A free ride to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s a simple promise as powerful as the core purpose of transit. Providing access to the vaccine via public transit gives communities a fair shot at getting shots in arms. For transit agencies who have kept the world going by ferrying people before and during the pandemic, VaxTransit is a bridge to a brighter future after the pandemic.
When I began leading advocacy efforts for VaxTransit at the start of the year, just fifteen transit agencies in nine US states offered free rides for vaccines. Now, more than 450 agencies in 41 U.S. states are providing free transit to vaccine appointments and mass vaccination centers. Eight transit agencies in Canada are offering free VaxTransit, and options are appearing throughout the United Kingdom.
Since Mass Transit magazine published my call-to-action, “Getting the COVID Vaccine Shouldn’t Require a Car,” I’ve encouraged agency leaders and elected officials throughout the U.S. and Canada to provide free rides for vaccines. Here are best practices from a growing effort to ensure equity for millions of transit riders.
Get Shots in Frontline Arms
Get frontline workers vaccinated to keep them safe as they help their communities get protected. “Transit employees need to be prioritized to be vaccinated before they can start safely moving larger crowds to vaccination sites,” said Alicia Trost, chief communications officer for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).
When California changed its vaccination distribution plan in January, moving transit workers back in line, the industry spoke up. “They will play a vital role in in the recovery – transporting millions of Californians to get vaccinated” said the California Transit Association and the Amalgamated Transit Union in a joint message to state officials. In March, the state changed course, and announced that transit workers would be prioritized for the vaccine.
Make a Good Impression
Coordinate with vaccine clinics, hospitals, and health officials to deliver a streamlined experience.
“Ask for a dedicated bus lane so your bus doesn’t have to wait in line with the cars” said BART’s Trost.
She also suggests that “staff do a site survey to ensure the location is truly accessible.”
VaxTransit begins when people book a vaccine appointment, so Trost advises agencies to work with vaccine site organizers to make sure the reservation process encourages transit as an option.
“We made sure there were step by step directions on what to expect and where to go,” said Trost.
This coordination is underway elsewhere, too. In Ohio, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) partnered with the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County to provide free all-day transit passes. RTA is not distributing the passes. Instead, passes are provided by the county when people register for vaccination. This strengthens awareness of transit as an option and simplifies vaccine access.
“We are providing all day passes to make it as easy as possible for the community to access whatever vaccination site they prefer,” said Linda Scardilli Krecic, spokesperson for GCRTA.
“Transit systems,” noted Trost, “have robust media teams and communication channels to be able to get notifications out to the public.” She advises agencies to “provide good communication so people feel confident in opting for transit instead of a car.”
BART and its peer agencies throughout the San Francisco Bay Area built Healthy Transit Plan to highlight their shared safety protocols, provide a standard metrics dashboard for pandemic procedures, and list VaxTransit options.
“Instead of disjointed information and needing to go to each website to find out what is offered by each agency, we’ve compiled the information all together,” said Trost.
In Southern California, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and North County Transit District (NCTD) jointly announced free rides to vaccines on their systems that serve the San Diego metro area. They created consistent graphics and messages on their websites, posted together on social media, and shared a tool to plan VaxTransit trips using both systems.
Think Like a Customer
Getting a COVID-19 vaccination can be stressful, so keep VaxTransit simple. Niagara Region Transit in Ontario, Canada offers an experience that is customer-friendly and easy for employees to administer. Free VaxTransit is available from all eight transit providers in Niagara. Customers present their vaccine appointment confirmation to the operator when boarding and show proof-of-vaccination for a return trip.
In California, Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT) provides free rides to “all vaccination sites in Sacramento County within SacRT’s service area, including hospitals, pharmacies, and other immunization locations.” To ride free, SacRT simply requires an appointment confirmation email, text, or vaccine card with a date matching the date you ride.
“When boarding a bus, show the operator either a printout or screenshot on a smartphone, or have ready to show a fare inspector when riding light rail,” said SacRT.
Cleveland RTA’s VaxTransit day passes can be used throughout the system. A customer can display their pass to a driver when boarding a bus, carry the pass as proof-of-payment on light rail and the bus rapid transit Health Line, and use it to access Red Line trains at stations with fare gates, like the downtown Tower City Station.
“In the event they need to transfer between modes or bus routes, they can easily do that with an all-day pass. It also allows riders the latitude to make additional trips that same day, should they need to stop at the grocery store or pharmacy,” said GCRTA’s Krecic.
Double-Down on Equity
Go the extra mile to make sure your most vulnerable communities are able to use free VaxTransit. Kansas City’s transit agency, housing authority, and a local health system created the Cares Connect partnership to strengthen equity in vaccine access. The Housing Authority of Kansas City identifies residents eligible for the vaccine. Then, three days a week, Ride KC buses pick them up and give them free VaxTransit to Truman Medical Centers/University Health for COVID-19 vaccines. Cares Connect helped 40 people get vaccinated on its first day.
Because some people live far from a bus stop, Richmond, Virginia’s GRTC Transit is providing free on-demand VaxTransit in addition to free VaxTransit on regular bus routes.
“This new reach will give more accessible connections and free on-demand mobility beyond our normal service area!” said GRTC CEO Julie Timm.
“We are so grateful to our partners who are thinking intentionally about the transportation needs of our communities,” said Jackie Lawrence, director of Health Equity at Richmond and Henrico Health Districts.
Go Wide. Statewide.
Make sure funding Is available to provide VaxTransit in every community. North Carolina’s Department of Transportation and Department of Health and Human Services teamed up to distribute $2.5 million in COVID relief funding to 99 local transit systems. This enables free VaxTransit throughout the state by offsetting “operating costs associated with transit rides to and from vaccination sites.”
Kentucky announced free or reduced-fare transit for vaccines in 90 counties, covering 75 percent of the commonwealth.
“We want all Kentuckians who wish to get vaccinated to be able to do so, and transportation should not be a barrier,” said Lt. Governor Jacqueline Coleman.
Ohio’s Rides for Community Immunity program is providing $7 million to 88 counties to fund free VaxTransit. The Ohio Department of Transportation is directly funding transit agencies in 70 counties. In the remaining 18 counties, health departments will use the funding to purchase transportation services.
Build New Ridership
Providing free rides to vaccines can help build new post-pandemic ridership at a time when agencies need to think beyond the nine-to-five commute. Dayton RTA is reaching new riders who had not used transit before the agency started offering VaxTransit.
“Most of the customers that booked rides had never used our services before,” said Chief Customer Officer Brandon Policicchio.
He also says the agency supplied buses in “two instances to transport groups.” That gave RTA another “opportunity to help folks who had never used our service before.”
Utah Transit Authority began offering free VaxTransit on March 11, and officials are already seeing increasing ridership. Depending on how many people use VaxTransit, the service could cost UTA between $190,000-$750,000, according to Business Development Manager Kensey Kunkle. That’s a worthwhile investment, according to UTA board member Jeff Acerson.
He said, “The more people that are vaccinated, the safer our communities are going to be, and they’ll be more inclined to come back to transit, which is exactly what we need.”
Every Trip Equals a Vaccination
Track use of VaxTransit, “even if it is just a hand count of each person you carried each day. Even better if you can track origin-destination pairs so you can measure what communities people are traveling to and from,” says BART’s Trost.
She reports 1,800 people have used BART’s free VaxTransit rides home since the service started in early February.
During its first week of providing free VaxTransit, Sacramento Regional Transit gave 180 people peace of mind in getting their vaccines. According to paratransit customer Melanie Castile, the free ride was one less thing to worry about when getting vaccinated.
More than 500 people benefited from free VaxTransit in the first days of Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s Rides to Health program, according to CEO Nathaniel P. Ford. Learning from riders’ use of the service, the agency also reconfigured routes to move a bus stop closer to the entrance to Regency Square Mall. That way, people no longer have to cross traffic to reach the vaccination site.
In Guilford County, N.C., use of free VaxTransit nearly doubled from February through the first half of March. Guilford County Transportation & Mobility Services reported providing 66 free VaxTransit rides in February, rising to 113 free rides in the first half of March. The county has spent $5,000-7,000 of the $73,318 in COVID-19 relief funding provided by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Department of Health & Human Services through the statewide VaxTransit strategy. Statewide, North Carolinians have taken 3,600 free VaxTransit trips to get vaccinated.
Build Back Better with VaxTransit
Even as transit agencies cope with the financial strain of reduced ridership, this is precisely the time to provide free rides for vaccines. It’s an opportunity for transit agencies to support their communities, dispel early viral misconceptions about transit, and gather insight to guide post-pandemic service.
Buses and trains keep people connected to family, friends, jobs, and communities. VaxTransit offers an opportunity to reshape the narrative from fear of transmission to support for transportation and invest in a better tomorrow.
To see which transit agencies are providing free rides for vaccines, visit stewartmader.com/vaxtransit. If you’re aware of a free transit option that should be added to the list, please share details at stewartmader.com/contact.
Stewart Mader works with transit providers, public officials, and policymakers to build better transit that supports economic, health, and climate resilience. He previously served as the first Chief Customer Experience Officer for NJ Transit‘s 270 million annual passenger trips, and guided customer experience for the Port Authority of NY & NJ‘s 80 million annual transit riders as Chair of PATH Riders Council. His insights appear in Mass Transit magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Wall Street Journal.