Ridership on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s R-Line, which connects Cranston, Providence and Pawtucket, has increased 40% from last year during a fare-free pilot program, according to a report published by RIPTA March 27. The report is the second update since the program began in September.
The R-Line is the most used bus route in Rhode Island, representing 16% of RIPTA’s statewide bus ridership, according to a RIPTA press release.
Patricia Raub, co-coordinator of R.I. Transit Riders, a volunteer-based organization that seeks to “preserve, expand and improve” the state’s public transportation, said that the program is “convenient” and “really beneficial to riders.”
The fare-free pilot program is funded by a $2.5 million share of the state budget as a result of legislation sponsored by state Sen. Meghan Kallman (D-Providence, Pawtucket) and state Rep. Leonela Felix (D-Pawtucket), according to the RIPTA press release.
But RIPTA spokesperson Cristy Raposo Perry wrote in an email to The Herald that the $2.5 million allocated “will not offset the full cost of the pilot program.”
“If the R-Line riders during the pilot had been paying the $2 bus fare, RIPTA would have earned about $400,000 each month,” she wrote. Over the course of a year, the lost fares would add up to “almost 5% of the entire RIPTA fixed-route bus operating budget.”
According to Perry, “RIPTA is on the verge of exhausting its federal relief dollars and is looking for a new revenue source to implement the Transit Master Plan,” which outlines strategies to improve transit in Rhode Island. Permanently expanding the program “would add to an existing (budget) gap of $300 (million),” she wrote. “RIPTA is weighing the costs and benefits of providing fare-free service on one or more routes.”
She noted that RIPTA may have to cut back on service, including the number and frequency of bus routes, if it continues to operate the pilot “without any additional funding.”
Rhode Islanders should not expect public transit to pay for itself, Kallman said: “Part of our responsibility as a state in our budget is to make sure that we're funding the operations, the service, the drivers and the infrastructure appropriately,” she said.
Still, “fare-free arrangements are really beneficial for a range of different people for a range of different reasons,” Kallman said. She explained that the program can increase mobility for people who do not drive and incentivize car users to ride the bus instead — “which, from a climate perspective, is also a really good thing,” she said.
The pilot program is “also a matter of transit equity,” Raub said. “The people who take the bus at this point tend to be low-income people coming from” marginalized neighborhoods.
Kallman said that RIPTA’s report shows that removing financial barriers can increase ridership significantly.
According to the report, ridership among disabled people “in the R-Line zone increased at a rate two times greater than the systemwide rate, or by about 240 more trips per month,” highlighting the effect of removing financial barriers for disabled people, who use the regular fixed-route bus along with last-mile public transit that offers door-to-door service.
Although selecting the R-Line for the pilot had “the greatest impact on the greatest number of people,” the pilot may have given “a better picture of what moving to free fare would look like” if RIPTA had chosen another, less popular line, Raub said.
She added that she believes much of the increase in ridership is related to an increase in “hop-on, hop-off” activity, which RIPTA’s press release also noted.
Raub explained that RIPTA should also work to understand what types of riders drove the increase in ridership. “A lot of it is this very short-term use by people who would already be taking the bus,” she said.
And if the fare-free program becomes permanent, Raub noted that RIPTA would lose funding from “colleges and universities whose students are able to ride the bus for free because” of payments from schools such as Brown.
RIPTA will continue to gather data about the effects of the pilot program throughout the next two quarters, according to Perry. She wrote that RIPTA plans to conduct its second on-board rider survey in May. The organization is also researching the impact of the pilot program on local businesses and community organizations, including visits to local businesses along the bus route.
Perry anticipates that RIPTA will present on the fare-free pilot program at an Accessible Transportation Advisory Committee meeting May 4. Additionally, the transit authority will keep collecting feedback from “front-line employees, including drivers, transportation supervisors and customer service agents” and riders as the pilot continues.
Injy El-Dib is a metro staff writer at The Brown Daily Herald. She has previously covered activism and public health in the Providence area. In her free time, Injy enjoys playing volleyball and crocheting stuffed animals.