Looking for a way to attract choice riders? How about increasing public awareness of the services you provide? What about increasing the public's use of transit so there are reduced emissions in the environment and less parking problems in the community? One way to do it is to offer some free rides. With some thought, planning and a bit of creativity, there are a variety of ways to provide free transit.
Fare-free all the time sounds great on paper with no farebox issues, great public image and thoughts of an abundant use of public transportation by the community; they are all wonderful things to dream about. However, various studies and reports have shown that fare-free transit isn't feasible for many agencies. Increased ridership creating too high of operational costs for an agency to maintain and increased criminal activity aren't things one would want to encounter.
Looking for the happy medium, events, promotions or specific routes might be the place to look. These special fare-free zones are targeted at riders you want riding your system and it provides benefits one would hope for with fare-free transit without the negative impact. Several different offerings are looked at to see what various programs can provide.
A small start to fare-free transit could be a one-time promotion. Less planning than creating a permanent change to the agency's routes or structure, special events can generate a lot of buzz and provide positive news coverage of the area while attracting some choice riders. Anniversary celebrations and new service offerings often create a perfect opportunity for such offerings but with some creativity, other options are available.
Curb Your Car Month and World Car Free Day were the events that sparked creativity from the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). First Trip Free was a promotion on Sept. 22 that was part of the larger Curb Your Car Month Campaign in observance of Curb Your Car Month and World Car Free Day.
"The purpose of this promotion was to help car commuters try transit for the first time," Shaina Miron, Rideshare specialist for UTA and coordinator of the event, explains. "We aimed to raise public awareness about the benefits of mass transportation, to overcome some of the barriers first time riders worry about and to decrease the number of commuters who drive to work alone." She adds that larger goals were to increase UTA ridership and to improve air quality.
Developing the right program for the agency had to be carefully thought out. Miron states, "Many of our buses and trains run near capacity, a free service had to be implemented very carefully." The program offered people that normally drive to work to try riding UTA for free. The first trip and dedicated trip planning was offered if they called the customer service center. "We took calls from about 45 people who were driving to work and had never taken transit before," Miron says.
Communication was important to the successful execution. "We had to get approval from multiple stakeholders including marketing, customer service, finance and the four business unit general managers," Miron explains. "Another challenge was clearly communicating to the media how the offer worked so that customers didn't expect to ride for free on Sept. 22."
The promotion was a success in terms of public relations and return on investment Miron reports. "We mailed out 45 day passes worth $3.00 each at a total cost to the agency of $135.00.
"Long term, if only 10 percent of these 45 individuals decided to take transit on a regular basis, in one year UTA would realize $2,700.00 in additional revenue." She adds, "Being very optimistic, if all 45 individuals switched to transit, in one year they would save a total of more than 5.6 tons of air pollution."
More than 15 minutes of positive news coverage was generated for Curb Your Car Month and First Trip Free was an integral part of that. "The First Trip Free event was an essential, attention-getting component for the whole campaign," Miron asserts.
And Miron is already thinking to the future. "I'd like to try a Friends Ride Free event where two passengers can ride for the price of one," she says. "This is easy to communicate and fun for customers."
The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) partnered with the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library providing free library transportation for area youth, grades K through 12, participating in the Summer Reading Club. The library has 18 branches and TARTA service area covers all but two of those branches. The library's reading program runs from June to August each year.
Since the first reading program started in 2001, TARTA has provided free rides for participants. There are no subsidies and no special routes are required as there is already service to the library.
To promote this service, the library works with area schools to get the message out to parents and students and provides TARTA with placards for the bus interior. Stephen Atkinson, director, marketing for TARTA, adds that they also place a banner prominently on the agency's home page.
The Summer Reading Club participation has grown over the years, as has the ridership. In 2006, there were more than 16,000 Summer Reading Club participants and there were about 3,600 boardings for the program.
Atkinson mentions they have had a few situations where an adult rider attempts to get free fare by showing their library card. The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library provides TARTA with an informational handout for the drivers so that everyone knows exactly what the program materials are.
The library's program provides an opportunity to reinforce the educational foundation schools have provided and encourages children to read independently during the school months. TARTA is able to get the students there. As Atkinson says, "TARTA offers a safe, reliable mode of transportation for school-age kids to get back and forth to an environment of positive development opportunities: the local public library.
A lunchtime shuttle is part of a successful partnership between Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and Hooters Restaurant Channelside. Kathy Karalekas, community liaison specialist of HART, explains, "Tampa's Channelside district is a newly developing area just on the outskirts of downtown. When Hooters opened its new restaurant there, it was looking for a way to entice downtown office workers to make the trip to Channelside for lunch rather than simply walk to one of the establishments in the downtown core area."
This type of program attracts choice riders to give transit a try. Karalekas says, "The lunchtime shuttle encourages downtown, white-collar professionals who otherwise may not consider using public transit to get onboard."
Hooters Restaurant Channelside funds the service including operating costs, cost of producing the bus stop signs and the cost of branding the two trolley buses dedicated to the service. "In working out this public/private partnership, completing negotiations proved to be another challenge," Karalekas states.
"While the restaurant was able to review and comment on the terms of agreement, it then had to go to the HART board of directors." She adds, "Because the HART board meets only once a month, this requirement delayed negotiations; this type of delay can create some frustration with the private industry which often is able to turn around such agreements on a more timely basis."
In the end, HART developed a shuttle route that serves stops every 10 minutes with a five-minute trip to Channelside after the last stop, "giving downtown workers time to enjoy a meal at the Channelside complex within the average lunch hour," says Karalekas.
Ridership is one quick way to look at the success of a program. Since its inception, nearly 50,000 rides have been taken on the shuttle. Karalekas states that there is an average of 61 rides on the lunchtime shuttle each weekday.
"Another important indicator of success is in the perception of value by the community," Karalekas asserts. "Hooters has renewed its sponsorship twice and other businesses in the Channelside district are interested in expanding hours of service to include connections between the Arts District and downtown convention hotels and Channelside.
"These businesses now value the role of public transit in the economic vitality of the downtown area," Karalekas says. There are even similar partnerships in discussion for other areas of the city. This lunchtime shuttle has strengthened the image of the agency and public transportation. "It enhances the "In-Town" family of services, the downtown network that includes the In-Town Trolley routes, the TECO Line Streetcar System and HART buses, and it helps build ridership," she explains.
As for the improved image of HART by the business district, Karalekas summarizes, "The Channelside lunchtime shuttle has provided leverage and elevated respect for HART by the downtown Tampa and Channelside businesses, providng an opportunity for HART to be at the table and to be considered a force in the economic development of this new entertainment district."
Finding the Fit
With each agency having its own structure and unique demographics, different offerings work better in different locales. As these examples illustrate, looking for potential partners or identifying events are two places to start with your planning.