DENVER — In January 2020, leaders in Olympia, Wash., had a decision to make.
The nightmare of COVID-19 was just around the corner, but still off the radar for most. Local leaders in Olympia had their eyes on the community’s public transportation network, called the “Intercity Transit.” Its fare payment system was in need of significant upgrades to remain operational, and the costs were going to be significant. Agency leaders pulled the numbers, and showed that fares only accounted for about 2% of revenue.
So rather than upgrade fare systems, they decided to do away with fares entirely.
Denver’s RTD has gone fare free for the summer, eliminating the cost to riders for the months of July and August as part of its “Free Fare for Better Air” initiative. The pilot program was approved by the Colorado state legislature last year, with the goal of reducing car trips during hotter months when ozone is most problematic.
A handful of communities across the country though, like Olympia, have gone a step further and begun offering free fares on public transportation year-round. They’re reporting successes.
In Olympia, for example, ridership jumped 20% in January 2020 and 40% in February 2020. While they took significant hits to ridership at the onset of the pandemic, like virtually every transportation network, spokesperson Nick Demerice said it has recuperated more than 75% of its pre-pandemic ridership levels and is growing year over year.
Across the country, leadership in Alexandria, Va., made a similar calculation. After going fare-free with its DASH transit network at the start of the pandemic as a safety precaution, interest grew throughout the community to create a permanent free fare program. In the fall of 2021, funding was secured to make that a reality.
“Our ridership has recovered and climbed back to not only meet but exceed pre-COVID pandemic ridership levels,” said Raymond Mui, chief infrastructure officer for DASH. “We are on track with record-breaking ridership. We’re confident that is being attributed to the fair free program, as well as a new DASH network.”
Both Olympia’s and Alexandria’s free fare programs technically have expiration dates built in, 2025 and 2028, respectively. However, both communities are already seeing strong support for making the changes truly permanent given the successes they’ve reported.
Both communities are different from Denver, in size and in complexity of transit networks. Funding for their networks is also structured differently, and is less dependent on fares. Still, there are some in Denver who have asked if something similar would be possible here.
Adrienne Razavi, an organizing manager for the Denver Streets Partnership, said free fares could play an important role in creating “a lasting boost in ridership” for RTD, but that it wouldn’t solve other issues facing accessibility of services.
“Make it easier to get on the bus and on the train, through like, you know, better amenities and things like that,” Razavi said. “But then also, [create] frequently reliable service. I mean, that’s been the research for decades. That’s what transit riders want. That’s all they need to really convince people to get on transit.”
Lawmakers in Colorado approved roughly $28 million in grants to supplement losses RTD will face for its “Free Fare for Better Air” initiative. According to the transit agency, fare revenue constituted between 16 and 20% of its operating budget prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.