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Fare Reductions, New Programs Keep Public Transit Relevant

Transit systems in New Orleans, San Diego, Miami and other cities have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a variety of new approaches, ranging from reduced fares to redesigned networks.

A streetcar operating in San Diego.
During the summer, the transit system of New Orleans reduced fares and released new products like specially priced senior and youth passes. Meanwhile, Miami is ready to implement a new bus network focused on increasing access to jobs.

These are just two examples of public transit taking steps to not only recover from the crippling effects of the pandemic but to also emerge more relevant than ever.

“It’s a critical time right now for the industry,” reflected Scott Bogren, executive director of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), during the National Transit Renewal Summit, an event organized by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). “We’ve got a lot of opportunities. And we’ve got this great nexus right now between available resources and new important engagements with the community ... and it creates this wonderful opportunity for transit to be relevant in communities.”

FTA has spent the last few weeks conducting listening sessions, which involve transit agencies talking about the various recovery steps they’ve taken; how those steps square with some of the lessons from the pandemic in areas like social equity; and the role transit plays in lifting communities by expanding access to jobs, housing, health care or education.

“It’s about people. It’s about affecting people’s lives. That’s what we work to do, and it’s what we’re doing right now,” said Robbie Makinen, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, in his comments, which are often passionate and plainspoken pleas for community outreach.

“The return on investment for compassion, for empathy, for social equity, far outweighs the return on investment for aluminum, asphalt and concrete,” he later quipped.

Earlier this year, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) noticed riders — who are generally transit-dependent — were returning to the transit system in relatively strong numbers. Thus, RTA returned to full, pre-pandemic service in July, said RTA CEO Alex Wiggins.

To further incentivize citizens to return to transit, RTA temporarily reduced fares and rolled out several new products to make transit cheaper. It introduced a six-month pilot that reduced the cost of monthly passes from $55 to $45. The agency also eliminated transfer fees and included the city’s ferry service in the monthly pass coverage, and unveiled a $14-a-month senior rider pass and an $18-a-month youth pass. The cost for a one-day pass was restructured to 80 cents for seniors and $1 for youth.

“So we’re really excited about this temporary fare reduction, and we’re going to run this through the end of the year,” said Wiggins.

The new plans and products have been out for a month. Already, monthly pass sales are up 60 percent, and day-pass sales are up 71 percent.

In Miami-Dade County, transit officials partnered with Transit Alliance, a local advocacy group, to increase frequent service on high-travel corridors and to maintain at least 15-minute service throughout the county. The plan is known as the Better Bus Network campaign.

Miami-Dade’s plan, set to be rolled out this fall or early next year, aims to increase access to high-frequency service from 10 percent of residents to 23 percent of residents. The new system also looks to increase the share of jobs that are accessible within 30 minutes of travel by 32 percent.

“We also have the opportunity for this network to have 20 percent of our residents living in poverty to have high-frequency transit service,” said Eulois Cleckley, director and CEO of the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works.

San Diego transit has already given away nearly 100,000 passes for free rides in September. The effort is part of an initiative to get everyone to sign up for PRONTO, a new account-based fare management system being rolled out by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).

“This will give a lot of people the opportunity to try transit for the first time,” said MTS CEO Sharon Cooney, who added that ridership on the network is already 48 percent higher than it was last August.

All of these initiatives — and many others — reflect transit’s ability to be both flexible and nimble as it recovers and prepares for future operations, Bogren said.

“If we’re going to be able to react quickly and nimbly to where people want to go, and [to] changes in travel patterns and shifts that were brought on by the pandemic, we must be flexible,” said Bogren.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.