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I was in Missoula MT (population: ~70,000) over the weekend and I explored the town using Missoula’s Zero-Fare Mountain Line transit system which offers free rides on all of the system’s 13 transit routes. Geographically, Missoula is very flat and the city is divided by the Clark Fork River. On the north side of the river one finds the downtown area (with the main transit mall), a Lowe’s/Home Depot/Target/Best Buy shopping complex and some residential housing mixed in with light industrial uses. The University of Montana (15,000 enrollment) and its trendy nearby University commercial district, a Northgate-type mall and most of the city’s single family and college student residential areas are located on the south side of the river. Four different bridges are used by Mountain Line to connect the south side with the north side.

Mountain Line features two BOLT! routes with frequent service (every 15 minutes on weekdays, less frequent service evenings and Saturday). My grand tour of the city started at the downtown transit mall where I boarded BOLT! Route 2 which offered a very circuitous trip through the north side that eventually arrived at the Target/Lowe’s strip mall complex. We then crossed the river and continued through a south side neighborhood heading towards the South Gate Mall where I de-boarded for a break. There was a fantastic collector car show in the mall that featured about 70 beautifully preserved autos from the 1920s to the 1980s. After I had spent about an hour looking at Hudson Hornets, Barracudas, Skyliners and plenty of other classic American (and a few non-American) cars, I went back to the bus stop and caught BOLT! Route 1 which took a much more direct route back to the downtown transit center via the University of Montana campus.

BOLT! Route 1 seemed to be more popular of the two BOLT! routes. Route 2 seemed to wander through the north side neighborhoods trying to hit every possible residential area on its way to the Target complex. The wandering path of Route 2 created lots of left turns and an inefficient hairpin routing. Route 2 seemed like it was fishing for riders while Route 1 took a much more direct route from the South Gate Mall to the University and back to the transit center. Fifteen minute headways on both BOLT! routes is high quality service, but the circuitous routing of Route 2 on the north side of the river is a definite detriment. The wandering path of Route 2 seems like a classic example of transit adapting to auto-centric land use patterns rather than adapting land use laws to build efficient and sustainable transit routing.

The only other route that consistently offers better than 60 minute headways is Route 6 which runs every 30 minutes for most of the day. Route 6 connects the Transit Center with the University District (a commercial district about 5 blocks away from the UM campus) and the South Gate Mall. The only route that doesn’t radiate from the Transit Center is Route 8 which runs from the UM campus across the south side to the South Gate Mall. Service on most routes starts about 630am and ends by 1000pm with hourly service after 6pm–even on the BOLT! routes. Saturday service starts about 930am and ends by 630pm with all routes running on 60 minute headways. Sunday is a day of rest for the Mountain Line with no service offered.

I don’t have any ridership numbers for the Mountain Line system, but the buses I rode on had pretty good ridership. The Mountain Line buses offer free WiFi and a downloadable bus tracker app. The local newspaper is also provided free of charge on-board the buses. Overall, Missoula seems to be making a positive commitment to providing quality transit service for its citizens.

3 Replies to “Missoula Zero-Fare Transit”

  1. Their zero-fare explanation page says their goal is to use the no-fare policy to increase ridership by 45% or 400,000 rides per year, so the total system has ridership of about 700,000/year right now. Seems kind of low for a college town of that size, but it’s good to see they’re trying to improve.

    1. Maybe everybody (of the student population) is biking, if it’s small and flat enough? Or walking, if the university and student housing are close enough to downtown?

  2. Wow, hourly headways at 6:01 PM on a route that’s highlighted for frequent service…but I guess for a town the size of Missoula, you should be grateful for whatever you can get.

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