No-cost public transportation holds more significance to riders than just free fare to get around town. Rather, the Zero Fares pilot program has become a lifeline our community depends on.
The Zero Fares program eliminates unnecessary financial burdens for 75% of riders with an annual income of less than $25,000, enabling them to focus on the important things like landing that new job, paying bills and putting food on the table. It connects Burqueños to work, school, doctor appointments, places of worship, recreation and more. It improves quality of life, community health and our economy. Yet, these significant strides get lost in translation when stories about the “Sticky Fingers” sting operation pin crime on free buses.
The sting operation may have exposed that 10 of 31 individuals in a shoplifting ring used a city bus, but it does not paint an accurate picture of the transit system as a whole, who benefits from it and why public transportation matters. Assumptions around free fares contributing to crime stunts community conversation about the future of transit and causes harm to the people our system is designed to serve.
A healthy, thriving community relies on accessible, sustainable and safe public transportation for riders and drivers alike. Ridership is now on the uptick with nearly 6 million rides in 2022 and an average of 500,000 rides a month, whereas incidents per rider average at 0.15% monthly. We cannot let the actions of 10 people decide the long-term fate of a vital public service that serves hundreds of thousands in our city.
Addressing the public safety needs of Albuquerque’s public transit system is part of the work in building a transit system that is equitable. That work is well underway. The Transit Department is actively committed to enhancing safety on buses through an updated security plan and other measures such as de-escalation training and increased security checks. In fact, routine and proactive security checks account for more than 60% of total security incidents in the past year. The other primary issue often cited about our system is maintenance issues, which the city is actively addressing.
Transit safety is of critical importance to creating a bold, equitable and cutting-edge transit system, but let’s be clear: Zero Fares is not the root cause of crime. We need to focus our attention on practical and attainable transit system improvements, like cultural and language access resources; equitable planning processes; expanded lines and services; good pay for bus system operators and support staff; necessary upkeep of buses and stops; connections to parks, open spaces and events; and safer streets that encourage multi-modal travel.
We urge the City Council and Transit Department to celebrate transit riders by establishing a public engagement forum to deeply explore community-involved public safety options that center lived experience. Those closest to the Zero Fares program, like riders, drivers and community safety staff, are best positioned to help our elected officials find solutions that work for everyone.
Our free transit system opens up possibilities for people by connecting them to what they need to live healthy, happy and productive lives. Let’s keep it that way and continue to improve on it, together.