The coronavirus outbreak continues to create numerous challenges to public transportation providers and the communities they serve. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing regulations, and the heightened demand of essential workers are forcing public transportation providers to adapt to extraordinary circumstances and consider new approaches to make transit functional yet safe during the COVID-19 pandemic response.
One strategy deployed by transit systems throughout the nation is a temporary zero fare system: a fare collection policy aimed to limit interactions between operators and riders, remove human bottlenecks at ticketing locations, and provide relief to essential workers depending on transit throughout the pandemic. Before COVID-19, many communities were embracing a zero fare structure as a way to improve personal mobility and quality of life for their public transit riders. The pandemic, however, sped up this fare policy shift drastically, with both urban and rural transit agencies beginning to operate on zero fare. As more businesses open and people begin returning to work, policy makers are now facing key decisions to remain on zero fare, begin transitioning back to the old fare system, or create a new collection policy that more effectively limits interactions.
To understand the associated tradeoffs, policy makers need to have a proper analysis of the benefits and risks associated with remaining zero fare. A key element of this effort is to catalog the changes in ridership and the societal, economic, and public health benefits of implementing a zero fare policy. TCRP Synthesis 101: Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems, captured examples of transit agency implementation of zero fare programs and their associated outcomes. As more agencies have implemented zero fare programs during the pandemic, the current state of practice and documented outcomes is in critical need of an update with a more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the impact of these programs during a public health crisis as well as the possibility of sustaining a zero fare structure as communities adapt and recover.
The objective of this research is to analyze the costs and benefits of sustaining zero fare transit programming, including impacts to ridership and societal, public health, and economic benefits. The research will explore existing approaches to fare structure decision-making, a potential development of a scenario-planning tool based on actual implementation outcomes, a cost-benefit analyses and evaluation of risks associated with implementation of zero fare transit approaches. The purpose is to provide state departments of transportation with the information necessary to evaluate zero fare approaches, post pandemic, on their transit systems. Potential research deliverables include the following:
· A report of pandemic-related findings,
· A scenario-planning tool for evaluation, and
· Recommendations for presenting the findings to the transit community and its partners.