCarey, Longmont reported a 70.6 percent increase in passengers riding on weekdays in July compared to numbers from July 2013. This well surpassed his expectations of a 40 percent boost in ridership within the first few months.

The Funding

McCarey explained fares make up about 20-25 percent of the cost of running a public transit service, while adding more lines is much more costly.

“It is more cost effective to pay for the fares and drive up ridership numbers to sustain service lines,” McCarey told Gov1. “The no-fare program brings residents back to public transit, which in turn will increase public support for public funding options to pay for expanded services.”

The total cost of the no-fare Longmont program is estimated at $108,000 for a year-long pilot. Boulder County and the City of Longmont will each pay for $27,000 of that total. The remaining $54,000 will come from a local cash source set aside for programs that “promote and subsidize transit passes while increasing ridership.” Boulder County residents passed a sales tax to specifically fund such programs.

Boulder County is not alone is pushing for greater transit options for local residents through public funding. A recent survey conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute for the American Transportation Association revealed 68 percent of Americans support increasing federal public transportation investment. In addition, 74 percent of U.S. residents approve of using tax dollars for creating, expanding and improving public transit in their communities.

Other communities such as Washington, D.C., are considering subsidizing fares while simultaneously building out new service lines. A report from the D.C. Department of Transportation explained plans to more than double the number of circulator routes by 2024. The 49 buses of the fleet currently provide more than 5.6 million trips annually. The growth strategy would call for an increase in rider fares. However, subsidizing these fares with public dollars could keep costs at $1 a trip.

The Long-Term

Boulder County and Longmont will not be able to subsidize fares forever, but do want to make local bus routes free for residents. To do so, the transit agencies want to expand a countywide Eco-Pass that will be provided by employers through a benefits package. Riders will have no fees to pay and bus services can be extended to more areas of the community.

“For example, school districts could run fewer yellow buses if students have a free pass to the local transit system getting them to and from school,” McCarey explained. “Kids could be less dependent on school buses or their parents to get around, and the school districts could save money.”

Subsidizing Mobility

Gov1 has coverage of many funding options for transit projects, many of which aim to reduce the number of cars on the road.