Monday, October 1, 2007

Come On and Take a Free Ride

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!


The Road Runner said...

Just exactly how different are the funding differences between the public transit and road costs?

Will the subsidy really reduce road maintenance costs? After all, the buses still use the roads, too.

Forgive me, B.I.L. but I'm highly speculative that an increase in public transit usage would meaningfully create a decline in overall traffic. I would suspect it might even have the opposite effect - that people would be more willing to travel - since they could take a personal vehicle or the bus. Hence, there would be no significant change in road maintenance.

On the other hand, if that remaining 10% really is a drop in C-ville's bucket, why not? It the town a nicer place to live... It's kinda like adding sidewalks and bicycle paths.

(I was up in Madison, Wisconsin earlier this year. They impressed me very much by their network of bicycle paths, fwiw.)

Andrew Hersey said...

Kudos to the city for the free rides. I'll definitely ride more often, but the biggest improvement CTS can make would be to get the buses to run on time. The two routes that run by my house are routinely late (by as much as 15-20 minutes later in the day). It's hard to plan on getting somewhere when you never know how late you're going to be. As for me, I'd rather pay for better service.

DaveNorris said...

Chris -- my point wasn't necessarily that investing in transit would lead to a reduction in road maintenance costs -- what I was trying to say was that we talk a lot about wanting to get people out of their cars and onto the buses yet we don't match that rhetoric in the way we allocate transportation dollars. We're about to spend tens of millions on ONE new road here in Cville and for a small fraction of that amount we could have a transit system that goes a lot more places more frequently, is free of charge to riders, uses all the latest technology and is more likely (good point Andrew) to run on time -- all of which would lead to substantial increases in ridership based on all the data we've seen from other communities...

Anonymous said...

I decided to take advantage of the promotion today, and took my 5 year old son along for the ride. We have some input as first time riders, and I was wondering if CTS is taking any feedback from the public about the system. I would love to say it was a great experience, but frankly, I have never missed having control of my own transportation so much.
There are some real bugs in the system to say the least, but it's not all terrible either. My son loved it as an adventure, and it did have some convenient moments. Thanks very much.

DaveNorris said...

Thanks "anonymous" -- This is another one of the reasons why we are doing this promotion: encouraging people who may not normally ride the bus to try and it out and "beta-test" the system, if you will, so we can then get to work on ironing out the bugs (some of which will be harder to fix than others). To that end, please do share any and all thoughts/suggestions/criticisms with CTS by sending an e-mail to, and if you're amenable I'd encourage you to copy City Council on your input as well ( Thanks much!