Image Source: Alex drennan. Source License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Adaptations: cropped.

Public transportation funded in full by means other than collecting fares from passengers (e.g., local government, university, business sponsorship, volunteers). Fare-free systems may run on limited fixed routes or provide on-demand service to residents who demonstrate medical or social need.

Why is this important to your community?

Using public transportation reduces congestion, increases economic opportunities and job access for residents, increases access to essential health services, and reduces carbon emissions. According to the Brookings Institute, the average number of hours commuters waste in traffic increased from 14 hours in 1982 to 34 hours in 2010. Often, individuals without a private vehicle face greater difficulty accessing places of employment as the typical job is accessible to only 27% of the metropolitan workforce by public transportation in less than an hour and a half. Improving the routing of and access to public transportation for workers throughout the CONNECT region is a great way to connect limited income residents, seniors, and youth to their jobs and other needs. In addition to increasing access to employment opportunities, public transportation can reduce air pollution and improve traffic congestion. According to the American Public Transportation Association, one person who switches from driving to taking public transportation can reduce their individual carbon footprint by 20 pounds, equaling more than 4,800 pounds a year (20 mile commute), and many people would prefer to take transit more often if it were available, timely, and affordable. A fare-free transportation system can increase ridership and opportunities for all residents, regardless of income or ability, to access necessary health services and employment opportunities, and can also reduce congestion on the roadways, reducing the need for additional lanes or other costly construction projects.

increase in average commuter's hours stuck in traffic 1982-2010
carbon reduced by one person switching from driving to public transportation

How does it work?

Many cities and transit agencies have experimented with fare-free transit, and it has proven successful in some smaller communities and transit systems. Examples of successful systems are typically found in small urban and rural communities; communities with a strong university presence; and resort communities. Research has found that transit ridership nearly always increases when a fare-free system is introduced which in turn increases state and federal funding agencies receive through formula programs that take ridership into account. In smaller communities, the issue of overcrowding with a fare-free system is not as likely to be an issue when compared with large cities, but the provider still needs to anticipate the impacts of ridership increasing. In some cases, the elimination of the fare collection can help maintain schedules even with increased ridership. There are a number of approaches to setting up a fare free transit service. In Chapel Hill, NC (the largest fare-free agency in the US), the service is funded through a partnership with UNC and a voter approved tax. In Hanover, NH, the system-wide free service is funded through a collection of towns, Dartmouth College, and Dartmouth University Medical Center. The small town of Boone, NC operates 12 fare-free bus routes with funding through the municipality, county, state and federal agencies, and Appalachian State University. The Centralina Connection, a non-profit organization focused in the CONNECT region, operates the Volunteer Transportation Service (VTS), a free transportation service for seniors, veterans, and persons with disabilities. VTS is funded by a grant from the Federal Transportation Administration and local donations. A community considering a fare-free transit system should begin by assessing existing transit service, ridership, and needs, and considerations for implementing a local system.

Ready to get started?

Using the Tool

  • Assess current transit ridership levels and budgetary structure of current transit system, if it exists.
  • Determine community priorities and need for fare-free transit. Involve local government officials, , your local MPO or RPO, COGs, transit agencies, business districts, healthcare providers, universities and colleges, and residents. Is there an opportunity to increase existing transit ridership? Does your community have a major employer or institution that could help support such a system?
  • Support existing transportation efforts in your region that serve seniors, veterans, and persons with disabilities, including the VTS (Volunteer Transportation Services), by volunteering your time or money or helping to recruit new volunteer drivers.
  • Assemble potential partners (transit system, local institutions, local officials, etc.) to discuss the potential for a cost sharing system or alternative financing structure.
  • Provide policy assistance. This may include legislation for local transit provider funding, zoning changes that allow greater density to support transit, or other incentives for employers to locate near existing transportation routes.
  • Supply marketing assistance which could include public campaigns to support a community-funded transit tax or solicitations for donations to volunteer transportation services.

Where has it worked?

Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) - Chapel Hill, NC

Image Source: bendertj. Source License: CC BY-NC 2.0.



Brian Litchfield

About the Program

Since 2002, Chapel Hill Transit has operated a fare-free system providing service to a 62 square mile area including Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. CHT operates 31 fixed bus routes as well as an EZ Rider service for residents with disabilities. The 121-vehicle fleet provides more than seven million rides each year to residents and students of the Chapel Hill area.

Why it works

Since making a community supported decision in 2002 to provide fare-free transit, CHT ridership has increased from 3 million to 7 million passengers. Eliminating bus fares was only one part of an effort to support a more transit-oriented lifestyle which included expanding transit service, reducing parking on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, reducing parking requirements in downtown areas, and encouraging denser development along key transit corridors. The fare-free transit system was made possible by securing financial commitments from partners, including UNC Chapel Hill, and taxpayers of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to cover operating costs. UNC Chapel Hill provides around 38% of the operating costs while Chapel Hill and Carrboro contribute 18% and 7%, respectively. Federal and state subsidies make up 28% of CHT’s operating budget with the remaining 9% coming from miscellaneous transfers and fees. In addition to an increase in ridership, the fare-free system has reduced congestion, saved CHT on advertising costs, and removed the need for low-income fare subsidies.