Feb 5, 2024 - Transit

Metro Transit's free fare pilot drives big ridership increase in Twin Cities

Illustration of a city bus that says "Next Stop."

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The first six months of a pilot program allowing free bus rides on two Metro Transit routes indicates that the idea is popular among riders, though the results are uneven.

The big picture: There's a growing movement for free transit in U.S. cities, and the Minnesota Legislature mandated that Metro Transit give it a spin.

  • The 18-month pilot should shed more light on the viability of expanding the concept.

Zoom in: On Route 32, which runs in the north metro between Robbinsdale and Rosedale Center, weekday ridership from July through December increased 38% compared to the same period the previous year when people had to pay to ride.

  • That's a much higher increase than overall Metro Transit bus ridership, which rose by 11% during that same time.

The other side (of town): On the 62 route, which runs north and south through downtown St. Paul, connecting West St. Paul to Shoreview, ridership only increased 18%.

The intrigue: Metro Transit didn't have an explanation for why one route was more popular than the other. The 62 is more of a commuter route and also rolls through downtown St. Paul, which is a transfer point for a lot of other routes. The free rides don't extend to transfers.

What they're saying: State Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Minneapolis) who authored the free fare legislation, rides the 32 bus. She told Axios that the feedback in her district has been positive.

  • "There's a lot of good data that shows that we should look more into this."

State of play: Fares account for about 10% of Metro Transit's $566 million in revenue, according to the Star Tribune. At the time of the launch, the pilot was expected to result in a loss of nearly $1 million in fares.

Yes, but: Fare enforcement has been one of Metro Transit's tools for increasing public safety on light rail trains. What, if any, effect on public safety the free fares have had won't be clear until the transit agency provides a full report at the end of the 18 months.

  • Plus, the transit agency is spending $37.7 million to upgrade its payment system, which would seem to indicate that it isn't planning for wide-scale free fares anytime soon.

Between the lines: State Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee) authored a transit safety bill last session. He told Axios that fare enforcement is not the best long-term approach for safer buses and trains.

  • Having free fares helps get more people on transit, which makes it safer, he said.

Reality check: There isn't serious backing at the Legislature to make Metro Transit a fully free system, Tabke added.

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