Last Saturday evening, many cities around the world celebrated International Free Transit Day, a day when riders were allowed to board transit services for either a portion or entirety of the day without paying a dime (okay, Chicagoans did have to fork over a penny. Here in Seattle, however, these festivities went largely unheard of, and transit users continued quietly paying their fare. I’m talking, of course, about New Year’s Eve, when billions of late-night revelers worldwide were out and about well past midnight, and many in no state to drive.
International Free Transit Day isn’t exactly a recognized holiday– it’s more of an acknowledgement on the part of transit agencies that thousands, sometimes millions, of people will be out on New Year’s Eve needing some form of transportation, whether it’s because of large-scale events that need high-capacity transportation for crowd control or because of the countless many who will be celebrating through drink but most certainly not drive.
More below the jump.
The great benefit of shutting down the fareboxes is the ability to move large crowds without incurring the delay and expense of each rider fumbling with their cash and change. Long lines at Link TVMs and lengthy dwell times aboard buses characterized much of the post-midnight service in Seattle over the New Year, which was already skeletal thanks to infrequent Saturday schedules. Meanwhile, TriMet in Portland recorded 61,500 boardings past 8pm when all services were free– an 82% increase over typical Saturday night ridership.
Offering free rides to late-night revelers does two other things– it takes cars off the roads, especially out of the hands of would-be drunk drivers, and also provides a unique opportunity for agencies to showcase the utility and attractiveness of transit to passengers who don’t ride regularly. Of course, doing so means upping service levels to accommodate the tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of potential riders well beyond typical weeknight service, let alone scant weekend frequencies.
With the cost of both providing extra service and offering free rides being a major drawback, other cities have found ways to tap into private coffers for funding. From the Atlantic Cities:
Some agencies are partnering with sponsors to offset the costs. Free rides are being offered on transit systems in Madison, Milwaukee, Waukesha and the Twin Cities by Miller Lite beer. MillerCoors is also partnering with Denver’s RTD to offer free bus rides and $10 vouchers for cab fares in bars and restaurants in neighboring cities.
International Free Transit Day is something that even small cities not well known for their transit have observed, like Austin and Las Vegas. Though we have many more, and much larger New Year’s celebrations here, transit is not something that ever crosses many Seattleites’ minds as a viable transportation option. I suspect that the institutional inertia created by the ORCA partnership has resulted in a kind of we’ll-do-it-if-everyone-else-will disposition, which seems to transcend the fact that it’s really not that hard to stop collecting fares past a certain time for a few hours out of the year.