It would cost $300,000 annually to support year-round program
September ridership with Durango Transit indicates desire for free public transportation is high.
September is a busy month for Durango Transit because of college students returning to town for the fall semester and lagging travelers wrapping up their summer vacations. But new ridership data for last month indicates a $1 bus fare stands in the way of thousands of prospective riders.
Durango Transit offered free bus rides through June, July and August, and ridership this summer skyrocketed above previous summers when regular fare was charged year-round.
Come September, ridership returned to its regular pace after the city’s free rides program ended.
“We did like 46,000 rides in August and we did 36,000-ish in September,” Durango Transportation Director Sarah Hill said. “Definitely a noticeable change.”
Specifically, Durango Transit recorded 46,067 passengers in August, the last month free rides were offered this year, versus 36,922 riders in August 2022. The city also offered free rides in August 2022, but not during the other summer months.
After the free rides program ended, the city had 35,953 passengers on public buses in September, a slight jump from 35,343 passengers in September 2022, Durango Transit data shows.
“It’s pretty obvious to see the impact of free transit,” Hill said. “It’s surprising how much of an impact eliminating $1 a ride has.”
Hill said the barrier for people pondering using public transit is simply the boarding process. When the ride is free and all one has to do is step aboard and take a seat, that barrier disappears.
Hill said the increased ridership from the free rides program this past summer was expected, but she was still excited to see just how much more ridership eliminating fares led to.
The city offered free rides in August 2023 and August 2022, but the free rides program wasn’t implemented during June 2022 or July 2022. Hill said the “longevity and consistency of three months of free transit service” helped people get used to the idea of free bus rides.
She said if free rides had continued in September onward, ridership would continue to increase.
“(Increase) to the point where we would need additional buses on the road,” she said. “We would need reduced headways so people are able to hop on a bus every 15 minutes instead of 30 minutes, so the buses aren’t as packed.”
Last month, she said the free rides program was “an overwhelming success.” It provided 123,507 free rides between June and August, a 22% increase from 96,585 rides given in the same time frame last year.
Hill plans to take the ridership data to Durango City Council during its budget retreat next week.
She said in a previous interview there is demand from residents to continue the free rides program, but it still needs to be decided whether there will be a summer event or a year-round program, and more funding would be needed to make it possible.
She said on Tuesday that “it’s a large consideration to think about moving to a free fare system year-round.”
“We would have to identify approximately $300,000 extra a year, in addition to already having a shortfall in the distance for transit operations,” she said.
However, Durango Transit would prefer to offer bus rides free of charge long-term and from an operational standpoint, she said.
Durango Transit recently partnered with students in a Fort Lewis College environmental data and statistics class to administer its onboard ridership survey this year. The students will analyze the data and compare it with historical ridership records, then present their findings to City Council in November, Hill said.
“I’m excited to see how our ridership has changed and what the Fort Lewis perspective brings to that conversation,” she said.