The National Academies

NCHRP 19-19 [Active]

Sustaining Zero-Fare Public Transit in a Post COVID-19 World: A Guide for State DOTs

  Project Data
Funds: $300,000
Staff Responsibility: Mike Brooks
Research Agency: Texas A&M Transportation Institute
Principal Investigator: James C. Cline
Effective Date: 9/19/2022
Completion Date: 6/18/2024

The COVID-19 pandemic created numerous challenges to state departments of transportation (DOTs), public transit providers, and the communities they serve. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing regulations, and the heightened demand of essential workers forced public transportation providers to adapt to extraordinary circumstances and consider new approaches to make transit functional yet safe during the pandemic. Many transit systems implemented zero-fare operations with the goal of reducing queuing and human interaction on transit vehicles and at ticketing locations. Suspending fares also provided a measure of economic relief to essential workers who depended on transit throughout the pandemic.
However, even before COVID-19, many communities were embracing a zero-fare structure as a way to improve personal mobility and quality of life for public transit riders. TCRP Synthesis 101: Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems, published in 2016, documented the pre-pandemic experience. As communities recover from the pandemic and people return to work and other activities, transit decision-makers are interested in implementing long-term, zero-fare policies, whether across their entire system or in portions of their service area, during certain times of day, or for specific riders (potentially defined by age or income). This renewed interest in zero-fare transit is largely motivated by its potential to increase operational efficiency while promoting access for disadvantaged groups. Zero-fare transit can be an effective way to increase ridership, although investments in increased frequencies and other service improvements also attract more riders. In addition, zero-fare transit can support other statewide goals such as promoting active transportation modes and Complete Streets policies; promoting downtown revitalization; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; improving accessibility and economic development in rural areas; providing attractive alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles for urban commuters; and optimizing the use of state-owned or -operated assets (e.g., park-and-ride lots or high occupancy toll lanes).
While zero-fare transit can deliver a wide range of benefits, it also incurs costs. The loss of farebox revenue means agencies must identify replacement revenues. In addition, federal regulations link complementary paratransit fares to fixed-route fares. For example, if an agency eliminates fares for fixed-route service, it may also be required to eliminate fares for complementary paratransit. As paratransit service is costly to provide, this increases the overall impact to farebox recovery ratios and the amount of replacement revenue needed to maintain service levels.
Increases in ridership induced by the elimination of fares may increase operations costs by requiring additional vehicles and operators along with increased frequency of service to maintain reliability. In turn, ridership increases can increase the costs for maintaining and cleaning vehicles and facilities. In addition, higher ridership can increase concerns about on-vehicle safety from crowding or unruly passengers. Some agencies have faced challenges with riders loitering on buses for extended periods, especially during inclement weather. These costs and tradeoffs highlight a new tension for agencies and points to the need for understanding the tradeoffs involved when an agency eliminates fares and a full accounting of the costs as well as the potential benefits.  
State DOTs are key partners in the provision of transit; they provide funding for transit agency operations, capital projects, or by directly operating paratransit or fixed-route service. Therefore, DOTs need to understand the implications of zero-fare transit and be engaged in the zero-fare decision-making process. For example, a transition to zero-fare transit may require changes to a state DOT’s transit grant or in-kind matching programs, depending on the specific characteristics of these programs or the available options for alternative revenue sources, which may be defined by statute.  
Research is needed to provide state DOTs with information on the implications of zero-fare transit and on how they can contribute to ensuring that zero-fare transit policies are feasible and sustainable.
The objective of this research is to develop a guide for state DOTs and their partners on evaluating and implementing sustainable zero-fare transit. Topics to be addressed include:  
  • Implementation of zero-fare transit in the United States;
  • The role of state DOTs in developing zero-fare transit policies;
  • Strategies for supporting a transition from a shorter term, zero-fare pilot to a long-term zero-fare policy;
  • Characteristics that promote long-term sustainability of zero-fare operations;
  • A method to evaluate the costs and benefits of zero-fare transit;
  • A practitioner-ready tool for use in applying the method; and
  • Effectively communicating the results of the evaluation to transportation decision-makers, regional and local governments, communities, and other stakeholders.

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