City of Lawrence to test out making buses free to ride in 2023, with potential to eliminate fares permanently

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Residents board buses at the transit stop in the 700 block of Vermont Street on Aug. 18, 2022.

The City of Lawrence plans to make its buses free to ride in 2023 as part of a yearlong pilot program, and will consider eliminating bus fares permanently in the future.

The Lawrence City Commission approved the yearlong fare-free pilot program as part of its meeting this week. Transit and Parking Manager Adam Weigel said in an email to the Journal-World that eliminating bus fares has been a community-driven desire for several years, and that the city hopes making the buses free to ride will encourage new riders and benefit existing riders by saving them money.

“We know it will benefit our riders with lower income, and we hope it breaks down a barrier for both existing and new riders to hop on the bus,” Weigel said.

Weigel said increased federal transit funding gave the city the opportunity to make the bus free for everyone at a time when rising household costs had given the issue added urgency. The Public Transit Advisory Committee recommended the pilot program at a meeting earlier this summer, and Weigel outlined several factors that went into that recommendation in a memo to the commission, including benefits for existing passengers, the potential to increase ridership, and that fares make up a relatively small percentage of funding for the bus service.

Lawrence Transit is funded using local transit sales tax revenue, state and federal transit funds, and fare revenue. Before the pandemic, revenue from fares accounted for about 6% of the transit service’s operating costs. In 2020 and 2021, that dropped to 3%, as fare revenue declined and revenue from other sources increased.

Specifically, the city collected about $440,000 in fares in 2019, compared to about $248,000 in 2020 and $273,000 in 2021. The memo states the city received additional federal pandemic relief funds in 2020 and 2021 to help support the service and also saw increases in federal transit funding, making it possible to eliminate fares for the pilot program without any service reductions.

Conversations about potentially eliminating fares on the bus go back at least a few years. In 2019, both former mayor Jennifer Ananda and current Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said eliminating fares was something the commission should consider. At that time, Larsen said the idea had value in that it would help increase overall ridership and help the bottom lines of those who rely on the bus as their only means of transportation, some of whom may be lower income. At the commission’s meeting Tuesday, Larsen expressed support for the city making the change.

“I want to thank you for that zero-fare program,” Larsen said to Weigel, noting it’s been something the commission has been asking about for several years. “I’m glad to see we’re giving it a go on that.”

Currently, the city’s regular bus service is $1 for one-way service. Those eligible for reduced fares pay 50 cents while the fare for paratransit and the Night Line service is $2 for one-way service. The city also sells day passes, 10-ride punch cards, and monthly passes at regular and reduced rates. No fare is charged for children 5 and younger.

According to the city memo, the other factors that went into the Public Transit Advisory Committee recommendation are as follows:

• Ridership has not fully recovered after declines brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and fare-free programs in other communities have resulted in ridership increases of 20% to 60%. The program aligns with city goals to increase transit ridership and shift travelers toward more sustainable modes of transportation.

• Fares have a greater impact on people with less income, and eliminating bus fare can make a tangible difference for many riders and advance city equity goals.

• Eliminating bus fares injects money back into the local economy. Riders spending $400 to $1,000 per year on bus fare today can instead invest those dollars back into their family, their homes, food, health care, and retail in Lawrence.

• Without fares, bus drivers can speed up service without pausing to verify reduced fare eligibility, fill out transfer slips or manage conflicts that can result from issues at the fare box.

• The cost and time investment from staff to process fares limits the amount of resources available for other efforts.

Weigel said pandemic relief funding will be used to cover the lost fare revenue in 2023, and though those dollars are temporary, the increases in federal transit funding are longer term. He said the bipartisan infrastructure law provided a $1.3 million increase to the city’s annual transit funding — which is based on population, population density, service level and ridership — and those additional funds are anticipated to continue through 2026.

The city plans to evaluate the fare-free pilot program in the third quarter of 2023 to see if it is able to extend the program in future years. Weigel said the city will continue to evaluate increasing capital, maintenance and staffing costs to see if the increased annual federal funding is enough to maintain service levels and cover lost fares. He said if it’s not enough, the city would seek community input on three options: reintroducing fares, reducing service levels, or seeking additional funding sources.

Looking ahead to the fare-free pilot, Weigel said those with existing bus passes should plan to use those fares by Dec. 31, 2022, before the introduction of the pilot.


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