Sustaining Zero-Fare Public Transit in a Post COVID-19 World: A Guide for State DOTs

Zero-fare transit can be an effective way to increase ridership, although investments in increased frequencies and other service improvements also attract more riders. In addition, zero-fare transit can support other statewide goals such as promoting active transportation modes and Complete Streets policies; promoting downtown revitalization; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; improving accessibility and economic development in rural areas; providing attractive alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles for urban commuters; and optimizing the use of state-owned or -operated assets (e.g., park-and-ride lots or high occupancy toll lanes).   While zero-fare transit can deliver a wide range of benefits, it also incurs costs. The loss of farebox revenue means agencies must identify replacement revenues. In addition, federal regulations link complementary paratransit fares to fixed-route fares. For example, if an agency eliminates fares for fixed-route service, it may also be required to eliminate fares for complementary paratransit. As paratransit service is costly to provide, this increases the overall impact to farebox recovery ratios and the amount of replacement revenue needed to maintain service levels.   Increases in ridership induced by the elimination of fares may increase operations costs by requiring additional vehicles and operators along with increased frequency of service to maintain reliability. Ridership increases can increase the costs for maintaining and cleaning vehicles and facilities. In addition, higher ridership can increase concerns about on-vehicle safety from crowding or unruly passengers. Some agencies have faced challenges with riders loitering on buses for extended periods, especially during inclement weather. These costs and tradeoffs highlight a new tension for agencies and points to the need for understanding the tradeoffs involved when an agency eliminates fares and a full accounting of the costs as well as the potential benefits.     The costs of a zero-fare transit policy can be offset in a variety of ways. For example, a small rural transit agency with low reliance on farebox revenues may be able to eliminate fares with a modest increase in funding from a state grant program. In a large and growing region, several transit agencies may be able to harmonize a zero-fare policy for low-income riders using a statewide procurement of cost-saving, touch-free pass technology.   The outcome of any analysis of the costs and benefits will depend on the characteristics of the population served, the transit agency, the transit service provided, the transit workforce, and current and potential funding sources. Another consideration is potential partnerships: universities, advocacy groups, major employers, or economic development organizations can be sources of funding or can support implementation through communication and outreach.   State DOTs are key partners in the provision of transit; they provide funding for transit agency operations, capital projects, or by directly operating paratransit or fixed-route service. Therefore, DOTs need to understand the implications of zero-fare transit and be engaged in the zero-fare decision-making process. For example, a transition to zero-fare transit may require changes to a state DOT’s transit grant or in-kind matching programs, depending on the specific characteristics of these programs or the available options for alternative revenue sources, which may be defined by statute.     Research is needed to provide state DOTs with information on the implications of zero-fare transit and on how they can contribute to ensuring that zero-fare transit policies are feasible and sustainable.   The objective of this research is to develop a guide for state DOTs and their partners on evaluating and implementing sustainable zero-fare transit. Topics to be addressed include: (1) Implementation of zero-fare transit in the United States; (2) The role of state DOTs in developing zero-fare transit policies; (3) Strategies for supporting a transition from a shorter term, zero-fare pilot to a long-term zero-fare policy; (4) Characteristics that promote long-term sustainability of zero-fare operations; (5) A method to evaluate the costs and benefits of zero-fare transit; (6) A practitioner-ready tool for use in applying the method; and (7) Effectively communicating the results of the evaluation to transportation decision-makers, regional and local governments, communities, and other stakeholders.


  • English


  • Status: Proposed
  • Funding: $300000
  • Contract Numbers:

    Project 19-19

  • Sponsor Organizations:

    National Cooperative Highway Research Program

    Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC  United States  20001

    Federal Highway Administration

    1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
    Washington, DC  United States  20590

    American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

    444 North Capitol Street, NW
    Washington, DC  United States  20001
  • Project Managers:

    Hartell, Ann

  • Start Date: 20220524
  • Expected Completion Date: 0
  • Actual Completion Date: 0

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01773376
  • Record Type: Research project
  • Source Agency: Transportation Research Board
  • Contract Numbers: Project 19-19
  • Files: TRB, RIP
  • Created Date: May 24 2021 3:14PM