With buses fare-free, SEAT ridership rises
New London — With the cost of living increasing, Southeast Area Transit passenger Christina Barrett said it’s nice to be able to go to places for free and save money.
“I can get to work,” said Barrett, who took the bus Monday morning from Norwich to New London and then transferred to another bus to get to her job at Big Lots in Waterford. “I can get to just about anywhere I need to.”
Barrett, who is saving up for a car, was among eight people sitting quietly on the air-conditioned bus, some on their way to work, running errands or holding reusable bags for shopping. The bus dropped people off in Groton, New London, Waterford and East Lyme.
With buses fare-free since April, ridership has been trending upward, SEAT general manager Michael Carroll said. Ridership in June was about 18% higher than the pre-pandemic June of 2019.
The jump in ridership comes as people are getting used to the idea that the buses are free, and also are facing inflation and high fuel costs, Carroll said. Overall, SEAT is at about 91% of its pre-pandemic ridership levels on its regular bus runs, after ridership plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Easing pressures as costs increase
Passengers said the fare-free buses help as groceries and other expenses increase.
Around 5 p.m. on Monday, Ashley Clarke, and her 5-year-old daughter, Kayden, of New London talked happily to each other on the drizzly evening as Clarke was taking her daughter home from camp.
Clarke takes the bus Monday through Friday to her job at LensCrafters at the Crystal Mall in Waterford. “It’s free. It’s convenient. It gets me to work on time,” she said.
She normally has to pay $15 a week to get to work, but she is now able to save that money and instead use it for food for her daughter.
Philip Plotch, principal researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation, said public transit has benefits not only to the bus rider, but also the general public, which is the reason why governments subsidize buses and trains.
The bus riders save money — the average new car price in Connecticut is $47,000 and the average used car price is over $30,000 — and there’s also an equity issue, he said. Without access to transit, people can lose out on seeing their family, getting a job, going to a doctor or going to school.
Public transit also brings benefits to the public, from reducing traffic on highways, to air quality and climate change benefits, as it takes more vehicles off the road, he said.
Jacob Lawrence Wasserman, research project manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, said fare-free transit can provide a lot of benefits, including allowing people who already take transit to use it more often, which can be of immense help to people living paycheck to paycheck. It also can speed up bus service by eliminating the need for people to line up at the fare box, and reduce the potential for escalations during fare checks.
But he said research has found it doesn’t have a huge impact on attracting new riders, who may have invested already in a car or have a commute that is inaccessible by bus. There’s also the question of how agencies replace fare revenues, though fares do not make up a huge percentage of most agencies’ budgets. In SEAT’s case, fares account for about 20% of its revenues, according to Carroll.
Marisa Auguste, research assistant at the Connecticut Transportation Institute at the University of Connecticut, said a lack of transportation can slow down access to employment opportunities, medical and mental health resources, and activities such as shopping and dining, if those services aren’t located where people live.
“There’s a lot of barriers that public transportation helps lower, if it’s available,” she said.
Younger people, elderly people, lower-income families and households, and people with disabilities are among the populations that use public transportation the most.
Trevor Bogue of New London, who lost his car four years ago after someone crashed into it, was taking the bus Monday evening to read and browse books at Books A Million in Waterford.
As a senior, he would normally pay 85 cents a ride, but now can ride free.
“I think it’s a good deal,” Bogue said. “It makes a small difference. I take the bus five or six days a week, so it adds up.”
Chasity Murphy of New London, who was taking the bus after work at her job at Marshalls department store in New London, said that as grocery prices increase, it’s a help to not have to shell out for bus fare.
“It’s not really in people’s budget right now,” she said.
She said saving about $15 a week on bus fares may not seem like a lot, but the savings mean she can spend that money on food for her cats or on necessities for herself.
Murphy, who is saving up for a car, has been taking the bus for the past five years and knows she can rely on it to get to work on time and get home. But she said even a lot of people who have a car now are taking the bus regularly, as gas prices rise, and she also sees kids taking the bus during programs.
She said rising prices for groceries and other expenses are “just a very stressful thing, so anything that takes stress off people right now is good for their mental health.”
Carroll said New London’s micro-transit service will charge fares again in August, but all other SEAT services will remain free until Dec. 1. He said the state has promised to reimburse the transit district for the fares.
The hope is that once SEAT returns to collecting fares on Dec. 1, many people will decide to continue to ride the bus and SEAT will maintain the same level of ridership and hopefully grow a little bit, Carroll said. “The goal is to get us back to pre-COVID levels.”
Plotch said Connecticut is not alone in going fare free, as transit agencies around the world have been setting up temporary and permanent zero fare programs, from free buses in Salt Lake City in February, to three free bus routes in Boston. In Luxembourg, all buses, trains and trams are free.
Kate Rattan, planner and transportation program manager with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said public transit is important to the region, helping people get to places such as work and health care appointments.
“We strive to provide the best service we are able to but it is also cost constrained,” said Rattan, She cited recent improvements such as on-demand service in Stonington and New London.
Ridership increasing across state
CTtransit, which covers the Hartford, New Haven and Stamford regions, also saw ridership increase from 1,537,325 passenger trips in March, to 2,111,472 passenger trips in April when the system went fare free, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. Ridership reached 94.8% of pre-pandemic levels in April and June, and 82.7% of pre-pandemic levels in May.
“Without a doubt there has been an increase in ridership following the move to make bus systems fare-free,” DOT Spokesman Josh Morgan said. “However, we are unable to determine how much of the increase can be attributed to the suspension in fares, as opposed to seasonal increases that are frequently seen in the spring and more businesses and in-person activities resuming.”
He added that research is planned following the fare-free period to get a better picture of what actually occurred on the roadways.
The governor will be taking a close look at ridership numbers over the coming months.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation passed by the General Assembly that included allocating funds for free public buses until June 30 and then later signed the budget adjustment legislation bill that extended the free rides through Dec. 1, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
“Governor Lamont enacted the fare-free buses to provide some relief to the state’s residents so that they can save money on transportation in getting to work, as well as recreational opportunities,” David Bednarz, a spokesman for Lamont’s office, said Wednesday. “Over the coming months, the governor and his administration will work with the legislature to analyze the ridership numbers and determine what to do beyond December.”