Would you ride the bus if it were free? Now is the time for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and HART to find out. Inflation is above 9%, and the cost of driving, even if gas prices are coming down right now, is no small reason. So what better time to get people out of their cars and on to the bus? Leave that $75 fill-up behind, right?
But buses aren’t popular. They take too long, they run too seldom. And, come on, they are buses. It’s time to shake up that thinking. Starting this fall, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit system — SunRunner — will shuttle between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches. Yes, it will go pretty fast (30% less time than now) and often (every 15 minutes during the day), and the buses will be electric hybrids — new, smooth and slick. But the real key? They will be free for the first six months.
Free is good. It’s a come on, of course. Checking out this new way of travel won’t cost anything, at least for now. Try it, you might like it, and you may see the possibilities of public transit. The hope is to morph what begins as novel into a new normal.
Here’s a thought experiment. Why stop there? Make all buses in Tampa Bay free for, say, three or four months. Analyze how that changes ridership and on which routes. It’s not that radical. After all, since Jan. 1, they’ve already been free for all students and staff in Pinellas County schools. If people won’t ride for free, our mass transit systems have even more serious problems than we realized. And perhaps they do.
So if “free” isn’t persuasive enough, it’s time to think outside the fare. Be ready to quickly adjust routes. Find the point-to-point routes that lots of people will ride — don’t make them transfer — and run them often. People aren’t going to willingly rely on a bus that comes once an hour.
Market the free buses heavily. For example, do potential riders even know that there is a bus from Pinellas County directly to Tampa International Airport? The 300X has Wi-Fi, air conditioning and luggage racks but not the hassles of actually driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge. That express bus runs only from the Ulmerton Park and Ride. Instead, consider starting it in downtown St. Petersburg — or wherever the point-to-point ridership is. And run it often enough to be a reliable, no-fuss way to get to the airport. Remember, this is an experiment. Stash the financial spreadsheet for a few months, and just focus on getting riders on to buses.
Do social media outreach, and ask people what they actually want. Consider some outlandish ideas in this thought experiment. If a few dozen people will try taking a bus from Point A to Point B — wherever those points are — give that new route to them for a few weeks, and see if they’ll become routine riders. In short, figure out when and where people want to take a bus. Then make it happen — and charge no fare for now.
For mass transit to work in Tampa Bay, it has to prove to our culture of car drivers that there is a better way to get around. To get people on the bus, make it painless and make it free for now. “Free” vs. gas at $3.90 a gallon is not a bad place to start.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.