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Albuquerque Makes Final Push for Fare-Free Transit

The city may join the ranks of others where it's free to ride the bus. It's part of a growing trend among smaller cities that are prioritizing ridership over revenue.

A bus waits for passengers at a stop in Albuquerque. The city is considering whether to make its transit service fare-free on a permanent basis.
In Brief:
  • The Albuquerque City Council could vote next month to make transit fare-free permanently.

  • The city launched a systemwide fare-free pilot in 2022.

  • Cities with traditionally lower farebox revenues have more incentive to waive fares, while bigger cities rely more on riders to fund service.

  • After more than half a decade of study and debate, Albuquerque may soon eliminate fares on public transit for good.

    New Mexico’s biggest city, with a population of 560,000, has been testing and piloting fare-free rides on different parts of its system since 2017. It’s part of a hotly debated trend in public transit, with proponents calling free rides a key step for accessibility and equity in transit systems, and opponents saying it’s a distraction from the things that matter most, like service frequency and reliability.

    In Albuquerque, leaders say they’ve determined the benefits of letting people board the bus for free outweigh the costs of eliminating fares. And in a city where the majority of bus riders are low-income people, with no access to a car, even small fares make a difference in people’s ability to get around town.

    “We live in a very poor state and our city has a lot of folks that are living on the poverty line,” says Albuquerque City Councilor Tammy Fiebelkorn. “[The fare] certainly is a decision-making factor for many of our citizens.”

    Weighing Costs and Benefits

    Like a lot of cities, Albuquerque had declining transit ridership well before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Unlike a lot of other cities, Albuquerque operates its own bus system. In 2017, the City Council passed its first measure waiving fares for certain routes. In 2022, amid a continued slide in ridership, it launched a systemwide zero-fare pilot program. It also asked for a study to determine who was riding transit, how they would benefit from fare elimination and how the program was affecting service operations.

    That report was delivered to the City Council last month. It found that 88 percent of riders surveyed during the spring and some of last year had incomes lower than $35,000 and 89 percent had no access to a vehicle, according to a bill that would make the zero-fare program permanent. Additionally, it found it would cost nearly $1.8 million — three percent of the system’s operating budget — to institute a rider pass system, which some local leaders have called for. Despite fears that eliminating fares would make buses less safe, the report found no increase in violent crime during the pilot period, according to the bill. Drug use on transit did increase, the bill says, but it also increased in other big cities that don’t have free fares.

    “The experts looked at everything from financial impacts to security concerns, and what we realized is that it makes financial sense to continue with zero fares,” says Fiebelkorn, a co-sponsor of the bill. “The revenue loss is pretty small and the cost to implement something like a pass system is really high. … It makes financial sense and it’s not an impact on crime, so why wouldn’t we?”

    The buses also run more smoothly without riders lining up to pay fares, says Althea Atherton, an organizer with the Albuquerque Bus Riders Union.

    “It’s not only the equitable thing to do, but it’s also the better service solution,” Atherton says. “Once you experience it, you don’t want to go back.”

    Cities Experiment With Free Transit

    Cities have been testing out fare-free transit programs more frequently in recent years. Richmond, Va., has implemented a zero-fare program on a trial basis since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Kansas City is so far the biggest American city to commit to zero-fare transit for the long term.

    Leaders in Kansas City, like those in Albuquerque, determined that the revenue they gained from fares wasn’t worth the cost of collecting it, especially when weighed against the operational and equity benefits of eliminating fares. In years past, Albuquerque’s farebox recovery ratio has been relatively low; fares covered between 12 percent and 16 percent of the system’s operating budget between 2010 and 2015, according to one report.

    Bigger cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have piloted various zero-fare programs as well. But the calculus is more difficult at the biggest agencies, which have traditionally relied much more on fare revenues than small agencies.

    Transit agencies everywhere are already facing difficult financial challenges stemming from pandemic ridership losses, which are particularly dire at the biggest agencies. Critics of zero-fare transit say it starves agencies of funding at the worst possible time.

    New York City is running five fare-free neighborhood bus lines as part of a funding deal state lawmakers struck earlier this year. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who ran on a “Free the T” platform, continues to push for fare-free routes as well.

    Other Improvements Needed

    Even most proponents of fare-free transit acknowledge that fares aren’t what keeps most people from taking the bus. Many transit networks, particularly in smaller cities, are very limited and don’t provide frequent service that gives people fast, reliable alternatives to driving. Improvements to service, reliability and reach can do more to expand mobility than waiving fares.

    “I think those things, honestly, in the end, are more important than whether you charge a fare,” says Samuel Jensen, chair of Albuquerque’s Transit Advisory Board. “Transit service that doesn’t show up is useless.”

    Still, Jensen supports the move to make Albuquerque transit fare-free. The city is also undertaking a transit network redesign with Jarrett Walker + Associates, a consultant that has helped many cities redesign their systems. The city is planning for its redesign to be revenue neutral, meaning no net increase in service. That leaves it with the question of how much to prioritize overall ridership versus geographic coverage. Those are important questions, and improvements can be made without budget increases. But Jensen says the system ultimately needs more money.

    “We don’t fund transit in general at the level we need to in New Mexico, but especially in Albuquerque,” he says.

    The city is also short on bus drivers, like many others across the country. Solving that shortage is a challenge, but it’s needed to make the most of any network redesign, says Atherton, who also sits on the city’s Transit Advisory Board. At meetings of the Albuquerque Bus Riders Union, members often take turns sharing stories of recent experiences on transit, Atherton says. Lately, amid service cuts and reliability issues, lots of people have been finding the buses more crowded, they say. But even in that context, the benefits of the zero-fare program are tangible.

    “Everyone just gets on the bus and goes, and that’s just beautiful,” they say.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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