It's 11:56pm on Sunday, Sept. 30 as I start to write this. In four minutes, the Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) will officially kick off an ambitious month-long experiment in fare-free bus service. That's right: throughout the month of October, anyone can take public transportation in Charlottesville for free. This isn't the first experiment with fare-free transit in our area; the enormous success of our fare-free Trolley service (between UVa and Downtown) and the recently-launched partnership whereby UVa students, faculty and staff can ride our city buses for free (which is already resulting in significant gains in ridership) indicate that eliminating fares does indeed get more users onto the system. This is no surprise to UVa's own University Transit Service (UTS), which has been operating fare-free for decades and has huge ridership. (It doesn't hurt that UTS also operates with shorter headways and takes its users exactly where they need to go relatively quickly, which are things that CTS can learn from as well.)
Assuming this month-long experiment in system-wide fare-free transit does result in a substantial increase in ridership, I am going to push for us to consider a year-long trial starting in FY2009. My argument is this: we (City/County/UVa/State/Feds) already subsidize about 90% of every CTS trip as it is, so why not go the extra 10 cents on the dollar if it is going to help us achieve one of the most important goals we all have for our community: getting more people out of their cars. And the extra funding that would be required to cover the cost of eliminating fares is quite literally pennies on the dollar compared to the amount of money we put into subsidies for road construction and maintenance. It's not even close, actually.
As the USA Today noted back in May, Charlottesville is not the only community looking into fare-free transit, but I do think this would be one more important step we can take to demonstrate our community's commitment to improving our environment and our quality of life.
OK, it's now October 1 as I conclude this post. Take a free ride, Charlottesville!