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Fare-free Transit Boosts Ridership in Merced

Merced’s The Bus. Photo by Minerva Perez

Merced County’s transit system is wrapping up a program aimed at getting people to ride the bus instead of driving. For the month of August, the county convinced people to “try the bus on us” by offering fare-free rides countywide. Now the agency is turning its focus to how to extend the bump in ridership—likely to reach about 20,000 additional rides during August—throughout the rest of the year and beyond.

Rich Green, transit manager for The Bus, said the free services coincide with the county’s “Spare the Air” month, the start of the new school year for many students, and the implementation of new bus schedules.

“This not only provides opportunities for new passengers to try the bus, but it makes it easier for our regular riders to adjust to the new schedules,” he said.

Funding for the program came from the state’s cap-and-trade system via the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program (LCTOP). Those funds are allocated to public transportation agencies for operations that reduce greenhouse gases. The Transit Joint Powers Authority for Merced, which operates The Bus, was among a number of local agencies that applied for funds to provide discounted or free fares to boost ridership and cut down on car trips.

The agency received $125,925 to provide 41 days of free service, which covers August and leaves an additional ten days that, according to Green, will be dispersed throughout the year.

“We definitely see more ridership when we run it for free,” Green said. “People make more [bus] trips. We get some new riders.”

The agency has been offering free August service since the LCTOP program went into effect in 2014, and it has been successful. Last year, ridership increased from a monthly average of 65,000 to 85,000 under the program. Green said the return of school session—classes started at Merced Community College on August 14— can account for some of the increase. According to the Merced County Association of Governments, about 44 percent of The Bus's riders are college students.

Last year’s August ridership bump was about 10,000 riders more than in the previous three years of the program. Come September though, ridership tends to fall back to the average.

“Merced is tricky,” said Kari McNickle, who works for the transportation program Dibs. “You have a population coming from anywhere and going to anywhere.”

Dibs is a “Smart Travel information portal” whose goal is to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution in Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties. It does so by providing information on travel options and commute incentives, as well as comparisons of CO2 emissions, financial impacts, and even calories burned for the various options.

Dibs also works on changing the perceptions of bus riding as something reserved for other people. Offering free rides can help potential new riders try it out, and once someone rides the bus they see how it can work for them.

Green acknowledges that there are other things the agency could do to help get more butts on buses. It has rejiggered some bus schedules to improve connections, and brought a popular bus line to the transit center downtown where passengers want to connect to inter-city buses. They have also tried to keep headways—the length of time between buses, which is the longest time one would have to wait for a bus—to thirty minutes or less, so bus trips can be more reliable.

Nickle sees a lot of opportunity to help increase ridership. “A lot of why people don’t [ride],” she said, is because of “simple things—like they don’t know how to buy ticket. There are a lot of decision points.” Riding the bus without having to pay a fare is a start to getting people on transit.

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