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Iowa City eyes pilot program offering free bus rides
UI’s Cambus is already free, but Coralville likely to keep charging a fare
IOWA CITY — The city should launch a pilot program making it free to ride city buses for the next two years, Iowa City Transit says — which city staff says would improve the experience for both passengers and drivers, remove barriers to using public transportation and increase ridership.
The goal is to launch the program before the next school year, which could be as soon as this summer or early fall. Transportation Director Darian Nagle-Gamm said implementing a zero fare would be fairly straightforward since no additional staff or buses are required at this time.
A zero-fare model “will benefit every single person on every single ride,” Nagle-Gamm told the Iowa City Council this week during a work session presentation. This recommendation stems from an Iowa City area transit study that was approved by council in 2021 and intended to make transit faster, more frequent and more reliable.
“This is one of those rare community projects that will truly address climate, equity, economic objectives, livability objectives,” Nagle-Gamm said. “ … The ease with which people move throughout a community is a hallmark of a great community. Iowa City could also be known for having a great transit system that is free and so easy to use. These are the things that help make Iowa City a great place to live.”
The City Council informally gave direction to city staff to move forward with the pilot program. It’s expected there will be a formal resolution at an upcoming meeting in June.
The University of Iowa’s transit system, Cambus, already charges no fare to the public. Coralville Transit, though, is likely to continue charging.
Both Iowa City and Coralville now charge $1 per ride. Farther north, Cedar Rapids last year lowered its transit fare also to $1.
“I really do like the idea of Iowa City being known as a transit (zero) fare city, whether you’re riding Iowa City Transit or Cambus,” council member John Thomas said. “I think that says a lot about transit being a priority here.”
Various efforts to improve transit
The Iowa City area transit study was launched in 2019 and approved by the council in June 2021. Coralville Transit and Cambus were included in the study.
Service enhancements in Iowa City as a result of the study have included consolidated bus routes, shorter wait times and making transit more reliable. The goals of the study were to remove barriers to transit use, improve coordination and increase ridership.
Iowa City Transit has 13 routes that run six days a week with service from 6 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Iowa City and Coralville have coordinated so that Iowa City bus passes can be used on Coralville Transit and patrons can transfer for free — for now — to Coralville.
Various service improvements were launched in August 2021 followed by the addition of four Iowa City electric buses in January 2022. Another round of service adjustments began this week.
Transit ridership is slowly increasing following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nagle-Gamm said. The department is forecasting 1.1 million riders in fiscal 2023, which ends June 30. Before the start of the pandemic, ridership was at 1.4 million in fiscal 2019, and then dipped to 525,416 in fiscal 2021 at the height of the pandemic.
⧉ Related article: News Track: Iowa City looking to expand electric bus fleet
What could zero fare look like?
Nagle-Gamm said the current conditions of increased federal funding and lower ridership numbers due to the pandemic make the timing ideal to launch a zero-fare pilot program. Iowa City ridership is predicted to increase between 20 and 60 percent with zero fare, Nagle-Gamm said.
“This might be a really great opportunity to take advantage of some of that ridership losses and help build that back,” she said.
Nagle-Gamm said there are “lots of benefits” to zero-fare transit and highlighted more than 10, including removing barriers to transit use, increasing ridership, improving on-time performance, addressing equity goals and the relatively quick implementation.
Among the challenges are losing fare revenue, which in fiscal year 2022 was $871,902 and will be closer to $1 million in fiscal 2023, Nagle-Gamm said. An increased demand also could eventually require more service, staff, buses and capital needs, she added.
Nagle-Gamm recommended annual check-ins with the council as part of the zero-fare pilot program. Two check-ins could occur summer 2024 and summer 2025 to review the pilot program, ridership numbers and funding strategies once one-time federal pandemic relief funding expires.
Coralville likely to continue fares
Mayor Bruce Teague asked what going to zero fare would mean for Coralville Transit and for Iowa City riders transferring to Coralville.
Nagle-Gamm said it’s likely Coralville would still require a fare, and Iowa City riders transferring to Coralville would need to bring their dollar or bus pass.
Vicky Robrock, Coralville’s director of parking and transportation, told The Gazette in an email that for the foreseeable future, the city is “concentrating our efforts on COVID recovery and evaluating the routes and schedules that were implemented as a result of the area wide transit study.”
“Any adjustments to our existing service or fare changes would require a comprehensive evaluation to ensure any additional investments in our current transit service is sustainable for the future,” Robrock said.
Council members also heard an update on what additional Sunday service and late night on-demand service could look like through city transit. There was not a recommendation from city staff to pursue these enhancements for now.
Sunday service would be challenging to staff, difficult to pilot and ridership isn’t expected to increase by much, Nagle-Gamm said. Late night on-demand service would have a high cost per ride and relatively low expected ridership, she added.
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