By Scott McCarey, Multimodal Division Manager, Boulder County Transportation, FHWA Livability Newsletter, February 2017
For many years, ridership on the four local City of Longmont transit routes was very low and Boulder County transportation staff suspected that the $2.25 fare was suppressing transit ridership. Regional Transportation District (RTD), the transit service provider for Longmont, conducted surveys revealing that 62 percent of Longmont transit riders had total annual household incomes of less than $25,000 and that 79 percent had no access to a car. The survey findings indicated that, of the city’s 89,000 residents, those who could most benefit from the transit system were the ones least able to afford it. In July 2014, Boulder County staff implemented the “Ride Free Longmont” program to make riding all local buses operating within the City of Longmont fare free.
A key tenet of the program was that RTD would maintain identical farebox revenues after program implementation. The project team determined the historical annual revenues for the local routes, which Boulder County now pays to RTD in a lump sum amount at the beginning of each year. Additionally, the agencies agreed that Boulder County would pay RTD any additional capital or operating expenses directly resulting from this program, such as adding more service due to overcrowding. Boulder County uses a sales tax measure passed by voters to pay for this program.
Since Ride Free Longmont’s inception, ridership on all four local routes has increased dramatically. In the first month of the program, the number of people riding the bus system increased by over 70 percent. Having just completed two full years, the latest data from RTD show a 300 percent increase in ridership—triple the number of trips made before the program started. Boulder County conducted a survey at the end of 2015 to analyze the ridership increase, and found that 43 percent of respondents ride the bus regularly now but did not use the system before the program began. Of those new riders, 45 percent would have driven alone rather than take the bus, if not for the Ride Free Longmont program.
Testimonials from Longmont residents have also been pouring in. Boulder County Transportation heard directly from residents that the program has provided them with a freedom they did not previously have. One resident explained, “With no local fare, my budget does not get raided just to get to where I need and want to go.” In addition to improving mobility for low-income residents, a second goal of this program was to improve transit service in Longmont. Previously, low ridership in Longmont led to repeated service cuts, leading to even lower ridership―the classic downward spiral.
The Ride Free Longmont program has led to renewed excitement about transit and a new virtuous cycle: more ridership justifies more service, which will attract even more ridership. At the start of the program, Longmont City Council approved local matching funds for a grant to pay for one route to reduce its headways by half, from 30 down to 15 minutes. The program’s success has also encouraged key elected officials to participate in a county-wide fare free effort; a long-term vision to extend similar programs across all of Boulder County.
Several decisions early in the development of the program have been likely drivers of its success. First, Boulder County staff worked with RTD to make the service ‘fare free’―a completely new model for RTD in which passengers can simply jump on and jump off as many times as they like. This simplicity has increased participation in the program. Rather than requiring riders to show a form of city identification, an alternative that was considered but ultimately rejected, the fare free approach also allows non-resident visitors to ride the Longmont transit system for free. Secondly, the agencies involved made a concerted effort and successfully avoided a degradation in the quality of service from unruly passengers. According to the Transit Cooperative Research Program’s 2011 report, Implementation and Outcomes of Fare-Free Transit Systems, a chief unintended negative consequence of fare free programs is disruptive passengers, often transients or unsupervised teens. During the program development, the agencies worked very closely with the Longmont Police Department and the transit agency’s street supervisors to make sure any disturbance could immediately be addressed. All passengers are required to get off at the end of the route. With these measures in place, reduced quality of service has not been an issue in Longmont. Now in its third year, the innovative Ride Free Longmont program provides affordable public transportation so that people can more easily get to work, medical appointments, shopping, school, and recreation.