For the majority of Albuquerque residents who own a reliable vehicle and have a decent gas budget to get around town, the city’s zero-fare bus experiment may elicit shrugs as to whether it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.
But for bus drivers and those who depend on the bus system, it has proven controversial. And six months into what is now an 18-month pilot, reviews are mixed. Some say it’s a lifesaver; others say it’s made riding the bus less safe. And there are some takeaways that could ensure a real return on investment in the form of more riders served.
Given the 4.5 million in taxpayer dollars dedicated to backfilling the lost revenue, at its core free fares should improve ridership numbers, helping residents get from points A to B as they go to school, work, shopping, recreation and more. This is big-picture stuff. If you don’t have a car, you’re relegated to what’s in walking distance of your home, which limits opportunity. But making transportation free comes with downsides — mainly security, as critics say more unruly passengers ride, obscuring program value.
The city launched the zero-fare pilot in January. Initially slated to run for a year, officials recently approved funding to keep it going through June 30, 2023.
As the Journal reported Friday, numerous people have spoken at City Council meetings in favor of the program. That includes a car-less single mother who says it has allowed her and her children to explore the city without worrying if they have enough money for multiple trips. It also includes an Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless employee who says the nonprofit was able to move $50,000 it would normally spend buying bus passes to other priorities.
G. Perez, who drove the 66 bus on Central, says he was regularly threatened by passengers; when the bus became free he saw even more belligerent and intoxicated riders. He quit in June, just short of eight years on the job and making $20 per hour because “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Perez says the city’s security force is “not even a fraction of what it needs.” He’s right. With 180 buses and 2,750 stops, no way the 21 available security personnel can keep up.
Interim Transit Director Bobby Sisneros said he will wait until the end of the pilot to render judgment. That’s telling.
While Sisneros cites upsides including Transit getting more serious about data collection and collaborating with other departments and the community, Transit has lost 54 drivers since January (nine blamed zero fares) and has 75 openings for drivers. (FYI, pay starts at $15.44 an hour.)
Total ridership for the first six months of 2022 is 36% higher than 2021 and averaging about 449,000 boardings per month, but usage had plummeted in the pandemic. Even with no charge, boardings are about 40% short of 2019 levels.
City Council President Isaac Benton, who co-sponsored the zero bus fare legislation, deserves a nod for riding city buses since the pilot began. He says he’s noticed no marked change for the worse but believes the city should be more strategic about how and where it uses its limited security resources. He’s right. For free fares to really gain some traction, the city needs to:
• Consider better pay and training for drivers as well as additional security officers to deal with the unruly people a zero-fare policy can attract.
• Focus security on the bus routes, stops and transit stations that account for most of the problematic calls. In April, for example, 80% of the 258 calls about problems on buses involved three Central Avenue-based routes. Focusing on these known problem areas could really improve safety and change perceptions about riding the free bus.
• Partner with police, Community Safety employees, Solid Waste and other departments that can help ensure buses and stops are clean and safe, and those in need of social services or housing help get it.
The city’s free fares pilot is at an important crossroads: If the various departments and administration can pull together to make people feel safe enough to take advantage of free transportation, it could really pay off for residents, employers and businesses alike.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.