Durango Transit’s zero fare summer program that offered residents and tourists completely free rides on city buses and trolleys proved popular enough to break ridership records.
Now, it’s up to City Council whether the program will expand or repeat next year.
Durango Transportation director Sarah Hill 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 timeframe last year.
“We were just really honored to be able to provide the free service throughout the summer, really grateful to council for making that financial contribution for us,” she said.
The program coincided with the state of Colorado’s Zero Fare for Better Air program that aimed to get vehicles off the road and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was also an attempt to alter residents’ commuting habits by showing off the utility of public transportation.
Hill said September ridership data after Durango Transit resumed regular fares will clue her into whether the free rides program successfully hooked more people onto using public transportation. But in the meantime, her team is mulling over interesting insights.
Halfway through the summer program, she held a staff meeting to gather feedback from bus drivers. Drivers were initially concerned that people would take advantage of the free service and ride it aimlessly just to pass the time, which would reduce space for people who actually have somewhere they need to be.
“Ultimately, none of those fears were very well founded,” Hill said. “They said that from an operating perspective, it was easier and it was faster (to travel bus routes) and more efficient because they didn't have to collect fare or confirm transit passes, or have those kind of fare related interactions.
Drivers told Hill the amount of fare revenue the city collects isn’t worth charging for rides, and ridership was higher during the program.
In June through August, ridership was above last year’s numbers every month.
In June, 37,305 free rides were given compared to 32,582 fare rides in June 2022. Likewise, 40,135 free rides were given this July compared to 27,081 fare rides in July 2022. And in August, 46,067 free rides surpassed 36,922 fare rides in August 2022, according to data provided by Hill.
Hill said the public appears to support keeping or expanding the program, either with a comeback next summer or making it a year-round service. But that decision is up to City Council.
“During council's budget retreat in October, I will be taking that (ridership) information to them and just bringing it to them for their consideration,” she said.
Transit fares generate about $160,000 annually, she said. Durango Transit also has a contract with Fort Lewis College to give students free rides, which costs the college about $100,000. So, City Council has to consider the true cost to the city of implementing free rides is about $260,000.
“So I'll bring that information to city council just for their consideration and see if it's something worth pursuing for the community,” she said.